It takes five million workers to pull off India’s election. Shreya Roy Chowdhury and Mridula Chari bring you their stories in a series called The Silent Army.

Ved Prakash, now 55, was once considered what the Election Commission of India describes as an “intimidator”.

He could not be trusted during elections. The local police feared he would coerce voters into supporting a candidate, scare them into not voting at all or disrupt polling through violence.

A resident of Harola, an urban village with a dodgy reputation in Gautam Buddh Nagar, an Uttar Pradesh district bordering Delhi, Prakash resents the label. It has brought him enough hassle every election for close to twenty years. Before any general, state or panchayat polls, Prakash would be “bound down”. The district’s police would serve him a notice, he would appear before the city magistrate and sign a bond promising to maintain peace during the polls.

This is standard practice during elections. While the security of each booth on polling day is entrusted to police personel and armed forces from other districts or states, local police is responsible for getting a district ready for polling.

Central and state laws permit a range of preventive measures, including bonds, temporary detention and even “externment”, or temporary banishment from the district. All these actions can be appealed. According to the Election Commission’s data, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, action had been taken against over 2.18 lakh individuals – a number larger than the entire electorate of Dadra and Nagar Haveli that year.

Ved Prakash in his office in Harola village, Noida, Gautam Buddh Nagar (Credit: Sumit Prakash)

Judging by the statistics from Gautam Buddh Nagar and neighbouring Ghaziabad, both voted on April 11, the first of the seven-phase elections, the Code of Criminal Procedure’s provision on bonds is the one used most enthusiastically.

For the first time in two decades Prakash was spared. “For once, there was no stress,” he said. But many fellow villagers were not so fortunate.

Over 21,000 residents of the district were “bound down” for the 2019 elections, said Gautam Buddh Nagar district magistrate, BN Singh. Over 5,000 of them were from Noida city, an area within includes Harola. The village is singularly rich in “history sheeters” or criminals with substantial records, said the city magistrate. Similarly, 22,593 residents of Ghaziabad signed bonds, said the senior superintendent of police, Upendra Kumar Agrawal.

Preventive action

To pre-empt disruption, district police and administration first identify booths where it is likely.

The Election Commission’s guidelines help them divide booths requiring special care into “critical booths” and those in “vulnerable hamlets”, with a good deal of overlap between the two.

Critical booths are identified using results of the previous election and voters’ information. Any polling station which recorded a voter turnout of 90% or more and where over 75% votes went to a single candidate is designated critical because numbers like that are suspect. Polling stations with a high number of voters without families around or without voter identity cards, areas that have seen violence or booth capturing in the past are also included in this category.

Vulnerable hamlets, or localities, are identified with the help of the police. “These may include areas that see a lot of caste conflict or communal violence, villages with a large number of history-sheeters or a dabang-type neta,” said Agrawal, referring to a leader who is a cross between a politician and a thug.

The tightening of the law and order apparatus begins several months before the elections. While the bond – signed with or without surety – is the most popular tool, district police and administrations use other provisions as well.

States with the most intimidators in 2014

States Intimidators against whom action was taken
Bihar 70,930
Andhra Pradesh 55,868
Rajasthan 19,872
Uttar Pradesh 15,947
West Bengal 14,737
Source: Narrative and Statistical Report: General Election to Lok Sabha 2014 by the Election Commission of India

Gautam Buddh Nagar district magistrate, BN Singh, has “diversified the use” of Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which allows the police to arrest without a warrant and detain citizens who they believe will commit a crime if left free.

“Usually they can get bail immediately but now I have added verification to the process,” said Singh. “The executive magistrate has to be convinced first. Since that can take time, the person has to spend some time in jail.”

He continued: “I know you will argue this violates their human rights but we have had no murder, rape or road rage in our district on New Year’s Eve and not a single FIR [or first information report with the police] during polling. Something must be working.”

Over the past year, Singh has had people detained even for bursting crackers that were not green, making noise after 10 pm and running hookah bars. This led to the total number of detainees rising from 105 in 2016 to 2,106 in 2018. By March 30, 1,615 had been detained for varying periods by the city magistrate of Noida alone. “Most of them were released before polling,” Singh said.

Of the 17,663 “preventive detainees and others” for whom states sought postal ballots in 2014, Uttar Pradesh had sought for just 75. The bulk of the postal ballots for this group went to just two states – Mizoram and Punjab.

Like most similar laws, the Uttar Pradesh Control of Goondas Act, 1985 allows “zila badar” or “externment”. By March 30, 71 gangsters had been driven out of Gautam Buddh Nagar and their names circulated on messaging groups to alert other residents. As the process for appeal takes time, this group is effectively disenfranchised. “We do this only with the most hardened criminals,” added Agrawal. “But mainly, we speak to voters and identify intimidators.” They also ask local leaders.

Residents appear before the city magistrate, Noida, to sign bonds. It is not just criminals and influential leaders who are bound down, even citizens who might get into fights are made to sign bonds (Credit: District Information Officer, Rajesh Chauhan)

“Our rivals named us and we named them,” said Ved Prakash. He is in the “logistics business”, transporting goods for companies, but served three terms as pradhan of Harola. In 2016, as part of the delimitation exercise, the village council was dismantled altogether.

The intimidators

Of Ghaziabad’s 16 police stations, the one in urban Sahibabad had the maximum number of bond signees – 2,714. The rural stations of Masuri and Murad Nagar had over 2,200 each.

Policemen from every post compile lists of troublemakers in villages under their jurisdiction. In Murad Nagar, the Raoli Kalan police post alone had identified 770 for bonds, about 150 of them from Surana, a village on the border of the next district, Baghpat. “The villagers sell liquor illegally,” explained a policeman asking not to be named. “Even the pradhan signed a bond”.

Officially, Surana’s pradhan is Monika Yadav but her husband Ravinder Yadav, 31, a BJP-member and owner of a brick kiln, is the de facto leader. He claimed he did not sign any bond and was miffed so many villagers had to. “The police randomly named people – farmers, government employees, teachers,” he said. “Dharmendra Yadav, a farmer who is not a member of any party, was made to sign. We are not criminals and polling was peaceful.”

Ravinder Yadav from Surana, Ghaziabad (Source: Ravinder Yadav)

The local police had a different take. They said rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party contesting the Lok Sabha elections together helped maintain peace this year. Surana’s two main communities are Yadavs and Jatavs. “The Yadavs support the SP and the Jatavs, BSP and they fought,” said the policeman. “But they are on the same side this time. The bonds were a precaution.”

But school teacher Teghpal Singh Yadav, 60, and farmer Harkesh Singh Yadav, 51, denied anyone in Surana had been asked to sign anything. Similarly, residents of Barola and Sarfabad, both Noida villages from which large numbers signed bonds, either refused to admit they had intimidators in their midst or argued their village was unfairly labelled as vulnerable. The city magistrate said the list of intimidators from Sarfabad had included men as old as 60 because “they are very active and influential”. But echoing Surana’s Ravinder Yadav, Rakesh Yadav, a Samajwadi Party leader from Sarfabad, insisted his village has few who are criminally inclined and no record of any major fights. “About 50 people from Sarfabad have been bound down, most of them ordinary farmers or labourers,” he said “This is not some village on the Pakistan border that people will randomly shoot guns here.”

Also, being made to sign a bond is acutely embarrassing. Each time it happened to Ved Prakash – the last was during the Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections in 2017 – he felt mildly insulted. “The police came to our homes to deliver the notice which was embarrassing,” he said. “Then we had to appear before the magistrate and sign a bond. I have never had to deposit any money [as surety] but it was a hassle and I would be stressed for the entire period.”

Although no longer pradhan, Prakash continues to be a man of influence locally and, echoing both Yadavs, vouched for his fellow villagers’ innocence.

He said that Harola’s status is less about its resident history-sheeters and has more to do with a gram panchayat election in the early 2000s. “In the 2000 or 2001 election, there was a problem – the ballot papers were stolen,” he recalled. A man “just grabbed them and ran”, permanently tarnishing Harola’s reputation. “The election was postponed,” said Prakash. “Ever since then, this village has invited special attention during elections.”

Corrections and clarifications: In an earlier version of this article, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar had been quoted as saying there had been no murder, rape or road rage in the district “since the beginning of the year”. That has been corrected.

Read more in the series:

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The Silent Army: In Maharashtra, a day in the life of a district election control room

The Silent Army: Meet the flying squads that are enforcing EC’s model code of conduct on the ground

The Silent Army: How 6 Arunachal officials travelled 2 days to open a poll booth for only 1 vote

The Silent Army: From inflammatory speeches to rugs at rallies, EC videographers shoot it all

The Silent Army: How EC implements confusion by design for poll teams, EVMs to ensure fair elections