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Bruises and moms open eyes of see-no-evil poll observer

Calcutta, May 12: Special observer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh has acknowledged that some instances of malpractice may have taken place in the Bengal elections — realisation dawning after five phases of polling and when none is left.

The rare admission came after his first meeting with Bengal’s villagers this election, where men showed him bruises and mothers described how their sons and daughters were attacked with bombs and bullets.

Right from the first phase through this morning, the Bihar-cadre IAS officer had been in denial, terming the polling by and large “peaceful”. His change of heart came just hours before the polls ended this evening.

Till late afternoon today, Rakesh had shown no signs of worry even after being told that alleged Trinamul cadres had fired at a group of voters headed for the polling station at Brahmanchak Free Primary School in Haroa, North 24-Parganas, this morning.

He visited the polling station and came out smiling around 4pm, with “nothing” reported to him by the election officials. “Don’t ask me; ask the poll officials whether there has been any trouble,” he said.

Sources said that officials at the polling station — about 300m from the site of attack — had told Rakesh that the voting had been peaceful. This seemed to give him the confidence to go ahead and meet the voters in Brahmanchak village, around 45km from Calcutta, from where the firing had been reported.

State poll panel sources said Rakesh had never before met any voter in rural Bengal, which has been oozing complaints of violence and rigging, primarily against the ruling Trinamul. Till now, whenever Rakesh had been asked for his reaction to these complaints, he had smiled back at the reporters.

His smile vanished as he entered Brahmanchak today, to be instantly “gheraoed” by a group of women. Poll officials accompanying Rakesh translated their complaints for him.

Malati Mandal, a homemaker, described how her husband and brother-in-law had been shot at.

Bishnu Naskar removed his shirt to show fresh, red bruises on his back left by the sticks of alleged Trinamul supporters whom he accused of acting at the behest of local party MLA Usharani Mondal. Despite repeated attempts, Mondal could not be contacted.

The complaints flew thick and fast. “How could they open fire and attack our children and men in front of the police?” Behula Mali asked.

Stumped for an answer, Rakesh asked a question instead. “Would you like to vote now? I shall provide you all the security you need. Please vote…. Who among you will vote?”

No hands were raised. Instead, chaos broke out with too many people speaking at the same time. “How can we vote? Once you (Rakesh) leave, they will come back,” Naskar said.

After he had spoken to a few more villagers, the special observer looked tense and fell silent for some time. He then turned to the police team accompanying him, which included senior district police officers.

“Please record their statement and take action,” Rakesh ordered. The police immediately began conducting raids in the village. Rakesh leant on his vehicle, lips puckered, fiddling with his phone and making calls.

“This is a very serious allegation. I shall submit a report to the Election Commission of India. It is apparent that some people had made a mistake with the vulnerability mapping of the area,” he eventually said.

It’s the district administrations that do the mapping, based on consultations with political parties and an assessment of poll-related violence in recent elections. On the basis of this, the forces — central or state or both — are deployed.

Residents said that although the central forces were present in the area, they did not perform the routine route march inside the villages ahead of the polls.

“It is certain that there were lacunae in confidence-building measures,” Rakesh conceded.

The special observer had monitored the previous phases either from his room on the fourth floor of Bedi Bhavan — the circuit house at Gol Park — or from the chief electoral officer’s office. Today, too, he spent the first half at Bedi Bhavan, where his phone rang non-stop.

“It’s a tactic to keep my phone engaged,” he said grinning, hinting at an attempt to prevent him receiving genuine complaints but not naming anyone. All political parties have Rakesh’s number.

He received the first alert about the Haroa violence around 9.30am from a TV bulletin. The constant ringing of his phone meant it took him 20 minutes to successfully make a call to the North 24-Parganas district magistrate.

When he spoke to reporters a few minutes later, he didn’t mention any firing.

“I asked DM North to inquire about it and he just told me there had been a clash inside a village after which seven persons had been shifted to hospital. I was told the poll process was progressing peacefully,” he said.

Asked the same question in the evening, he said: “Yes, the incident affected the poll process.”

Sometime early in the afternoon, Rakesh had been persuaded by CPM state secretariat member Rabin Deb and Rajya Sabha MP Ritabrata Bandyopadhyay to go out on a tour of some of the constituencies. They told him that bombs had been hurled at the vehicle of former Calcutta deputy mayor Meena Devi Purohit at Posta.

Rakesh left Bedi Bhavan at 1.20pm, starting his trip with Posta. He spoke to election officials, the police and some men and women at random and concluded that the polling had been “by and large peaceful”.

After visiting Cossipore in north Calcutta and Ichapur in Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency, his convoy reached Haroa.

“I shall leave this place only after the police come out with something conclusive,” Rakesh told reporters while he waited, leaning against his vehicle, at Brahmanchowk.

The police detained two men but failed to recover any arms. Late night reports said 12 people had been arrested.

Around 5.30pm, Rakesh set off for Bhangar and visited two booths at Kulti around 7pm. “There have been allegations of rigging in Bhangar. We are looking into them,” he said.

“I think the special observer may have finally realised that the election process was being rigged and the voters terrorised,” CPM leader Deb said.

Central force ‘management’ and LAST-PHASE SNAPSHOTS IN BENGAL

No. of complaints: 100-plus No. of injured: At least 30 No. of booths: 31,392 No. of booths in which the Opposition has demanded repoll: Over 800 Overall turnout: 79.96%

BURRABAZAR BLASTS

Three bombs went off in Burrabazar, shattering an almost two-decade lull and prompting suggestions that the objective was to keep away voters in a belt that has a heavy presence of the business community. One explosion took place near the house of a BJP councillor amid allegations of intimidation against Trinamul. Burrabazar falls in Calcutta North, where Trinamul and the BJP are locked in a tight contest. Picture shows the spot where one of the bombs went off

WHAT WE SAW

Calcutta police at the entrance (left) and a central force jawan at the exit

The entry gate of the B.T. Road Government Sponsored H.S. School in Cossipore was manned by Calcutta police. Where was the central force deployed? At the exit gate!

At the civic health centre in Rajabazar, no paramilitary jawan was seen inside the polling station that had five polling booths. According to the rule, at least 10 central force personnel should have been placed in the doorways. Where was the central force deployed? Across the road (picture on left). “We have been asked to stand here by the state police,” said a jawan

In the game of central-force-spotting, the traditionally peaceful south Calcutta scored high. Some residents of Salt Lake also commented on the high visibility of central forces. Many wondered whether they should not have been deployed in more sensitive and trouble-prone areas. Picture shows a CISF jawan standing guard outside the Mahadevi Birla Shishu Vihar school polling premises on Ironside Road in Ballygunge

EFFECT ON THE GROUND

At Kendua Mahendranath Girls’ High School, Patuli, some Trinamul supporters, armed with voter lists, gathered within 30 metres of the polling station and kept an eye on those
standing in the queue. Once a voter came out, they ticked the voter’s name on the list

Nasir Khan, a private security guard, was sitting at the entrance of a polling booth inside the civic health centre at Rajabazar. He was checking the voter slips of the voters and guiding them. According to poll panel norms, presence of a private security guard inside a polling station is illegal unless he has gone there to cast his vote. “I work in this health centre. I am on duty here,” Nasir explained

Two Trinamul workers stood inside two booths at Jashomoy Dhar Smriti Vidyamandir at Moukhali village in the Joynagar Lok Sabha seat and showed people where to cast their votes. Polling agents objected and the two presiding officers were removed around noon. FIRs have been lodged against the two Trinamul workers

Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta, Zeeshan Jawed, Anup Bhattacharya, Bibhash Lodh and Anindya Shankar Ray


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