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Battered and bruised for democracy

The ordeals a polling officer has to undergo to facilitate an election is nothing short of military service. Prasenjit Chowdhury writes.

india Updated: Aug 07, 2013 00:40 IST

Many war poets, like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas, were drafted for a term of military service though few of them considered it a badge of honour. Owen, a brilliant young lieutenant, survived numerous horrendous combat experiences, including being trapped in a trench under heavy fire for several days with the remains of a fellow officer. Thomas was killed in action.

For a government employee election duty is like a military career. My call was to ensure ‘free and fair’ polls – an oxymoronic presumption in the state’s current political dispensation thick with partisanship – as a presiding officer in a war-zone called West Bengal.

The trial began right after I entered the distribution-cum-receiving-centre because that is where you finally form the polling party and count the materials handed over to you. Much like the reality show, ‘Bigg Boss’, here lies the chance to stay with ‘housemates’ in a purpose-built house isolated from the rest of the world. Here lies also the chance to mingle with some perfect strangers coming from different backgrounds with varying sleeping and eating habits and to make friends with them. The EC thus forces upon you the precondition of a kind of sweaty familiarity, a kind of blind date.

We reached the polling booth, a dilapidated primary school building with two little ventricle-sized windows, surrounded by thick shrubbery. A whirring fan with more sound than air to regale the nine men, including the police, on election duty . The toilet was in some dinghy corner across the school courtyard some 200 metres away, and a hand-pump gushed out iron-laden water that could easily pass for rum because of its colour.

Darkness engulfed us soon after. One polling official ran into the room in his towel screaming that a snake had appeared during his nocturnal constitutional. After a frantic search, one small bottle of carbolic acid was found to stave off the creature.

Dinner over, the police officials fell asleep. My job was to keep the rest of the officials awake and to chivvy them along. The job was to put a distinguishing mark on thousands of documents, put the booth in order, set up the voting compartments, fill up the booth details in sundry forms, prepare top sheets, and finally put over 2,000 signatures in full on the ballot papers. The night rolled by in sweat and tears, with stray dogs barking outside, the frogs croaking, crickets chirping merrily and the sleeping cops with us snoring away. With no bolts in one door, it was a night in hell as we were bombarded by unnamed creepy-crawlies and rodents crawling over the floor.

Poll day passed in a daze. Like Tiresias there were blind people who could see, like Oedipus sighted people who could not! The government-run mobile number registered with the EC conked out when needed because of the poor network. At 5 pm – the official time for closure of poll – there were nearly 300 people in the queue. They had to be issued a slip each and allowed to vote until 10.30 pm. Many insisted that as they had not been able to vote during Left rule, they must compensate for the lost chances.

With ballot boxes sealed and packed, we were dragged to the receiving centre in a crowded bus packed with other polling parties. We started packing at 12 am and submitted the materials at 3 am. By then, our hands were liberally smudged with blotches of indelible ink, stamp paper ink, ballot box grease and our fingers were scarred by drops of sealing wax and injuries from the sewing needle. Our bodies, riddled with insect bites, sans much food, sleep and water for about two days, could barely be recognised. We, in a grimy, desiccated, battle-fatigued state accepted all our travails with a ‘calm of mind, all passion spent’ — as a small price to pay for our democracy. Would you consider this any less than military service?

Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal