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.

On April 8, walking on the grounds of the Police Officers’ Mess in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, Deepak Mani Tripathi chanced upon an Indo-Chinese forest lizard browsing in the grass.

He dashed back to his room, grabbed his camera and gingerly stepped back onto the grass. The lizard could camouflage itself and Tripathi, an officer with the Central Reserve Police Force, feared he might trample it. He located it after a few minutes of careful search and “at 1129 hours” photographed the lizard, its leathery skin a vivid green. The photos joined an ever-growing collection on Tripathi’s laptop.

By April 8, the CRPF battalion under his command had been in Arunachal for three weeks and it had rained for most of that time. But that day had dawned “sunny and bright”, Tripathi said, allowing the photograph. His camera would capture other flora and fauna over the next few weeks as well as soldiers at work. The forces had been sent to secure polling booths, staff and equipment in the first of the general election on April 11.

India’s elections turn the peripatetic lives of its paramilitary forces more frantic. Tripathi, 48, second-in-command of a battalion in Jharkhand, is in charge of an “ad hoc battalion” for the election. It was assembled with one company of soldiers each from five battalions stationed in Jharkhand. On March 15, with 500 soldiers, cooks, signal operators, a doctor, a pharmacist and other staff, he started from Dhanbad, Jharkhand, by train for Dibrugarh, Assam. From there, they reached Arunachal by car.

After polling ended in Arunachal, they moved to Gujarat for the third phase of the election on April 23. While part of the battalion remained in Gujarat, the rest were joined by personnel from the Rapid Action Force and Tripathi took them to Rajasthan for the fourth and fifth phases, on April 29 and May 6. Their next stop is Punjab, which goes to the polls in the final phase on May 19.

According to the Election Commission of India, 1,155 companies of paramilitary and armed police forces, crisscrossed the country for the 2014 election. Their movement is planned and coordinated by the CRPF, designated the “chief force coordinator”, the Ministry of Railways and the poll body. The Railways ran 234 special trains for these forces in 2014, taking care to minimise their contact with civilians as far as possible.

Corresponding figures for this year will not be disclosed until the election is over. But Moses Dhinakaran, spokesperson for the CRPF, said more than 2,000 companies – around two lakh personnel – are expected to be deployed over the seven phases. A senior Railways official, asking not to be named, said around 40 special trains are being run to move the forces for each phase.

The Indo-Chinese forest lizard, or Jerdon's forest lizard, that Deepak Mani Tripathi photographed at the Police Officers' Mess in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh.

In every state

Considered politically neutral, central forces are sent to every state for the elections although not every booth. They are meant to secure polling stations deemed critical, in areas with a history of poll-time violence or disruption.

This year, planning began about five months before election dates were announced and by April 5, central forces for areas voting in the first four phases were in place. Apart from the CRPF, the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Railway Protection Force and the Sashastra Seema Bal are involved.

In Arunachal, Tripathi’s men were concentrated in Seppa tehsil of East Kameng district. “Some locations were so remote, I lost contact with them,” said Tripathi. “I did not know whether the party had reached. We got data on polling percentages when the polling staff returned to deposit the EVMs.”

Each company typically has two to three wireless sets and one satellite phone – not enough to go around. So far, polling has been peaceful and uneventful at booths on his watch, although in Arunachal Pradesh some EVMs had to be airlifted.

Some 40%-50% of the companies deployed for parliamentary elections go to Jammu and Kashmir and South Bastar, Chhattisgarh, said Dhinakaran. Both disturbed areas with little interest in voting, here the forces “inducted” for election duty themselves need protection. On April 4, four soldiers from the Border Security Force were killed while clearing a route for the movement of troops in Bastar. “We gather intelligence and collaborate with police and the troops stationed there for safe induction,” added Dhinakaran. “The routes are cleared and guarded daily.” During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 51 police and paramilitary personnel were killed and 189 were injured. The Commission has raised the minimum compensation for death while on election duty from Rs 10 lakh in 2014 to Rs 15 lakh in 2019. The amount is Rs 30 lakh, up from Rs 20 lakh in 2014, if the death is caused by a violent attack.

In the North East, the Assam Rifles provides “environment security” to the central forces. Apart from weapons, bomb-detection and other equipment, the forces may take dogs with them. Labradors have fallen out of favour – they get fat and need rest often. The CRPF prefers the more aggressive Belgian Shepherds or Malinois, for they have greater stamina and are not unnerved by gunfire.

In vulnerable areas, the forces hold flag marches and may also join the flying squads that implement the Model Code of Conduct on the ground.

In a new place

While troops specially trained for high-risk areas are deployed there, all forces receive some election-related training. “Not only are rules and functions of the various groups covered, they are also informed about the cultures and practices of those areas,” said Tripathi. “Food and dressing habits differ. Our battalion has Hindus and Muslims and in Arunachal, pork and mithun [a large bovine] are sold openly.”

They also gird up against diseases and drastic changes in temperature. Though referred to as “jawan”, meaning young, soldiers can be as old as 55. While leaving Jharkhand, Tripathi’s battalion packed for a wet Arunachal at 7 degrees Celsius, a dry Rajasthan at 41 degrees Celsius and all weather conditions in between. They are told where they are going not less than a week in advance. A few fell ill – one had his feet swelling up, another suffered seizures.

Soldiers from Deepak Mani Tripathi's battalion at a polling station in Seppa, Arunachal Pradesh. The security staff 'can peep in but not enter' the booth. On the election trail, Tripathi either took photos himself or members of his team did with his camera.

The forces stay in existing barracks, schools, under-construction buildings, hostels, community halls or, as in the case of Gujarat, a Jain dharamshala, or boarding house. They spend a few days in these towns or cities before going to a station but “masti” – having fun – is discouraged. “If there is a historical place close by, I may let them go but only in groups,” said Tripathi. In Jaipur, Rajasthan, a few soldiers visited Amber Fort and Hawa Mahal.

Tripathi, from Uttar Pradesh, is a graduate in botany from Lucknow University and spends his vacations in sanctuaries and wetlands photographing wildlife. On holiday with his wife and two sons at Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh National Park, he joined three tiger safaris because he could not spot a tiger during the first two. On the election trail, Tripathi and his trusty camera found pelicans at a lake in Rajkot, Gujarat, and snakes and birds in Arunachal.

Assembling special trains

Responsible for transporting the troops, the Railways began preparing in January, fitting the requirement of the central forces into its already mammoth operation, which swells further every summer.

“We run about 6,000 extra trains in the summer,” said a Railways official. Festivals, holidays, harvest season, all are factored into the plan.

The special trains are assembled from the stock of extra coaches and ones drawn from regular passenger trains. The Railways has 180 depots “with some stock of coaches”, said the official. Still, on occasion, passenger trains are cancelled or coaches removed to accommodate troops. Most coaches are general class, used by the poorest travellers, but Tripathi was pleasantly surprised to find the train to Arunachal fully airconditioned. If engines are in short supply, ones from freight trains are deployed.

At times, the Railways can be asked to make a train available at short notice. During an Assembly election in the North East – the official would not say which state – they cobbled together a train in five hours to move troops stuck there. But this is rarely possible. “To start a train I have to take stock of the coaches we have and then take them to the examination point that could be 1,000 km away,” the official added.

Deepak Mani Tripathi's in Delhi. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Small stations with little rail traffic and few passengers are chosen for troops to board or get off. “We prefer stations that are close to the road so that their cars or trucks can park,” the official explained.

It is not easy to sneak a trainload of uniformed soldiers into a station without alerting other passengers and employees, but the Railways tries. The train is identified only by a number, its point of origin and destination. Station masters on either end of the journey know about the troops but those along the way “know only that a special train is passing through, not who is on it”, said the official. Train drivers, following the standard duty roster, see who their passengers are at the time of boarding. For disembarking, the train may be sent to the goods yard or an unused track, said the official.

This presents peculiar challenges for commanders. They must ensure their troops can offload the cases of ammunition, food, cooking gas cylinders, and other luggage safely – without a platform, a train’s floor is several feet above the ground. If they are far from the trucks, commanders must ensure they do not walk across the train tracks but take the overhead bridges. “The men are tired and reluctant to climb stairs but walking is dangerous especially in small stations that most trains pass through without stopping or slowing,” said Tripathi.

Across his 26-year career with the CRPF and many elections, Tripathi felt this year’s movement was the swiftest. The Railways’ logistical support has improved over the years, but a major change came in 2014: the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation started providing food to the troops. Until then, the cooks got off the trains to prepare meals at abandoned stations or in the wilderness. “We would not have time to even wash up,” said Tripathi.

In 2014, around 2.84 lakh food packets were delivered to soldiers on election duty in coordination with their commanders. From this year, they are getting toiletry kits as well.

Read more in the series:

The Silent Army: Behind India’s election are five million workers. This series brings you their stories

The Silent Army: In Arunachal, election staff are chosen on their ability to walk – for days

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: When it comes to monitoring parties’ social media campaigns, EC guidelines flounder