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Red shadow on dark zone

A motorist and his family take the Chechari Pul on the Bagmati river in a Sitamarhi block that falls under Sheohar Lok Sabha constituency. Picture by Deepak Kumar

The indelible ink on the index finger would be put under the shadow of “Red” extremism when Sheohar votes on May 7.

Most candidates dread going inside the Maoist-affected areas of this constituency. “Only RJD candidate Sitaram Yadav has come here to seek votes,” said a villager.

Sheohar is witnessing a four-way electoral battle among Sitaram Yadav of the RJD, Rama Devi of the BJP, Shahid Ali Khan of the JD(U) and Lovely Anand of the Samajwadi Party.

Once considered a Rajput stronghold, Rama Devi broke the tradition by winning the seat in 2009. Muslims, Baniyas, Yadavs and Rajputs are the major players in this constituency. However, the Maoist problem has been underplayed.

The writ of the Maoists runs virtually everywhere in Sheohar, around 250km north of Patna, as rightly told by the officer-in-charge at Tariyani police station: “Going in uniform to the riverine areas of Bagmati in several blocks of Sheohar and Sitamarhi, including Runnisaidpur, Belsand and Tariyani, is considered a risky affair even during daytime. Though incidents of Maoist attack have comparatively come down over the past couple of years, there is still a definite presence of Maoists in these areas.”

Mahadev Rai, a resident of Sitalpatti block in Muzaffarpur, a few kilometres from Tariyani, narrated an incident of a Maoist attack at his house in May 2013. “They locked my entire family inside, assaulted me and my son. They stabbed my hands and legs, and broke my son’s leg. The attack was an outcome of a dispute over land with a person from their caste,” said Rai.

If the residents are to be believed, Maoists have lately donned the role of tax collectors, illegal though.

“No private company or contractor engaged in construction or repair of roads here can start work before contacting rebel leaders and paying them levy. Businessmen are also required to pay regular levy to the rebels,” said Naveen Kumar, a businessman in the neighbouring Sitamarhi district and having bus operations in Sheohar.

Naveen said the Maoists set one of his buses in Sheohar ablaze around two years ago.

Almost the entire district is on high alert since a few days before the polls. Hundreds of suspected Maoists have been detained amid speculation of possible Maoist attacks during elections.

In October 2010, four Special Auxiliary Police (SAP) personnel and two Bihar police inspectors were killed in a landmine blast in Sheohar just three days before Bihar approached the second phase of Assembly elections. The first incident of Maoist violence in Sheohar was reported on June 24, 2001, when they snatched five police rifles and over 100 cartridges from Bihar home guards jawans deputed at Deokuli police outpost.

Lately, many senior rebel leaders in Sheohar were either killed in internal rivalry or turned gangsters. For instance, Gaurishankar Jha, a former zonal commander of Maoists’ north Bihar regional committee, was shot at by Naxalite-turned-gangster Santosh Jha in Sheohar on November 24, 2011. Santosh, hailing from Dostiya village under the jurisdiction of Purnahiya police station, was arrested from Diamond Harbour Road under the jurisdiction of Bishnupur police station in South 24 Parganas in Bengal on February 13.

A few other infamous Maoist leaders from Sheohar included former zonal commander Lal Babu Sahni of Malikana Tola village, Nek Mohammad and Jiya Lal Rai.

Diaras, the birthplace of Maoists in Sheohar

Every Maoist-hit region has its own tale vis-à-vis the origin and spread of Maoist activities. So has Sheohar.

Acute underdevelopment, caste-based suppression and illiteracy are significant factors that led to the rise of the rebels in this district.

Baluwa, Giddha and Tariyani Chapra are a few riverine villages along the banks of the Bagmati under Runnisaidpur and Tariyani blocks, which have been the den of Maoists in Sheohar.

In fact, a Naxal Mela (fair) is held every year at Giddha village in Runnisaidpur block. Underdevelopment and lack of connectivity is the tale of most of these Maoist-hit villages. The fair is organised by rebels to celebrate their stronghold in the region.

Dariyapur and Maulanagar villages along the Bagmati river in Belsand block stay inundated with floodwater for around four to five months during the monsoon every year. Numerous other villages between the bunds on either side of Bagmati along the stretch of around 40km virtually turn into island hamlets between the months of July and October.

Residents like 60-year-old Badrul Hasan from Dariyapur are left with no option than to travel on country boats, which ply between either sides of the river embankment during the monsoon. Commuting remains a nightmare for villagers, as there are no roads here except a “false hope” from rusted boards of Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana.

“As the streets remain flooded in monsoon, boats are the only mode of transport. Electric poles and wires were put up around four years ago but there is still no electricity. People don’t want to give their daughters in marriage to people in these villages,” said Badrul, whose two sons are working in Gujarat.

Sunil Kumar (22) runs a mobile charging and repair shop from a shanty at Nunaura village on the western bund of Bagmati in the Runnisaidpur block. Though the village has never seen bijli (electricity), almost every household here has cellphones. So, Sunil makes a good business by charging Rs 5 for a single mobile phone charge using batteries.

Maulanagar resident Zaheda Khatun (35) said she might not want to cast her vote, as she would need to walk around 5km, especially on the dodgy Chechari Pul (bamboo bridge) on Bagmati, to reach the polling station.

l Sheohar votes on May 7