Tribals refused to vote without assurances on their grievances

Located deep in the Dudhwa National Tiger Reserve, barely 10 km west of the Gauri-Phanta checkpost along the India-Nepal border, Nijhota village has little relevance on the political map of Uttar Pradesh.

The last village on Indian soil along the international borders, Nijhota has seen little political activity this poll season. On Thursday, however, as polling begun in Kheri constituency, senior administrative officials were compelled to rush to this nondescript village to deal with a bizarre situation.

All 736 voters of Nijhota, mostly Tharu tribals, refused to exercise their franchise in protest against the government’s failure to attend to their long-pending grievance of breach of embankment by a local river, Mohana, notorious for changing its course.

By noon, not a single Tharu vote had been cast, and the village was swarming with police and administrative officials sent for negotiation.

The tribals, huddled in protest outside the polling booth, looked on as their headman Shiv Saran spoke to the officials. “The leaders come, click pictures of the river and promise us that they will solve our problem if we vote for them. We always listen. But why should we vote when promises aren’t kept?”

Sub-Divisional Magistrate Vijay Bahadur tried to persuade the Tharus to vote by explaining the reasons behind the delay. “Our engineers have conducted surveys of the river and these reports have been sent to the Central Water Commission. It’s not a local issue so we have to wait for the Centre’s approval for funds. Kindly go and vote,” he said. The tribals, not convinced, continued to sit outside the polling booth.

“First show us the proof of your work,” one Tharu shot back. “I cannot promise you anything due to the Model Code of Conduct, but all will be done for you. But please vote,” Mr. Bahadur requested.

At this the villagers came up with a demand. They asked the officials to first visit the river area and see for themselves the damage done by the changing course of Mahona. The officials, finding no solution to the impasse, followed the villagers to the river bank, a distance of 500 metres.

The exercise helped convince the Tharus to vote but some villagers like Karm Singh were defiant. “All this drama won’t work,” he said and walked away without exercising his franchise.

The Tharus inhabit the Terai valleys and plains along the India-Nepal border. Around 80,000 are spread across 40 villages in the forests in Lakhimpur Kheri district.