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Voting with a vengeance

kolkata Updated: May 11, 2011 12:42 IST
Rajesh Mahapatra

Before dawn, the voters 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, men and women - they were all there to avenge the killing of nine unarmed villagers four months ago by the harmads, an armed militia backed by the ruling CPI(M). "We want the killers punished," said Sanjay Ghorui, whose brother, Sourav, fell to the bullets in the harmad attack of January 7.

The only election agent at the two booths was from the Trinamool Congress. There wasn't any flag or graffiti of any other party in Netai, where the 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, which also left 18 people seriously wounded.

Harmads fired upon the villagers as they were protesting against forceful recruitment of young men into the militia, which was apparently set up to counter the Maoist influence in the region. "We had nothing to do with Maoists," said Dilip Sen.

Why, then, did the harmads set their eyes on Netai? "It happened because the CPI(M) lost the panchayat elections here in 2008," Sen said. Before that, Netai had always voted for the Left, but, "we got nothing".

A large number of children are school dropouts and most of the youths work on agricultural farms. There is no asphalt road to Netai, about 3km off Lalgarh town, the epicentre of the Maoist mobilisation in southwest West Bengal, where 14 constituencies went to the polls on Tuesday in the last lap of the state's historic elections.

But, on Tuesday, all that faded into the background as 92% of Netai, which is part of the Jhargram constituency, showed up to vote. 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 hand-drawn trolley. Mandal's aunt died in the January 7 firing. The victims included four women - a rarity in West Bengal's political violence, which usually spares women and children.

The incident drew nationwide condemnation of the CPI(M)'s strong-arm tactics . It was also a big embarrassment for chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, since 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.

Still, the local CPI(M) shows little remorse, because Netai alone can't turn the tide in Jhargram. A late estrangement between Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and its one-time ally, the People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCAPA), an influential local grouping that is allegedly backed by Maoists, has made the contest three-cornered, giving the CPI(M) an advantage.

"Why are you obsessed with Netai? Go and see what is happening in the other parts of Jhargram," said Amar Bose, sitting MLA and CPI(M) candidate. "We're winning," said Bose, who, on Tuesday, became the first local leader to visit Netai since the killings.

With inputs from Kaushik Dutta.