In Chhattisgarh's Silger, Voters of a New Polling Booth Defy Maoists' Threats to Exercise Franchise

Most of the polling booth's 891 voters, who voted for the first time on Tuesday, faced difficulties in using electronic machines.

Silger (Chhattisgarh): Outside a recently built cabin meant to be a primary health centre between Silger and Mokur camps on the Sukma-Bijapur border in Chhattisgarh, an all-terrain vehicle stands in the middle of the road. Surrounded by 10 security personnel, officials from Sukma wait for voters, in a new voting booth, since the state’s inception over two decades ago.

A couple of kilometres from the Mokur camp where four tribals were killed by security personnel on May 17, 2021, when they opened fire on a protesting crowd, and just 500 meters from the spot where several tribals sat on a protest for a year after the incident, the polling booth stands tall, albeit protected by over 80 security personnel, spread across a radius of 2 km around the booth.

According to Krishna Kumar Nag, the sector officer in-charge of the Silger booth, they had a list of 891 registered voters from Silger village. “Before the election, it was announced that the Poovarti polling booth would be shifted to Silger. We have a list of 649 voters from Poovarti village as well,” he said.

Polling officials at Silger voting booth. Photo: Gargi Verma

Most of these registered voters were registered in the past two years, district officials from Sukma recount. “We held massive Aadhar Card camps and also made voter IDs for them at the same camp,” an official at the polling booth said.

In 2021, after the protests grew, district officials along with security personnel held multiple rounds of discussions with the tribals. Following those discussions, the government slowly but persistently started introducing the residents of Silger, Mokur, and other nearby villages to government schemes and programmes.

According to a member of the Moolwasi Bachao Manch, the group of local youths who formed the fiscal and metaphorical back of the protests, the tribals had simple demands. “If a camp can reach us, why can’t basic facilities like ration or healthcare? We wanted them to follow the basic rules and principles they would follow with all civilians,” he said.

Silger is one of the many first-time polling booths established by the government. Due to a blanket boycott called by Maoists, most houses in Mokur and Silger were empty, except for little children and nursing mothers. While, just 20 km away, Marudbaka polling booth saw a no-show, around 50 voters from Silger turned up in the first couple of hours to cast their votes on Tuesday, November 7.

“We are here to cast a vote as we can’t let go of the chance to make our voice heard. Protests will only work if people in the government are interested in listening,” Banda Poyam (23) a resident of Silger who had come to vote said.

From Poovarti, a village six km into the jungles from Silger, only half a dozen voters, including three women showed up, in a group, within the first hour of polling. Poovarti, the home of dreaded naxal commander Hidma, has always been a Maoist stronghold.

“Most of them don’t know how to use an electronic voting machine. Some of the earlier ones just walked in and walked out, clueless about what was to be done. We tried to instruct them from outside, but we couldn’t supervise inside the booth. From next time, maybe it would be a good idea to first hold some demonstration for the first time voters,” Nag said.

A polling booth in Chhattisgarh’s Silger. Photo: Gargi Verma.

These villages were voting to decide the fate of the Konta constituency in Sukma, one of the most interesting seat that saw a three-way fight between present MLA and Congress cabinet minister Kawasi Lakhma, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate and former Judum leader Soyam Muka, and Communist Party of India (CPI) stalwart Manish Kunjam. With an estimated voter turn out percentage of above 55%, Sukma’s Konta constituency has seen a heavy turn out despite a strong maoist call for boycott of the elections.

In three separate incidents, violence was reported between security forces and Maoists in Bijapur, Sukma, and Narayanpur. While four personnel sustained injuries in the exchange of fire in Sukma, a farmer was injured in Narayanpur and police claimed that they managed to attack the Maoists in Bijapur.

Across the 20 seats that voted during the first phase of the election in Chhattisgarh, an average voting percentage of 64% was recorded. While most places saw a fall in urban voters, in Sukma and Bijapur (which reported the lowest voter turnout, of around 30% by 3 pm) rural voters were absent too. At least three polling booths had no show in Bijapur.