Two bridges with CRPF camps at either end have brought the elections closer to the Muria Gond tribals across the troubled waters of the Indravati.
Previously, the residents of these hamlets on the fringes of the Indravati National Park — part of the Abhujmarh forests where the banned CPI Maoist is based — had to cross the river to vote. Abhujmarh is larger than the state of Goa.
Besides the risk of crocodiles in the 400-metre-wide river, those who voted did so in defiance of bans by the rebels. Pahurnar sarpanch Posiram Kashyap was killed by the Maoists in 2018 for helping the construction of the two bridges.
Pamphlets have repeatedly appeared in these villages over the past week as well, calling for the boycott of all elections and compensation for those killed in the numerous skirmishes with police over the years.
Elderly tribal women of Pahurnar village in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district. Pheroze L. Vincent
At least five killings have been attributed to the Maoists in the run-up to these polls. The victims include BJP Narayanpur district vice-president Ratan Dubey, shot dead during campaigning on Saturday. Maoist pamphlets calling for a poll boycott were strewn near the body.
Despite all this, the polling station in Pahurnar’s school — on the west bank of the Indravati, some 350km south of Raipur --- has been freshly painted with Gond art and is ready to host the 895 voters on its rolls.
This is one of 40 booths in the state that have been restored to their original locations in these polls. During insurgency, polling booths are often shifted to safer locations even if that makes them more difficult for voters to reach.
Most villagers spoke off the record, hinting they didn’t want to attract the notice of either the Maoists or security forces, although all of them had a barrage of difficult questions that democracy brings.
The Pahurnar polling station in the Dantewada Assembly seat. Pheroze L. Vincent
“We have risked our lives to cross the river to vote on previous occasions. But the development only happens in Pahurnar, not our hamlet,” said an elder at Badekarka.
Badekarka is part of the Pahurnar panchayat. Although both hamlets have a homogeneous tribal population, they are sharply divided on political lines with Pahurnar flying Congress flags and Badekarka leaning towards the BJP.
“We were all Congress, but when the bridges were built hardly any of us got work. Most of the labourers came from outside,” said a rice farmer in Badekarka who also does wage labour in nearby towns.
“Construction has happened only around the panchayat office in Pahurnar. People from that hamlet got most of the work, not us. This time we want change.”
In Pahurnar too, the proximity of the elections has increased the aspirations of residents. A group of villagers returning from election meetings, and shopping in the nearby town of Geedam, asked this correspondent for money, assuming that the election coverage was part of a political campaign.
The amounts demanded were trivial (Rs 10 to Rs 50) compared with the reports of voter bribery in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
The bridges have helped bring the ways of the outside world into these forested hamlets.
“If the election is coming here, shouldn’t we also have some money to celebrate?” asked a woman.
Two elderly women disapproved of the demands. One of them told this newspaper in Gondi, through a translator: “We have to decide which snake to offer milk to --- the BJP or the Congress. See how greedy these children are now because the elections have come here.”
The CRPF camp on the east bank of the river at Chhindnar represents assistant commandant Himanshu Lal’s first posting.
The barbed wire around the camp is strung with glass bottles to alert the sentries if anything or anyone tries to breach it. Recently, the glass bottles clanked when two curious crocodiles crawled in from the Indravati.
“We had a mental barrier against crossing the bridges (which came up in 2021) --- the other side was a Naxal zone. This completely changed after we got a new commanding officer, Rajiv Kumar, and a new DIG, Vikas Kataria,” Lal, the officer commanding the C company of the 195 battalion, said.
“We now routinely carry out exercises across the river, right up to Handawada (known for its waterfalls, 17km away). In the last three months alone, 14 (Maoists) have surrendered to us in this range (the formation of the CRPF under Kataria’s command).”
The CRPF came here before the bridges had been built. Villagers say they initially disliked the force’s presence but have now gained familiarity with the troops. Awareness campaigns by Lal’s predecessor Navjot Sidhu sparked an interest in jobs with the security forces. Lal has continued the outreach with medical camps, assistance for weddings and anything else that gains his men social capital over the Maoists.
“Recently, we received intelligence that Maoists were conducting recces to plant IEDs (bombs) on the routes we patrol. Villagers gathered and forced the Maoists to leave,” Lal said at his company office-cum-library that has a small but eclectic collection, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja.
An unsuccessful aspirant to a security force job in Badekarka alleged that although the CRPF personnel posted here were decent, some of his friends had faced demands for bribes from other government staff against promises of CRPF jobs.
Plucking marigold flowers in the school compound, he said he would shift his loyalty from the Congress, which rules the state, if this corruption was not stopped.
“The parties haven’t campaigned here like the campaign in Geedam. The Congress candidate is educated, but we knew his father better than we know him,” an elder in Pahurnar said.
“The BJP candidate, we don’t know him, but their people have frequently contacted us. We have also seen the campaign van of the AAP.”
Chhavindra Karma, son of the late Mahendra Karma, is the Congress candidate from Dantewada, under which Pahurnar falls. His mother Devati Karma is the incumbent MLA here from the Congress.
Mahendra Karma led the erstwhile vigilante group, Salwa Judum, that fought against the Maoists. He was killed during an Assembly poll campaign a decade ago in Sukma in a rebel attack that also claimed the lives of state Congress chief Nand Kumar Patel and former Union minister V.C. Shukla.
BJP candidate Chaitram Arami has faced opposition from the family of former party MLA Bhima Mandavi, whom the Maoists assassinated in 2019. Mandavi’s
widow Ojaswi was hoping for a ticket.
The BSP, Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi), and the CPI are also in the fray here.
Polling is on November 7