High security but low polling in West Bengal’s Maoist belt

Lalgarh (West Bengal), April 30 Indian Air Force helicopters roared in the sky, the thumps of the heavy boots of security personnel pierced the uneasy calm, but voters were only a handful in most areas of the state’s Maoist belt Thursday.
A massive security apparatus was put into operation in the Maoist-affected pockets in the three western districts of Bankura, West Midnapore and Purulia amid calls of vote boycott by the tribals and Left extremists.
Three air force helicopters kept a close vigil as most of the booths were seen deserted. A very handful electorate turned out in some pockets of Purulia and West Midnapore districts.
Polling was curtailed by two hours to end at 3 p.m. in the six most sensitive pockets - Jhargram, Binpur and Bandwan in West Midnapore, and Balarampur, Bagmundi and Jaipur in Purulia.
Polling was very low in this West Midnapore district block, about 150 km from Kolkata. The area is witnessing Maoist violence and unrest of the tribal people since November last year after a landmine went off targeting Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s convoy.
The villagers there had earlier opposed the entry of the police into the region.
The Maoists had also called for poll boycott.
“Polling was very low in Lalgarh area where booths were set up outside the constituency following tribal unrest. The enthusiasm was missing among the voters and they were also clueless about the polling booths where they could cast their votes,” People’s Committee against Police Atrocity (PCAPA) leader Shyamal Mahato told IANS.
PCAPA is the tribal group spearheading an anti-police movement in the region.
Tribals in this Maoist-dominated pocket were on a collision course with the administration over alleged police atrocities. After conciliatory talks between the PCAPA, the Election Commission and the state government, around 49 polling booths were arranged for over 35,000 to 40,000 voters in four villages in Lalgarh region.
The booths have been moved five kilometres away with the poll officials arranging buses to ferry voters.
Gunfights between tribal communities boycotting polls and activists of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) also broke out at Balarampur police station area of Purulia district. However, no casualty was reported.
“The situation was brought under control quickly and the poll process resumed in the area very shortly,” Purulia Superintendent of Police Rajesh Yadav said.
A section of the tribals boycotted the polls in the region.
In another incident, two Border Security Force (BSF) troopers were injured in a landmine blast triggered by suspected Maoists at Biramdih in Purulia district, Home Secretary Ardhendu Sen said.
“We are ascertaining if Maoists are behind the low-intensity blast,” state Inspector General of Police (Law and Order) Raj Kanojia told IANS in Kolkata.
The voter turnout was significantly low at Banspahari, Lalgarh, Ramgarh, Sijua, Bhimpur areas of West Midnapore district till noon.
Home Secretary Ardhendu Sen told reporters in Kolkata that the turnout was 25 percent in the first four hours of the polling.
The state deployed about 220 companies of central paramilitary forces to ensure peaceful elections, especially in three Maoist-violence hit western districts.
According to the Election Commission, the deployment of paramilitary forces in any state is the highest in the country.
About 81 companies of paramilitary forces and 10,000 policemen were deployed in West Midnapore alone, under which the trouble-torn Lalgarh area falls.
The CPI-M activists and the state’s main opposition Trinamool Congress supporters clashed at Bibardah area of Bankura district and also ransacked a few electronic voting machines (EVM) at a polling station.