Hemraj Paswan may well be 108 years old — the country’s oldest voter. But officially, he is only 89. Mr. Paswan lost his previous two voter ID cards and the third says he was 65 as on January 1, 1995.
Like Shyam Saran Negi, 102, of Himachal Pradesh, officially the oldest voter, Mr. Paswan of Etma village in Fatehpur block of Gaya district too has never missed a chance to exercise his franchise since the country’s first general election in 1951-52. This time too, he is planning to vote before breakfast. “One should not miss this chance in a democracy,” he says sitting on a rope-woven cot. “It decides the future of not only a candidate or a party, but of the country itself,” he says between long pauses. What difference does he see between the present-day election and those of yore? “Earlier, candidates used to visit villages to connect with the people, but now they hardly visit anyone.” Who will he vote for? “ Jo kaam karega, garibon ka sunega (for one who will work and listen to the poor).” Most of what he says in incoherent, but his son is at hand to explain. Mr. Paswan lives with his wife and two sons.
Gaya (reserved) constituency will go to poll in the first phase on April 11. His four daughters are married. The eldest died last year at the age of 82. All children, two sons and four daughters, are from Mr. Paswan’s third wife, Barti Devi, 94.
“Currently there are 14 members in our family,” says Tuntun Paswan, the elder son. Tuntun is mukhia (head) of the village. “There is no official record to prove father’s actual age,” he says. “But those in the village aged 90 years or more say he is much older than them… he must be around 108 years old.” Hemraj Paswan’s father Dasso Paswan too died after completing 100 years, says Mr. Tuntun.
The centenarian doesn’t wear glasses, nor does he suffer from any serious physical ailments. Though, he is incoherent and hard of hearing, he understands if one speaks a little loudly. He walks with the help of a long bamboo stick, one slow step at a time. “He has been an agricultural labourer and has worked hard throughout his life,” says younger son Pintu Paswan. Adds Mr. Tuntun: “I won the election to the post of mukhia only because of my father…people trust and respect him so much.” Mr. Tuntun has a concrete house and an SUV parked outside.
But what’s the secret of his father’s longevity? After initial hesitation, Mr. Tuntun admits that his father takes a small amount of liquor every day. In dry Bihar? “That’s like medicine for him,” says Tuntun. “What can we do?”
“He has biscuits and tea for breakfast, not staple food like rice or chapatti,” he adds.
In caste fragmented Bihar society, Paswans are Dalits (Scheduled Caste).