Election memories: A throwback to 1983

Manoj Pande | Updated on April 16, 2019

A polling officer’s experience in remote Assam

In February 1983, when the Assam agitation was at its peak, general elections had been called. In Assam, both the general and the assembly elections were held simultaneously. Locals feared taking up election duties, so in a unique precedent, it was decided to send probationers of various civil services to conduct elections. Not many would be left in service now, but for officers of different civil services who were probationers then, general elections would certainly bring back some memories.

Undergoing the Foundation Course in Baroda at the Railway Staff College, we got our marching orders. I was 23 years old and had not even voted till then. Remember, the voting age then was 21 years (it was reduced to 18 years in 1989).

Next morning, we boarded a special coach attached to the Ahmedabad-Howrah Express, en route to Assam. We had some free time in Calcutta. Then another train took us to New Bongaigaon, reaching there at midnight. An escorted road convoy then took us to the town of Dhubri, a district headquarters.

A gurudwara on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra adjacent to the Circuit House became our abode. Venturing out alone to the town was not permitted.

There was nothing to do. There were no newspapers, no TV and no STD phones. We were totally cut off from the world.

I was to be the designated Polling Officer in a remote village. I had two assistants. Two ‘danda’ wielding guards were the ‘security’. Language was an issue. We communicated in Pidgin Hindi with a smattering of English laced with Bengali, Assamese and the local dialect.

Collecting the polling material from a town called Kokrajhar, we drove in a ramshackle jeep to the polling booth, in the heart of tribal area. A primary school building, it had a roof but no walls. The floor was littered with hay with an overwhelming smell of dung. We were supposed to sleep here at night with polling material. We were also told that elephants often come there.

Noticing my consternation, the village headman offered his home for night stay. To me, everything was suspicious, I feared for my life as well as the ballot boxes. I spurned his offer and decided to sleep in turns in the school premises itself, with two of us always remaining awake.

In the East, it is an early sunrise. Soon we had set up a makeshift polling booth with bed sheets and whatever the village headman had offered. Polling began on time at 7.30 am.

It was a treat to see Indian democracy at work. Tribals came in groups to cast their votes. It was a festive day for them, and they were full of enthusiasm. Though illiterate, they knew the party symbols and exactly what to do. The childish looking Polling Officer (me, that is) was also the object of their curiosity. Polling ended at the stipulated hour. Necessary reports made, the ballot boxes sealed, and the job was over. Thoughts now turned to food.

I was famished. I had not had a meal for 24 hours. I am a vegetarian. And food on offer was either fish or fowl which I could not partake of. Some ingenuity was needed. I asked for salt and rice.

Boiled rice in an aluminium bowl with some crude type of salt was all that I could manage. Watched by curious onlookers, I mixed the salt and rice and began eating. The headman probably pitied me. He went to his hut, brought an egg and before I could react, broke it open on the rice. He smiled benignly and gestured me to start eating. This was his gesture of love.

I mixed the egg paste and yolk with the rice and salt and ate it with bare hands. Food had never tasted better.

Published on April 16, 2019

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