May 5 is the day 103-year-old Asgar Ali felt he was reborn; it was the first time he voted in his life.
On Thursday, he awoke at 4 am, much earlier than usual, to be ready for the Election Commission’s car taking him to a polling booth. Before he left, he took with him the national flag, touching it to his forehead in reverence.
Since Independence, Ali was never able to vote as he was an enclave dweller and didn’t have a homeland. According to his voter identity card, he was born in 1913, the year before World War I broke out.
“During all these years, I never imagined that I will be able to vote,” he said as he showed the ink mark on his finger.
The oldest first-time voter among 9,776 people who live in the former enclaves along the Indo-Bangladesh border in Cooch Behar district, Ali has become something of a small celebrity.
From Wednesday onwards, locals began visiting Ali in erstwhile Bangladeshi enclave of Madhya Mashaldanga at Dinhata constituency. He cast his vote in Mansab Seoraguri Primary School.
By six, a crowd of locals and journalists gathered near his house and Ali has enjoyed every bit of the moment.
“He woke up at 4 and asked when he was going to be taken to the polling station,” his grandson, Joynal Abedin said.
Quite caught up in the emotion, Ali said he was barely able to sleep the night before.
“I’m very happy. We saw the birth of India and Pakistan, and later that of Bangladesh, but belonged to nowhere,” he said.
On July 31 last year, the Indo-Bangla Land Border Agreement was implemented, when 14,864 residents of 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India became Indian citizens, while 922 residents of Indian enclaves in Bangladesh migrated to India. They were given Electoral Photo Identity Cards (EPIC), their first proof of citizenship and voting rights.
As the oldest voter, Ali received VIP treatment at the polling station; he was received by the presiding officer and escorted by the central forces.
Though his memory betrays him often, he was very aware of the secret ballot. When asked who he voted for, Ali smiled and said, “The person my family members will vote for.”
Aside from Ali, a host of octogenarian and nonagenarians also exercised their right to vote for the first time these elections.
Former enclave dwellers are settled in four assembly constituencies in the state – Dinhata, Mekliganj, Sitalkuchi and Sitai. A majority of these voters made their way to polling stations in Mashaldanga, Poaturkuthi, Batrigachhi and Khalisamari.
Ninety-four-year-old Batrigachhi resident, Jahara Bewa was carried on a bicycle to the booth half a kilometer away from her village. She didn’t need any help to operate the electronic voting machine. At 88, Ekram Ali of Dakshin Mashaldanga enclave showed no small measure of enthusiasm. In order to be the first one at the voting booth, Ali asked his grandsons to take him as soon as dawn broke.
Other early voters included 95-year-old Amartya Barman, who lives at the settlement camp at Dinhata; 60 other families from Bangladesh were given temporary accommodation here.
Among the constituencies, Dinhata has the most number of new voters at nearly 5,000, followed by Sitalkuchi with 2,000.