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Netai votes to punish killers

india Updated: May 10, 2011 23:36 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra
Rajesh Mahapatra
Hindustan Times
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Before the break of dawn, they began to queue up. By the time the two polling booths, adjoining each other, opened, more than half of Netai had assembled to cast, perhaps, the vote of their lifetime.

The young and the old, the landed and the landless, the men and women; they were all there to avenge the killing of nine unarmed villagers five months ago by the Harmads - an armed militia backed by the ruling CPI(M).

"We want the killers punished," said Sanjay Ghadai, whose brother Saurabh fell to bullets in the Harmad attack of January 7.

The only election agent at the two booths was from Trinamool Congress. There wasn't any flag or graffiti of any other party in Netai where voters total about 1,262.

"Not a single vote from here will go to anyone else," said Dilip Sen, who lost one eye as a bullet pierced through it during the attack that also left 18 people seriously wounded.

Harmad activists fired upon the villagers as they were protesting against forceful recruitment young men into the militia, which was apparently set up to counter growing Maoist influence in the region.

"But we always believed in peace. We had nothing to do with the Maoists," said Dilip Sen.

Why did then Harmad set its eye on Netai?

"It happened because CPI(M) lost the panchayat elections here in 2008," Sen said.

Before that the impoverished village of Netai had always voted for the Left Front, but, in return, "we got nothing."

A large number of children remain school drop-outs and most of the youth work on agricultural farms. There is no pucca road to Netai, about 3 kilometers off Lalgarh town, the epicentre of the Maoist mobilisation in southwest Bengal, where 14 constituencies went to polls in the last lap of Bengal's historic election.

But on Tuesday, all those issues faded into the background as nearly 90 per cent of Netai, which is part of the Jhargram constituency, showed up to vote under heavy security.

Nearly 60 men from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police guarded the booths and a CRPF patrol kept checking every hour.

"We will reply to their bullets with our ballot," said Asit Mandal, who carried his 105-year-old grandmother to the polling booth on a man-pulled trolley.

Mandal's aunt died in the January 7 firing, whose victims included four women -- a rarity in Bengal's political violence that usually spare women and children.

The incident drew nationwide condemnation of the CPI(M)'s strongarm tactics in the effort to regain grounds in the Maoist dominated Jangalmahal..

It was also a big embarrassment for chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as the incident occurred just a few days after his war of letters with Union home minister P Chidambaram, where Bhattacharjee refused to admit the existence of armed CPI(M) camps in the region.

(Kaushik Dutta contributed to this report)