The Village That Won’t Vote


The Village That Won’t Vote

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The district of Bahraich was once part of the historic Awadh region. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Awadh’s political influence spread over large parts of north India, and it came to be a byword for cultural and literary grandeur. The region also swept over the lush Doab and that earned it the moniker of the “granary of India”. But all it took was a couple of centuries for it to all come crashing down.

Bahraich, in northern Uttar Pradesh, borders Nepal and is one of the poorest districts in the country. It was named one of 250 most backward districts in India by a 2006 Ministry of Panchayati Raj report. In fact, so terrible are the conditions in some parts of the district, which went to vote today, that one of its villages has decided to entirely sit out the election.

Ghumna Bharu sits next to the dense jungles of the Kartania Ghat Wildlife Sanctuary, nourished by the Baghar River that flows through the east of the village. At the entrance to Ghumna Bharu, a hoarding sends out a strong message to any potential candidates that might hope to step in to get elected. “Ghumna Bharu ke samast gram vasiyon dwara vidhan sabha 2017 ka chunav bahishkar (the villagers of Ghumna Bharu are boycotting the 2017 elections),” it reads. “We will not support candidates, we will not entertain them, we will not vote.”

The villagers have a legitimate bone or two to pick with the candidates that they have elected in the past. For decades, the simple demands of electricity, roads, a bridge over the Baghar River, a primary health centre, and (in recent years) mobile towers, have not been fulfilled by their elected representatives. This year, this village of 2,200 mostly Dalit, OBC, and Muslim people is in no mood to compromise on any of their demands.

Ghumna Bharu appears to be like any grimy north-Indian village, a hodgepodge of about 500 kacha and pucca houses as well as thatched huts, constructed under the Indira Awaas Scheme. There is a junior and a primary school, where not a soul is to be spotted: The teachers rarely turn up, so students have no incentive to be present. Instead, the children travel 20 km to Mihirpurva village to attend their local school.

The kids have to reach Mihirpurva by walking on a kacha path that their parents insist has leopards lying in wait – there is no pucca road that connects Ghumna Bharu to the district’s other villages. In 1995, material for building a road was transported to the village, which significantly raised the hopes of the villagers. Twenty-one years later, they are still waiting for the road to begin.

“Our village was established in 1962,” says Ravindra Verma, a 64-year-old farmer. “Since then we have been using the same khadanja (mud path). Every year, our netas have used the same promise to get votes. So this year we decided that we are not going to be at the receiving end of fake promises anymore.” This year, the 802 registered voters in the village say they want a written commitment from their representatives and the district administration that their demands will be met.

Sensing the anger of the villagers, politicians have given the village a wide berth. So far, the Election Commission has not intervened.

In 2007, Waris Ali of the Bahujan Samaj Party had visited the village to “beg” for votes. The villagers voted for him and he won, but they say that when they went to talk to him about the poll promises, he refused to even meet them. In the following election five years later, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Savitri Bai Phule came to power, and later Samajwadi Party’s Bansidhar Baudh, who later went on to hold independent charge in Akhilesh Yadav’s government. Neither of these people were able to hold up their end of the bargain. Baudh was the last straw.

On their part, the politicians trotted out several excuses. Baudh mentioned that he had written to the “concerned department” for electrification two years ago. “The problem is the line has to pass through some areas of Nepal.” Phule too used the same excuse, saying that she had written to the Ministry of Forest & Environment, seeking permission to construct a road as it would have to pass through the forest area but that she had not got any response.

Not one of the villagers however, wants to stand for the elections. According to Verma, the people of Ghumna Bharu – most of whom are daily wagers – do not want to waste their hard-earned money on campaigning. The rest need to feed themselves and their families.

Sensing the anger of the villagers, politicians have given the village a wide berth. So far, the Election Commission has not intervened. The District Magistrate Abhay, who goes by one name only, said he was unaware of the vote boycott and that if the villagers do not want to vote any one candidate to power, they should go in for the NOTA option. “We can only make them understand the importance of voting,” he said. “Development work can start only after the elections.”

The only governmental body that has taken actual notice of the boycott is the Sashastra Seema Bal, the paramilitary force that is urging the villagers to cast their “valuable” vote. Harish Kumar Singh, assistant commandant of the SSB has been spending his days telling villagers that they must exercise their franchise and that boycotting the elections is no solution to their infrastructural problems.

But in the absence of fulfilment of their demands, the villagers have decided to subvert the most powerful political tool within their grasp. By not casting their ballot, they are making a far more impactful dent in the electoral cycle than if they had. It is the only instrument within their reach with which to be considered a civic majority, and they are reclaiming that power through the might of collective unity.