In Lingagiri, it didn’t take long to tally the results of the recently concluded panchayat elections. On January 31 this year, a sum total of four people voted in this remote village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district. The polling booth opened on time, the polling officers were present, and then the force arrived.
Pujari Rajamma, 35, was combing her hair in her courtyard. “I was getting ready to walk down to the polling office, when the uniformed men stormed in,” she said. “They checked my fingers for the voting mark.” When they didn’t find it, they beat her with sticks. The bruises are still visible on Rajamma’s back; she can barely move her swollen left arm.
Pujari Chandreya, 40, was sharpening a chisel, his brother, Pujari Lakshmaiah was lying in bed with a fever, when the force found them and assaulted them. “They wanted to see the vote mark,” he said, “I hadn’t voted yet.” Gulla Ganesh, 25, was waiting for his friends by a tamarind tree; Soyam Ramalu was stringing a rope when the force attacked them. In all, five villagers were assaulted by men in combat fatigues for not voting in the elections.
“The villagers have registered a complaint,” said assistant sub-inspector Madan Patley. “As per their description, the CRPF or the CoBRA force could be responsible. An investigation is under way.” Patley, who was present in the booth, said that the four votes were “probably” cast by those manning the booth.
The attack occurred at about 10.30 a.m. after which the villagers decided to boycott the election. Had they voted, their votes would have made little difference to the outcome. The winning candidate was a foregone conclusion. Tokal Ramaiah stood unopposed for the post of sarpanch. He filed his papers in Avapalli (about two hours away by road) and has not visited the village for the last four years. The villagers found out he was contesting only after the results of the election were declared.
Lingagiri and neighbouring Basaguda were abandoned in 2006 when the state-sponsored Salwa Judum programme was in full sway. As the conflict between state forces, aided by the Salwa Judum, and the naxals intensified, villagers across Chhattisgarh fled to the relative safety of Andhra Pradesh or to camps set up by the government.
Lingagiri itself emptied out in 2006 after four villagers were killed and two raped, allegedly by the security forces and special police officers, according to testimony gathered by the National Human Rights Commission.
During hearings on an ongoing PIL, the Supreme Court in 2008 ordered the State government to rehabilitate villages destroyed in the Salwa Judum campaign. The government did nothing to implement this order but in March 2009, Lingagiri was resettled by villagers and the Van Chetna Ashram, an NGO. To date, about 200 of Lingagiri’s estimated 500 residents have returned: the rest are scattered across Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. A successful election would have provided much needed legitimacy to state institutions in an area where naxals still exercise considerable control.
Tokal Ramaiah, who will take the oath of office on February 15, is one of those who are yet to return to Lingagiri. “He hasn’t set foot in the village since 2006,” said a villager speaking on condition of anonymity. In Basaguda too, Bendke Kamala, another émigré sarpanch, won unopposed. Both, Tokal and Bendke currently reside in Bijapur — an administrative outpost about five hours by road from the villages they represent.
“Due to the presence of the naxals, no one who lives in these villages will stand for elections,” admitted a villager speaking on condition of anonymity. Instead, the villagers must make do with an un-elected representative who has no intention of visiting their village.
The distance between Bijapur and Lingagiri is far greater than the broken path that connects them. The road is dotted with the burnt-out husks of vehicles destroyed by naxal mines; its surface scarred by deep trenches cut by the naxals to disrupt the movement of government vehicles. Coils of barbed wire guard the entry to the CRPF camps set up to guard the road. On approaching a camp, villagers must dismount from their vehicles and, like in a border crossing, walk in single file through a fenced corridor — a short stretch of no-man’s land in the heart of the country.