Once again, bullet-versus-ballot fight will unfold in Gadchiroli | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Once again, bullet-versus-ballot fight will unfold in Gadchiroli

Apr 12, 2024 09:49 AM IST

Maoist militants have issued a “stern warning” to tribals against participating in polls and announced that those who defy the diktat will face death

GADCHIROLI: In the Maoist-affected Lok Sabha constituency of Gadchiroli-Chimur in Vidarbha, the long-standing battle between the bullet and the ballot is set to play out again. With its history of violence, elections in this constituency are unlike any other in the state.

Once again, bullet-versus-ballot fight will unfold in Gadchiroli
Once again, bullet-versus-ballot fight will unfold in Gadchiroli

With the shadow of Maoist terror looming large, the campaigning in the constituency, particularly the assembly segments of Gadchiroli, Armori, Sironcha and Amgaon, has been severely affected. Maoist militants have issued a “stern warning” to tribals against participating in the electoral process on April 19 and announced that those who defy the diktat will face dire consequences (read death). Once again, the tribals are caught in the crossfire between the militants and the State.

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Barring two places in the constituency—Bramhapuri and Chimur, both in Chandrapur district—the remaining four assembly segments of Gadchiroli, Aheri, Armori and Amgaon (Gondia district) are Maoist-affected. Political posters and banners are a rarity in the hinterland, and the electioneering even in the mainland areas of Gadchiroli city, Armori, Amgaon, Aheri and Sironcha is underplayed. There has been barely any campaigning in Bhamragarh, Perimili, Dhanora, Pendhri, Kasansur, Gatta, Lahiri, Binagunda and other remote areas of North and South Gadchiroli.

An eerie silence prevails across the Maoist-affected regions in South Gadchiroli, with no signs of election activity in the villages. The palpable fear raises concerns about how people will cast their votes. “Nobody wants to take a chance,” said tribal activist Lalsu Nogoti from Bhamragarh. “But voters need to come out and exercise their power for an alternative politics.”

Along the walls of the forested paths leading to the tribal villages, especially in South and North Gadchiroli, graffiti warns villagers of severe repercussions if they participate in the electoral process. Banners and posters have been plastered across the district, urging villagers to boycott the elections, denounced as a “farce” incapable of addressing the issues of common people.

This intimidation extends beyond the tribal population, and has significantly impacted election campaigns. A history of past violence such as the kidnapping of current Maharashtra minister and senior NCP (AP) leader Dharmarao Atram in the 1990s and the killing of Gadchiroli district Congress president Balu Kopa Bogami during the zilla parishad elections has led to candidates treading very cautiously in the district, especially in areas like Bhamragarh, Sironcha, Aheri, Dhanora, Pendhri, Korchi and Etapalli as well as the Amgaon region of Gondia district.

In the 2024 elections, sitting MP Ashok Nete (BJP) is pitted against former deputy commissioner of state excise Namdeo Kirsan, who was nominated from the Congress. Kirsan replaced veteran party leader and chief of the Congress’ tribal cell Dr Namdeo Usendi, who contested against Nete in 2014 and 2019 but lost both times. “When the Congress announced Kirsan’s name for the constituency, Usendi left the party in protest and joined the BJP, which could help in smoother sailing for Nete,” said Milind Umre, a political analyst of the region.

While Kirsan vowed to strive to clear Gadchiroli of its long-standing labels of “Maoist-affected” and “backward” if the people’s mandate favoured him, Nete claimed that he had brought in a lot of development in the area in the last 10 years. “Backward Gadchiroli has witnessed around one lakh crore worth of investments in the recent past, particularly in iron mining and steel plants,” he said. “Over 10,000 locals got jobs and many others will also get jobs following further investments in the region in the coming days.”

Neelotpal, superintendent of police, Gadchiroli district, said that the district police would provide special security cover to all candidates. Despite this, however, candidates have refrained from campaigning in remote areas, a fact admitted by both Dr Usendi and Nete. “The state police have sent out an advisory note to all candidates, asking them not to move around in the interiors without police security,” said Usendi. Nete endorsed Usendi’s statement but claimed that Maoist influences in the region had reduced in the last 10 years, as several senior Maoist leaders were either killed in encounters or arrested by the police.

Past elections in the region have been marred by bloodshed. “The 2004 elections saw 23 incidents of violence, including police encounters and a landmine blast that killed two policemen,” said Neelotpal. “In the 2014 elections, there were over 14 cases of Maoist violence, in which nine policemen and four civilians were killed. In 2009 too, the constituency witnessed large-scale violence in which 15 police personnel and three civilians were killed in different encounters between the Maoists and security forces.”

The district police, with the assistance of locals, have been diligently removing anti-election banners and posters, particularly in Bhamragarh. “In response to intelligence inputs, the anti-Naxal operation wing of the district police has issued advisories to political leaders, instructing them to report their daily schedules to the local police station for security arrangements,” said Neelotpal.

The heavy security arrangements entail 15,000 security personnel, including the CRPF and SRPF, 120 drones to monitor militant activities and 150 satellite phones to ensure effective communication in remote areas that have limited connectivity. The district administration has asked for five Indian Air Force MI-17 helicopters while two helicopters will aid the district police in overseeing security arrangements in Maoist-affected zones. Of the 948 polling booths in the district, 428 are classified as sensitive locations.

In the 2014 elections, Nete defeated Dr Usendi by 2.37 lakh votes during the “Modi wave”. In 2019, he won again with a margin of 77,526, around 1.60 lakh less than his previous margins. He claimed that the maximum polling was witnessed in the constituency in the last two Lok Sabha elections despite Maoist threats. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Gadchiroli-Chimur constituency saw a turnout of 70.04 per cent while the turnout went up to 72.33 per cent in the 2019 elections. “This indicates the enthusiasm among voters to exercise their franchise,” Nete pointed out.

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