Fear of Maoist extremists overshadows India’s elections
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Fear of Maoist extremists overshadows India’s elections

As India goes to the polls in the world’s biggest democratic vote, left-wing extremism and mistrust in government threaten free elections in the eastern state of Odisha, writes Basudev Mahapatra

As voting begins in India’s 2014 elections today political tensions are rising, as is the fear of violence by extremists intended to disrupt the biggest ever political event in a democracy. The country is going to polls today in the first phase. Poll management preparations are in full swing with security arrangements in areas of armed conflict at the top of the agenda.

A few days back, Odisha’s Director General of Police (DGP) Prakash Mishra said, “Proper coordination has been established with the police of neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand for conduct of peaceful elections in the state.” It’s to be noted that the states mentioned by the DGP are also affected by Maoist extremism.

Despite assurances from police people remain nervous, and for good reason. The exchange of fire between police and the extremists in Odisha’s Malkangiri district on March 28, the torching of 15 trucks and an excavator in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district and abduction of villagers in Jamui district of Bihar – all on the same day – has caused panic among some voters. In Odisha, the whole forested strip bordering West Bengal and Jharkhand in the north to Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh in the south remains a hotbed of left-wing insurgency and clashes could continue as the election runs its course.

Asked about the state of affairs in Narayanpatna, a journalist friend in the area said, “Any question about politics and the election in particular scares people in the villages. They don’t want to meet a journalist fearing that any comment regarding the election would dissatisfy the Maoists and endanger their life.”

Hostility and conflict
Narayanpatna, the forested and tribal populated block in Odisha’s Koraput district, is said to be an active base of left-wing extremists. Located in the areas bordering Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the forests of Narayanpatna serve as safe operating ground for the insurgent Maoists, who claim to be firm believers in the ideologies of Mao-Tse-Tung.

Growing hostility among the tribal people towards authorities amid prolonged negligence and apathy by the local administration and the state as a whole has allowed leftwing extremism to flourish in this area. Meanwhile, tribal people who want no part in the confrontations are being dragged into the conflict.

Narayanpatna is also home to one of the fiercest tribal movements of India led by a tribal youth Nachika Linga, often referred to as a modern-day Spartacus. Declared as ‘most wanted’ by the government of Odisha, Nachika is the leader of ‘Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh’ (CMAS), the tribal outfit that runs the movement to free the community from exploitation by the outsider trading class and to uphold the constitutional rights of the indigenous people over land and the forest.

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Indian security forces patrol in conflict-hit Narayanpatna. Pic: Basudev Mahapatra.

The movement run by CMAS impacts the whole of the Koraput parliamentary constituency, which has a dominant tribal population. During every election parts of the constituency boycott voting, protesting the apathetic attitude of administration towards the issues of indigenous communities.

Many tribal communities have decided to boycott polls again this year, with other areas coming under pressure from rebel Maoists not to exercise their right to vote and not to allow politicians to enter villages for campaigning.

So, holding the elections peacefully seems to be a challenging job amid tensions in the southern part of Odisha. In the last three years the area has seen two high profile abductions, one of an Indian Civil Servant and the other of a law maker, by the Maoist rebels.

An abducted lawmaker
Jhina Hikaka, the lawmaker who was abducted by Maoist extremists in 2012 and later released, is contesting the election in the Koraput parliamentary constituency as a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate.

Hikaka was abducted on allegations, as made by the extremists through posters, that he grossly failed in his duties to the people. He was then Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing from Laxmipur assembly constituency, reserved for tribal candidates only.

Hikaka was in captivity of leftwing extremists for 32 days and was released on condition that he had to raise the issues of people and work to resolve them, or resign from the post he held being elected by people.

After his release, Hikaka was given a fortified government house in the state capital city of Bhubaneswar and remains under heavy security.

Now, as Hikaka is fielded as an MP (Member of Parliament) candidate by Odisha’s ruling party BJD, his election campaigning certainly involves security issues because a significant part of his constituency is affected by leftwing extremism and tribal uprisings.

This is not the case in Narayanpatna alone. The situation is similar in every place of conflict. Ordinary people are sandwiched between threats from Maoist rebels and counter actions by the state armed police. In such a situation, expecting a free, fair and peaceful election seems unrealistic.

The immediate need is to bring the indigenous people to the political mainstream, because armed action by police and suppressive measures by the government only help the hostility to grow. To facilitate political involvement, what is essential is to build confidence in the mass and mobilise people to participate in the electoral process. This can be done by initiating dialogue with people and by educating them about their electoral rights. Sadly, such efforts are absent for the current election.