In the 2009 state polls, Maoist-hit Gadchiroli had seen a 66% voter turnout. This time, the turnout climbed six percentage points to 72%. But is it sheer enthusiasm that has led to this improvement?
While travelling through the district, the Hindustan Times found although there was genuine interest among the people of the conflict zone to be part of the electoral democracy, there are a few unsavoury practices employed by security forces to boost the turnout.
From “requesting” villagers to camp near polling booths the night before and making meal arrangements, to using locals as human shields for personnel of security forces while entering and exiting sensitive areas before and after polling, a number of questionable practices were seen.
While senior officers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the district police, on condition of anonymity, confirmed these practices while talking to HT, villagers said they were intimidated into voting.
Ravindra Kadam, inspector general, special range, defended the practices, but denied his men intimidated locals. Dilip Trivedi, director general, CRPF, too, said his men had no independent policies and that their actions were determined by the state’s policies.
One of the most disturbing practices, later confirmed by senior CRPF officials, was of security personnel using villagers as human shields. Villagers are “requested” by the force to accompany polling parties from their base camps to polling stations, and back, to minimise chances of attacks by Maoists.
While villagers said turning down this request was not an option, Kadam had a different take on the matter. “Villagers do it to welcome this process of democracy. Of course, it solves our need as well, but we never ask them to accompany us.”
At Laheri, which had the last polling booth before Chhattisgarh’s dreaded Abujhmad forests begin, some people had been brought to the polling station from their village by the police the night before. Officers insist it was a request and villagers were served two meals in return, but the locals reiterated they are only given orders.
Similarly at Laskar village, a villager (name withheld to protect his identity) who had refused to accompany the police the night before, said, “We had to promise them we would come on our own in the morning. If we had not turned up, we would be singled out and questioned.” Kadam rubbished claim as well.
Caught in the crossfire between security personnel and Maoists, villagers have no one to turn to. “If we vote, the junglewale trouble us. If we don’t, the police comes knocking,” said a Madiya Gond tribal from Aldandi village.