India’s first voter readies for a new challenge

  • Negi holds the unique record of being independent India’s first voter and has exercised his franchise in the last 70 years in every local, state and national election
As the summer of 1951 dawned on the newly independent country, India’s first election commissioner, Sukumar Sen, was worried. PREMIUM
As the summer of 1951 dawned on the newly independent country, India’s first election commissioner, Sukumar Sen, was worried.
Updated on Oct 25, 2021 03:12 PM IST
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ByDhrubo Jyoti, Gaurav Bisht, Kinnaur/shimla

Kinnaur/Shimla: The clouds are rolling in as Shyam Saran Negi gets ready for his morning walk. The 105-year-old sleeps on a thin mattress on the floor of his cramped room, the steam from the wood-fire blanketing him from the cold. Outside, a film of mist hangs over the orchard as unseasonal flakes of snow drive down the mercury.

Dressed in a flannel jacket and trousers, Negi is bent over by age. He takes small, tentative steps with his cane, wary to not slip on the trail that links his hilltop house to the road. These movements are painful but important for him.

Negi has not missed voting in a single national election since the inaugural edition in 1951-52, and is determined to vote in the upcoming parliamentary bypolls on October 30. “I don’t want to miss even a single one,” he says in a raspy voice. “The vote is my badge of honour as a citizen of India.”

Negi holds the unique record of being independent India’s first voter and has exercised his franchise in the last 70 years in every local, state and national election.

A resident of Kalpa village in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur district, Negi spent six decades in relative obscurity until the election commission discovered him from its electoral rolls in 2007. Accolades and endorsements followed.

Today, Negi is somewhat of a local hero in the picturesque mountain village ringed by apple orchards. Tourists crowd outside his house, and touts proudly mention that the village is home to India’s first voter. But the centurion is frank: had it not been for an accident, and a serendipitous sequence of events, he would have never been able to exercise his franchise.

IMPOSSIBLE FEAT

As the summer of 1951 dawned on a newly independent country, India’s first election commissioner, Sukumar Sen, was worried. The task of holding a national election in the young country was daunting, and he knew that it couldn’t be done in one go. Therefore, he devised elections in 68 phases and decided that remote areas that were cut-off by inclement winters would go to the polls first.

“Kinnaur would get cut off due to snowfall by November. Buses would stop at Rampur, roughly 100km from the village, and parties would have to trek up mountain trails. Therefore, the EC decided to conduct polls here months before the rest of the country,” said VC Pharkha, former chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh.

Negi was a schoolteacher in his early 30s in a region where literacy rates stagnated in single digits. He was put on election duty at a village roughly 20km away.

But on the day of election, he realised he would have to forgo his own vote if he hoped to reach the polling booth in time – after all, he would have to trek down a mountain face to the Sutlej Valley before walking up the hill to the next village.

“I wasn’t ready to do that. I was educated and understood the value of a vote. I didn’t want to waste it,” Negi said.

So he took a chance. He walked up to the voting booth in the village, set up in a primary school, at 6am – an hour before the polls were to officially open -- and explained his predicament to the officials there.

“I said, please help me. They were very understanding but arrangements weren’t made yet. I waited until 6.30am, when I was given my ballot paper and cast my vote. This is how I became the first voter,” he said. “Then, I ran to Shontang because I was scared of being late. I reached there at 7.15am and took charge of the booth.”

Half a century later, the discovery of Negi as India’s first voter also happened by chance. In 2006-07, during a pilot project on preparing photo electoral rolls, then state chief electoral officer Manisha Nanda had deployed photography teams for the voters.

“I was checking through the electoral rolls of Kinnaur and it was 2007, and I saw a person whose age was 90. I knew the first general elections were held in 1951. I thought if he’s 90, he must have been in his 30s during the first election. I knew the first polling had happened in Kinnaur -- so I sent officials to his house to check. We found that he hadn’t missed a single election,” said Nanda, the former additional chief secretary of Himachal Pradesh.

CHANGING COUNTRY

As Negi voted diligently in election after election, the world around him changed.

The crumbling Hindustan-Tibet Road of the British era was replaced by a national highway that cut travel time from Shimla to the village from six days to seven hours. The fields were replaced by apple orchards that brought prosperity to the region. The Kailash hills – the village is on the foothills of the mountain considered holy in Hindu scriptures – brought in devotees and tourists to the quaint village. Even the name of the village changed, from Chini to Kalpa, the Kinnauri word for abode of Shiva, in the 1960s at a time of heightened tension with China.

“Earlier, every winter, we would take our animals and migrate down the valley, and come back only in March. There were only 60 families. Compared to that, it is heaven now,” said Bhagchand Das, a local resident.

The mode of elections changed too – from ballot papers to electronic voting machines, printed sheets of voter names to photo electoral rolls, and multiple-stage polling and counting to single-day affairs. In 1951, an election official carried with them a list of 36 items in a box, including candles, scissors, nibs, knife, envelops and lanterns because many booths were remote and modes of communications were rudimentary. Today, anything other than the core EVM units can be procured, and parties don’t have to trek along the Sutlej and then up to 10,000 feet like they had to in 1951.

Kalpa has changed too. It is today a village of roughly 1,100 people with literacy of over 80% and high health indices. It is no longer the district headquarters but a place with a syncretic culture of local customs, Hinduism and Buddhism draws tourists and devotees alike. Cars are ubiquitous in the narrow mountain roads of the village, as are bustling shops selling dumplings and soup to loud tourists.

“And yet, what hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm in Kalpa and the region for elections. For them, it was a festival in 1951 and continues to be so,” said Pharkha. The first election – when the village was a part of the Mandi-Mahasu constituency – saw a turnout of 25%. In 2019, this stood at 74%.

Today, the election commission sets up two booths, both in the same school. “For the two polling stations, two teams of five personnel are deployed. Both these stations are just 8km from the district headquarters, therefore the only hardship is the weather in winters,” said Dalip Negi,

additional chief electoral officer of Himachal Pradesh. “The election commission has a special regard for the country’s first voter and therefore Kalpa has a special place.”

BUILDING A FUTURE

With elections due in a week, the village is buzzing again. The death of the local MP, Ram Swarup Sharma, has necessitated a bypoll. The issues are very different from 70 years ago – at the time Amrit Kaur, an associate of Mahatma Gandhi and the first woman in India to hold a cabinet rank, was the winning candidate and electing the then health minister was a matter of local pride.

Today, rapidly changing climate threatens the apple crop, residents complain that hotels are sucking up groundwater and the shadow of the pandemic looms large. “Kalpa is no longer cut off from the world, but we are battling all the problems that the world faces,” said Jia Lal Negi, a local resident.

For Shyam Saran Negi, though, the goal is clear: Vote for the 18th time in a national election. He is worried about his failing health and the biting cold. His hearing is fading and eyesight, frail. Walking requires a long time, and the support of his son. “Sometimes I wonder, will I make it to the voting booth. Then, I steel myself and say, yes one more time, to build a better country.”

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Gaurav Bisht heads Hindustan Times’ Himachal bureau. He covers politics in the hill state and other issues concerning the masses.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021