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52% turnout in Bastar amid firing

Voters queue up at a polling booth at Raikot village near Jagdalpur on Thursday. Picture by Basant Kumar Mohanty

Dantewada, Bastar (Chhattisgarh), April 10: The loneliness on the road from Jagdalpur to Dantewada said it all.

By evening, statistics had confirmed what the road had foretold.

Only 52 per cent voters turned up at booths in the Maoist-hit Bastar Lok Sabha constituency today, underlining the impact of the poll-boycott call the rebels had given. The turnout, however, was 2 per cent higher than in 2009.

“Around 52 per cent of the electorate exercised the franchise,” Sunil Kujur, Chhattisgarh’s chief electoral officer, told PTI.

Yesterday, Maoists had ambushed a CRPF team walking back to camp after escorting poll officials to a sensitive booth in Bastar, killing three commandos of the elite CoBRA force.

The fear was palpable in Dantewada, one of the eight Assembly segments that make up the Bastar parliamentary constituency that is reserved for tribal candidates. Few shops opened and hardly any vehicle plied on the main road that runs through the town. No devotee stood outside the famous Danteswari temple.

Those who made it to a polling booth inside a school compound refused to speak to a stranger. “How do we know you are a journalist,” asked an engineering student before zooming away on his motorcycle.

A businessman did talk but after a lot of coaxing. “The crowd was in the morning,” he said but wouldn’t give his name. “Now it’s too hot, people don’t want to come out.”

Dantewada, a small town with a few government offices, a residential colony for employees and a few shops, has been the worst affected by the Maoist menace in recent times. “People don’t want to take risks,” said Virendra Jari, a taxi driver.

At 11.15am, the district headquarters hospital wore a desolate look. An ambulance stood in front of the hospital. The driver couldn’t be seen.

Official sources said polling ended in Dantewada by 3pm.

Dantewada is about 85km from Jagdalpur, a big town in the Bastar region. The road is in good condition but no vehicles could be seen for miles at a stretch.

The turnout, however, was better in and around Jagdalpur. At Raikot village, about 25km from Jagdalpur, Kanshiram Mourya said people were not affected by the boycott call from the Maoists. He pointed towards the queue standing in front of a booth.

“I have voted for jobs and the development of the Bastar region,” said Kamlesh Pathak, a graduate.

Laxminarayn Pandey, the BJP’s Bastar spokesperson, said over 65 per cent turned up to vote in Jagdalpur and nearby areas. Polling continued till 4pm in Jagdalpur, an hour longer than in places like Dantewada, Kondagaon, Sukma and Bijapur.

The BJP’s Dinesh Kashyap, the sitting MP, is pitted against Deepak Karma, the son of slain Congress leader Mahendra Karma, in this constituency. Mahendra Karma was killed in a Maoist attack in May last year.

Among the others in the fray in Bastar is Soni Sori, a tribal teacher from the Dantewada region arrested earlier for alleged Maoist links. Sori is contesting on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket.

At some booths in the interior pockets of Sukma and Bijapur, the polling was less than 5 per cent, said Prem Shankar Shukla, the district Congress chief for Bastar. “From my own sources, I can say that in some polling booths, the polling was less than 5 per cent in interior areas of Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur,” he said.

Police sources said incidents of violence had been reported from Sukma district. They said Maoists ambushed a police team escorting election officials after polling had ended in the Gadiras police station limits of Sukma district. A constable was injured in the attack, additional superintendent of police Neeraj Chandrakar said.

“The incident took place in the forests between Dhruwaras and Munga when rebels triggered a pressure bomb blast and followed it with indiscriminate firing,” he told PTI.

Firing was reported near several booths.