Bullet to ballot: Democracy’s giant strides in Maharashtra’s maoist heartland | India News

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GADCHIROLI: Splinters flew past Vikas Kumre, of Gardewara village, as multiple IEDs went off at noon along a booby-trapped stretch, just 6km off the Maoist headquarters of Abujmarh. This was during 2019 LS polls.
Fast forward to 2024. Kumre considers himself lucky to be alive and witness the bustling electoral process at one of the 11 polling stations in a Maoist “liberated” corridor for the first time in 77 years.On Tuesday, helicopters hovered overhead, para-dropping poll officials & C-60 commandos for security measures.
Tucked away in Dandakaranya forests, these polling stations straddle 100km of the “Red corridor” hugging Chhattisgarh border, where villagers lived in fear until now and were denied the right to participate in the dance of democracy. TOI did a recce of four new polling stations on Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border.
Conducting polls at the mouth of Abujmarh hills was impossible until a fortified police station was established this Jan at Gardewara – the last security frontier of Maharashtra in the Maoist belt. Residents of eight hamlets here were earlier given the option to trek 10km to the nearest booth in the relatively safer zone at Gatta, but many among the 650 voters preferred to stay home rather than be ambushed by insurgents. In 2019, repolling was held after four days at Gatta, after Maoists triggered serial blasts.
“We lost 15 commandos at Jambulkheda in 2019. This time, we are targeting zero casualties. Establishing 11 polling booths in the liberated zone is historic and a giant leap for democracy,” said Gadchiroli SP Neelotpal. Security measures are being intensified in 428 critical booths in Gadchiroli, located along the Maoist transit route connecting Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh.
Devaji Mattami, a local resident, highlighted the challenges faced by candidates. “There are no mobile towers and power supply is erratic or non-existent in these villages. Candidates fear to canvass here. They dispatch emissaries who run a silent campaign. We miss the poll cacophony of the mainland,” he said.
Aheri, known for its high sensitivity, will host 10 polling stations for the first time, including locations like Pipli Burgi, Kudri, and Mendri. Gardewara, a particularly sensitive booth located 500m from a new police post, will be heavily guarded by two companies of central armed forces and 100 personnel from local police and reserve forces.
Commandos launched Tuesday an area domination exercise in the hills straddling the inter-state border to plug transit routes, particularly in Hikker, Murewada, and Pushkoti hamlets, which were once impenetrable Maoist zones.
Wangeturi police station, fortified with MAC walls and positioned near Abujmarh, serves as a crucial point to thwart guerrilla activities. “Conducting polls in Wangeturi and Gardewara would be a challenge, but we will hold it efficiently with strategy, domination, and commando deployment,” said Sandip Patil, IG, anti-Naxal operations.
In Kothi village, situated near Parlakota river and serving as a crossing point for voters from Poyarkothi hamlet, security personnel are deployed to ensure safety amid past cases of violence such as killing of a cop in Aug 2020. Around 150 central and state security personnel are stationed here to guard 990 voters from Kothi and 365 from Poyarkothi.
Dhodraj armed outpost in Bhamragarh tehsil presents plentiful challenges for conducting polls, with residents living in fear of Maoist reprisals. Security forces, aided by mine-sweepers, are conducting area domination exercises to neutralise potential threats and ensure safety of voters at Dhodraj.

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