POLL THEATRE

Of Death Threats and Captured Booths in Mewat

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | April 26, 2014
Yogendra Yadav of the Aam Aadmi party uploaded images on his Facebook page of booth crowding in the Gurgaon constituency.
Courtesy AAP

On 18 April, I had just reached the town of Ferozepur Jhirka in Haryana’s Mewat district when my phone beeped with a message from a friend. It said that Gabriel García Márquez was dead. I put my phone away. I had traveled to the town, about ninety kilometres from Gurgaon, to enquire into allegations leveled by the Aam Aadmi Party of widespread booth capturing by several parties. Mourning the great writer’s passing would have to wait for the moment.

At a bus stand in the heart of town, I met the AAP’s district convenor, a journalist named Jafruddin, who took me to a nearby tea shop, where around forty or so elderly men in turbans and with flowing silver beards sat around, talking and smoking hookahs. The group included sarpanches of many surrounding villages, and Jafruddin expected that they would testify to instances of rampant booth capturing. They didn’t. “People voted according to their wish and there was absolutely no problem or pressure whatsoever,” Haji Kamruddin of Kolgaon village told me. Others, too, looked suspiciously at me and murmured denials when I asked if there had been any rigging in their villages. “The polling was very smooth.” “There was no problem.” “No incidents.”

Afterwards, a disappointed Jafruddin insisted that the men had denied trouble because they believed the candidate they supported stood to benefit from malpractices. “These guys believe that Zakir Hussain of the Indian National Lok Dal, a Meo candidate, will win,” he said. “So they don’t want to tell you the truth. The day results will be declared, if Zakir loses, then Mewat will complain of booth capturing.”

Mewat is one of the three districts that fall in the high profile Gurgaon Lok Sabha constituency, which went to polls on 10 April and recorded its highest ever voter turnout—70.4 percent, up from 61.71 percent in 2009. Meos, a distinct ethnic group of Muslims in north-western India, are a majority in Mewat, and account for 3.5 lakh out of a total of 13 lakh votes in the constituency—a proportion that could potentially swing election results. Three candidates in the running—the incumbent Rao Inderjit Singh, who recently shifted from the Congress to the BJP, Rao Dharampal of the Congress and Yogendra Yadav of the AAP—are Yadavs, and many believe that Yadav voters could be split between them. This could lend an advantage to Zakir Hussain, a candidate of the INLD—a Jat party—even though the constituency hasn’t had a Muslim MP since 1988.

Chaudhury Ayub Khan, an AAP leader who was formerly an associate of the INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala, said of the support for Zakir that “the Meos are afraid they wouldn’t get a ticket again from any party if he loses. They are scared of losing their political identity.” He claimed that rules were flouted brazenly at every booth and across party lines. “People crowded around the electronic voting machines and there was no secrecy,” he said. “In urban areas, the BJP, and in rural areas, the INLD ruled the roost. I haven’t seen this kind of rigging since it last happened in 1971, against the Nawab of Pataudi.” (Pataudi won less than 5 percent of votes that year, and was defeated by Tayyab Hussain, Zakir’s father.) The AAP has submitted a complaint to the election commission citing 110 instances of voting malpractice in the region.

“This could’ve been stopped easily,” Muhammad Ishaq Khan, a retired superintendent of police in Ferozepur Jhirka told me of the rigging in the region. “It is the negligence of the administration. The main problem is that the polling staff didn’t complain, so the police couldn’t do much.”

But by accounts I heard, even complaining to the police didn’t help. Sajid Hussain, a 21-year-old student who served as an AAP polling agent—deployed by the party, unlike a polling officer, who is a government official—in a booth in Patkhori village, told me that villagers crowded around the voting machine as early as 7 am, the start of voting time. Sajid called the police, and said a station house officer arrived at around 11 am, after which “it went fine for a bit.” But then things took a sinister turn. “Zakir’s agent called somebody,” he said. “The SHO immediately got a phone call, after which he prepared to leave. I tried to stop him, but he said ‘Ye meri bas ki baat nahin hai’ (This is beyond me) and left.”

Sajid tried to make more calls for help, but he said the other party agents approached him and made him an offer to split the booth’s remaining votes between the parties. “They said ‘Nine hundred for Zakir, 350 for Congress and you can take fifty, which is a lot more than you deserve.’ But I said no,” Sajid told me.

Then he was told that if he didn’t leave the polling booth, he would be killed later. At 2 pm, Sajid left the area.

In Agon village, Noor Muhammad and Rashid, polling agents for the INLD and the Congress, respectively, recounted how an act of rigging backfired. They were present at booth number 162, one of two booths in the village, when the polling officer asked all party agents to leave after voting came to a close. Noor overheard a BJP agent nearby boasting that the party was going to win extra votes in the booth. “I got suspicious and checked the total votes polled after some time, it had gone up by 26 from 1117,” Noor told me.

News of the violation spread, Noor continued, and the village gathered to beat up the polling officer. Next to Noor, a young boy held up his phone to play an audio recording for me of that day’s events. I heard the polling officer’s voice, pleading desperately with the gathered crowd, even as he put forth a preposterous defence of his misdeeds. “I have not taken anybody’s side,” the voice said. “I have distributed votes equally among all the agents present here. I have cast only 26 votes. I have only helped you if at all, but didn’t hurt anybody.”

Noor was unconvinced. “He said that only to save his skin,” he told me. “If he wanted to distribute votes equally, why would he ask the agents to go out? He had a tilak on his forehead. He was definitely a Brahmin and cast those votes for the BJP.” A deputy superintendent of police arrived on the scene, he said. Matters appeared to be under control, and yet, late that evening, the villagers let off the polling officer and decided to “forgive him.” The incident and its implications were soon forgotten.

Though the INLD and Congress joined forces in the Agon incident, the parties are far from allies. In fact, the INLD has assured unconditional support to Narendra Modi should the need arise. The posters printed by the AAP for Mewat had the INLD symbol of spectacles with Modi in one lens and Zakir Hussain in the other. This so infuriated the Meos that the AAP stopped using those posters. At the tea shop, when I asked Kamruddin about Hussain’s possible eventual support to Modi, he said, “We want a Meo candidate to win who will take care of our concerns. Who he will end up supporting is not in our hands. We are leaving that to the almighty.”

In the Ahirwal region, the BJP’s Rao Inderjit Singh attempted to polarise voters against those of Mewat. “Our fight is with Mewat, where voting percentage will be more than ninety,” he said. “We all have to cast our votes here.” Communal polarisation could mean the loss of INLD’s Jat votes to the BJP across the constituency, annulling any advantages to the INLD of booth capturing in Mewat—particularly since there were several reports of the BJP capturing booths in its own strongholds. A win for either party would benefit Narendra Modi.

Chaos reigned, and only the AAP, which does not have any strongholds, or campaign on a specific community plank, cried foul, seeming bewildered by the rough and tumble of rural Haryana’s politics. “Democracy has not yet come to Haryana,” said Iliyas Khan, one of the few thonde, or local strongmen, to support AAP. “The votes of women and the elderly are always cast by somebody else.”

I spent a day and night in Mewat, travelling through Agon, Rigar, Padla and other villages, trying to gather more testimonies of booth capturing. But in most places, the scene at the tea shop was repeated, with people insisting that polling had been peaceful, even as the AAP screamed itself hoarse to the media over the issue, to little avail. The air of unspoken inevitability in the region reminded me of Márquez’s novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which everyone knows about a man’s impending murder, and yet no one does anything to prevent it. Mewat appeared determined to keep its secrets from me.

 

Praveen Donthi is a staff writer at The Caravan.

On 18 April, I had just reached the town of Ferozepur Jhirka in Haryana’s Mewat district when my phone beeped with a message from a friend. It said that Gabriel García Márquez was dead. I put my phone away. I had traveled to the town, about ninety kilometres from Gurgaon, to enquire into allegations leveled by the Aam Aadmi Party of widespread booth capturing by several parties. Mourning the great writer’s passing would have to wait for the moment.

At a bus stand in the heart of town, I met the AAP’s district convenor, a journalist named Jafruddin, who took me to a nearby tea shop, where around forty or so elderly men in turbans and with flowing silver beards sat around, talking and smoking hookahs. The group included sarpanches of many surrounding villages, and Jafruddin expected that they would testify to instances of rampant booth capturing. They didn’t. “People voted according to their wish and there was absolutely no problem or pressure whatsoever,” Haji Kamruddin of Kolgaon village told me. Others, too, looked suspiciously at me and murmured denials when I asked if there had been any rigging in their villages. “The polling was very smooth.” “There was no problem.” “No incidents.”

Afterwards, a disappointed Jafruddin insisted that the men had denied trouble because they believed the candidate they supported stood to benefit from malpractices. “These guys believe that Zakir Hussain of the Indian National Lok Dal, a Meo candidate, will win,” he said. “So they don’t want to tell you the truth. The day results will be declared, if Zakir loses, then Mewat will complain of booth capturing.”

Mewat is one of the three districts that fall in the high profile Gurgaon Lok Sabha constituency, which went to polls on 10 April and recorded its highest ever voter turnout—70.4 percent, up from 61.71 percent in 2009. Meos, a distinct ethnic group of Muslims in north-western India, are a majority in Mewat, and account for 3.5 lakh out of a total of 13 lakh votes in the constituency—a proportion that could potentially swing election results. Three candidates in the running—the incumbent Rao Inderjit Singh, who recently shifted from the Congress to the BJP, Rao Dharampal of the Congress and Yogendra Yadav of the AAP—are Yadavs, and many believe that Yadav voters could be split between them. This could lend an advantage to Zakir Hussain, a candidate of the INLD—a Jat party—even though the constituency hasn’t had a Muslim MP since 1988.

Chaudhury Ayub Khan, an AAP leader who was formerly an associate of the INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala, said of the support for Zakir that “the Meos are afraid they wouldn’t get a ticket again from any party if he loses. They are scared of losing their political identity.” He claimed that rules were flouted brazenly at every booth and across party lines. “People crowded around the electronic voting machines and there was no secrecy,” he said. “In urban areas, the BJP, and in rural areas, the INLD ruled the roost. I haven’t seen this kind of rigging since it last happened in 1971, against the Nawab of Pataudi.” (Pataudi won less than 5 percent of votes that year, and was defeated by Tayyab Hussain, Zakir’s father.) The AAP has submitted a complaint to the election commission citing 110 instances of voting malpractice in the region.

“This could’ve been stopped easily,” Muhammad Ishaq Khan, a retired superintendent of police in Ferozepur Jhirka told me of the rigging in the region. “It is the negligence of the administration. The main problem is that the polling staff didn’t complain, so the police couldn’t do much.”

But by accounts I heard, even complaining to the police didn’t help. Sajid Hussain, a 21-year-old student who served as an AAP polling agent—deployed by the party, unlike a polling officer, who is a government official—in a booth in Patkhori village, told me that villagers crowded around the voting machine as early as 7 am, the start of voting time. Sajid called the police, and said a station house officer arrived at around 11 am, after which “it went fine for a bit.” But then things took a sinister turn. “Zakir’s agent called somebody,” he said. “The SHO immediately got a phone call, after which he prepared to leave. I tried to stop him, but he said ‘Ye meri bas ki baat nahin hai’ (This is beyond me) and left.”

Sajid tried to make more calls for help, but he said the other party agents approached him and made him an offer to split the booth’s remaining votes between the parties. “They said ‘Nine hundred for Zakir, 350 for Congress and you can take fifty, which is a lot more than you deserve.’ But I said no,” Sajid told me.

Then he was told that if he didn’t leave the polling booth, he would be killed later. At 2 pm, Sajid left the area.

In Agon village, Noor Muhammad and Rashid, polling agents for the INLD and the Congress, respectively, recounted how an act of rigging backfired. They were present at booth number 162, one of two booths in the village, when the polling officer asked all party agents to leave after voting came to a close. Noor overheard a BJP agent nearby boasting that the party was going to win extra votes in the booth. “I got suspicious and checked the total votes polled after some time, it had gone up by 26 from 1117,” Noor told me.

News of the violation spread, Noor continued, and the village gathered to beat up the polling officer. Next to Noor, a young boy held up his phone to play an audio recording for me of that day’s events. I heard the polling officer’s voice, pleading desperately with the gathered crowd, even as he put forth a preposterous defence of his misdeeds. “I have not taken anybody’s side,” the voice said. “I have distributed votes equally among all the agents present here. I have cast only 26 votes. I have only helped you if at all, but didn’t hurt anybody.”

Noor was unconvinced. “He said that only to save his skin,” he told me. “If he wanted to distribute votes equally, why would he ask the agents to go out? He had a tilak on his forehead. He was definitely a Brahmin and cast those votes for the BJP.” A deputy superintendent of police arrived on the scene, he said. Matters appeared to be under control, and yet, late that evening, the villagers let off the polling officer and decided to “forgive him.” The incident and its implications were soon forgotten.

Though the INLD and Congress joined forces in the Agon incident, the parties are far from allies. In fact, the INLD has assured unconditional support to Narendra Modi should the need arise. The posters printed by the AAP for Mewat had the INLD symbol of spectacles with Modi in one lens and Zakir Hussain in the other. This so infuriated the Meos that the AAP stopped using those posters. At the tea shop, when I asked Kamruddin about Hussain’s possible eventual support to Modi, he said, “We want a Meo candidate to win who will take care of our concerns. Who he will end up supporting is not in our hands. We are leaving that to the almighty.”

In the Ahirwal region, the BJP’s Rao Inderjit Singh attempted to polarise voters against those of Mewat. “Our fight is with Mewat, where voting percentage will be more than ninety,” he said. “We all have to cast our votes here.” Communal polarisation could mean the loss of INLD’s Jat votes to the BJP across the constituency, annulling any advantages to the INLD of booth capturing in Mewat—particularly since there were several reports of the BJP capturing booths in its own strongholds. A win for either party would benefit Narendra Modi.

Chaos reigned, and only the AAP, which does not have any strongholds, or campaign on a specific community plank, cried foul, seeming bewildered by the rough and tumble of rural Haryana’s politics. “Democracy has not yet come to Haryana,” said Iliyas Khan, one of the few thonde, or local strongmen, to support AAP. “The votes of women and the elderly are always cast by somebody else.”

I spent a day and night in Mewat, travelling through Agon, Rigar, Padla and other villages, trying to gather more testimonies of booth capturing. But in most places, the scene at the tea shop was repeated, with people insisting that polling had been peaceful, even as the AAP screamed itself hoarse to the media over the issue, to little avail. The air of unspoken inevitability in the region reminded me of Márquez’s novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which everyone knows about a man’s impending murder, and yet no one does anything to prevent it. Mewat appeared determined to keep its secrets from me.

 

Praveen Donthi is a staff writer at The Caravan.

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