My Muse – Hounds of Baskerville

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Subhash Mathur was born and brought up in small towns in Rajasthan. During his school and college education at Jaipur, he was keenly involved in sports, journalism and public speaking. His civil services career has given him a platform for spreading his ideas about modernising tax administration to benefit the common man. Post retirement he is devoting his energies, along with his wife Tilak, to public and humane causes.

Year 1995 saw some significant events in my life. I got my super time scale after a protracted uphill struggle over 13 years. Our family had a jing bang get-together at the end of the year after several decades.

However at the beginning of 1995 a unique and new experience came my way. I was then posted at Gwalior with Central Bureau of Narcotics in charge of cultivation of legal opium.

CEC Sheshan decided to extend the limited experiment of posting ‘Observers’ in ‘92 Punjab elections to ‘95 Bihar Assembly polls on a bigger scale.

Donning upon the role of a Crusader, Sheshan vowed to cleanse the electoral system by conducting ‘free and fair ‘elections.

Thus besides the General observers who were largely drawn from the Indian Administrative Service a new breed of observers who came to be known as Expenditure Observers were introduced. They were drawn exclusively from Indirect Tax Board

The Expenditure Observers were given dual role: besides carrying out all the responsibilities entrusted to General Observers, Expenditure guys were to scrutinise the accounts of the candidates on a continuous basis. Keep a check on the ‘legal’ expenses.

CEC deputed one General Observer, two Expenditure observers in large Parliamentary constituencies. When I reached the constituency headquarters I was surprised to run into a ‘Special’ Observer also [he was from Postal Service]. The Special Observers were drafted to keep a discreet watch over the political rallies and report any communal overtones. Sardarji conveyed that it was a dull and boring assignment.

For the Bihar polls I drew Palamu Parliamentary constituency consisting of seven Assembly segments. I turned to my colleague from Bihar for a fill in.

The tales he narrated gave me the creeps. For the uninitiated Daltonganj is the District Headquarter of Palamu District. It’s a hilly district with North River Koel running close by.

It was the most Naxal infested area of Bihar [now part of Jharkhand] with only the worst affected adjacent Gaya being outside. Naxals had no respect for territorial niceties and moved at will.

The Observers were to stay at the Daltonganj Circuit House. To reach Daltonganj I had to reach Delhi first, and then take a flight to Ranchi. After that it was a 5 hour 165 km drive to Daltonganj.

The letter ended with a directive to gather for the briefing at Banquet Hall, Ashoka Hotel Delhi.

[Nirvachan Sadan was yet to come up.]

CEC Sheshan himself was to interact with us. About 150 dazed and anxious middle level officers/Observers gathered seeking enlightenment.

On the dot of the appointed hour CEC Sheshan strode into the room like a giant. Hush fell instantly. Sheshan met us for less than 10 minutes but said a lot.

His message was simple loud and clear;

All of you have been specially selected to ensure conduct of ‘free and fair elections’ for the Bihar Assembly.

Read through the instructions carefully available in your kit bag.

Observers were now under the control and direction of Election Commission. All reports to the Commission only.

And last but the most crucial:

You are my Grey Hounds. I am letting you loose.

Just don’t Growl.

Bite.

I expect results. Keep the Commission informed at all times. Phone or Fax.

And Best Wishes.

And so a few days later I found myself driving down to Daltonganj with a Jeep carrying ITBP commandos leading the way. Protecting the Observer. From the Naxals.

I was impressed.

This was first of the three scheduled visits. First for getting familiar with the ground situation; second for campaign and voting day period and the last for counting and recounting. We had paper ballots those days.

It was a punishing schedule. And needed to be done six times. Besides, being away from family and also work.

We covered the distance in 5 hours exact. My aide for the elections, a BDO rank officer answered my questions patiently. Why ITBP commandos and not the Bihar Police. His answer was stunning but honest.

Sir, Bihar Police jawans still use.303 rifles and flee at the sight of approaching Naxals. They cannot be used for Observers.

ITBP guys were smart and their leader, a Sardarji was agile, deferential with impeccable conduct. They carried semi automatic modern and light weaponry.

I like them instantly. And their spirit and enthu.

The drive to Daltonganj was very scenic with lush green undulating country side on both sides. But the road was narrow and often pot holed. But we made it to destination without a mishap.

In exactly five hours! So far so good.

Next day, the District Magistrate warned us: If you go beyond two kilometres either side of the main road, then don’t complain that you were not warned. And all the Best.

Super start for the Hounds.

The Circuit House was reserved for Observers, General, Expenditure and Special. This upset the poiticocracy immensely. It was their turf. And now they had to fend for themselves. They resented but had no choice.

Rules were Rules. And they came from Sheshan. One could fret and fume but that’s it.

Circuit House was furnished very sparsely but the facilities were improved on demand.

They obviously didn’t want us to complain but feel happy and contented. We were.

On top of that we had a talented Khansama to take care of our culinary needs. And he readily gave us ‘a la carte’ non veg delicacies. And masala Omelettes. No Chinese. No continental. Only Sandwiches.

Coincidently all the four Observers were partial to non veg food. And so we had a feast going all the time.

The bonus was a common landline phone with STD facility and no restrictions. Our families were well connected and well informed.

Khansama warned us not go out of the compound at night as only three days earlier Naxals had strung up three shot dead persons at the Centre Point ‘chauraha’, just half a kilometre away. Protest against the conduct of elections.

Yet Sardarji and I went there every night after dinner anyways. For our post dinner constitutional. Bravado? Not really.

Before I move on I must dwell on my other Expenditure colleague briefly. RK was junior to me in service but otherwise well acquainted. He was posted at Calcutta and came along with his newly married bride. Kind of hangover Honeymoon.

Most days the newly married couple did not show up for Breakfast. But, usually joined us for dinner.

Politicians from his constituencies soon became frustrated as they could not meet RK well past 9. It upset their schedule for the day.

They pleaded with me to take a look at their daily expense sheet but I was helpless. No jurisdiction, you see.

The vehicles placed at our disposal were all ‘requisitioned’ from private citizens. They were generally what we call SUVs today. Their commonality was that they had the tendency to break down midway through the day. Largely because we traversed over some pretty rough roads.

So, daily we moved around in a three vehicle convoy including ITBP jeep . This formation hampered our movement but I managed to cover at least 50 km daily checking out the preparations.

The wireless sets installed in our vehicles were WWII vintage. They were huge like a modern day Inverter battery, but totally non functional. They worked only when we were within 20 metres of the station we were calling. Sometimes even that failed.

And in those days we had no cell phones. It was a nightmare but we loved the importance and the limelight.

Particularly, when we went to town or to a picnic spot. Palamu district is beautiful territory with lush tall grass, tall trees and jungles.. Betla National Park was teeming with wild animals but we missed our date with the Tiger

The politicians appeared a bit nervous at our morning interactions. Besides looking at the expenses we were also able to pick up the general drift.

The Observers also decided to be stricter with the two national parties, BJP and Congress. Smaller local political parties were given some leeway.

Even on the slightest violation of campaign guidelines we would impound their vehicles overnight, causing great inconvenience.

This irritated the two biggies but they swallowed their pride and cohabited with reality.

The condition of the polling stations in my constituencies was bad. More often than not most of them had no doors and windows. To reach many of polling stations I had to walk several kilometres, through mild jungle trails. And some polling stations were simply out of reach.

So i decide to be brave. To hell with the Naxals. I had to make it to a few unreachable polling stations.

One such polling station was in Manatu block deep inside insurgency territory. Lurid folktales about the Raja of Manatu were relayed to me thick and fast. But more importantly it was infested with Naxal insurgents.

Station House Officer advised me Not to go there. Revenue officials agreed in unison. My aide concurred. The danger levels were far too high . After all it was just another polling station. Why take a big risk?

Their final argument was that no supervisory officer had ever ventured into that jungle.

I simply overruled. They were dismayed.

After much consultations, SHO called for reinforcements. Half an hour later we were ready to roll.

And so the four car cavalcade set off on its 4 km journey. The going was slow as no roads existed as such. It was generally a choice either over small stones or into a pot hole or over big boulders.

After one hour of grueling bumpy ride we reached the polling station. It was totally deserted. This booth not only had no doors and windows but also no roof! Wow!

It was a Gem! Alas! I had no camera to capture such a historic sight.

One local lad, who was hanging around, informed me that the polling booth serviced over 300 hundred voters but saw very little polling activity. Danger was clear and present.

Visit over, we turned around and headed back.

No attack. No stealth Naxal movement.

But on a later occasion I came face to face with Naxals swooping down the hill.

More on that later.

On return journey we bumped along merrily till the escort vehicle of the SHO sputtered to a halt.

Now SHO wore a worried look. Such breakdowns provided the Naxals a golden opportunity to attack and loot the guns and ammunition. SHO was loathed to abandon the vehicle. That would not go down kindly with the brass. The vehicle had to go back to the Police Station. No matter how!

So a Jack of all Trades who was part of the adventure party went to work. Some tinkering around the engine and the vehicle sparked to life. But an unusual situation had arisen.

JOAT announced that one person was required to sit on the side board and keep a hand strategically on the carburetor very lightly. Carburetor was not be choked off but not left open completely either.

That instantly reminded me of our Hillman sedan in 60s and 70s. We resorted to the same trick to get the vehicle going.

Basically it indicated that the carburetor was clogged as the petrol tank was throwing up ‘kachhra’ with the fuel indicating low fuel levels in the tank.

So with the hood open and one person hanging on to the vehicle by a chad we set off. The driver of the stressed vehicle could not see the road ahead with the bonnet blocking his vision. So one constable on the passenger side leaned out and guided him along.

It was a crazy sight.

Patwari had a delicious Fried Fish lunch ready for the adventure party but the fun was worth the while. Largely, because we managed to return safely.

Encounter with Naxals

This hair raising incident is worth a recount. While inspecting polling stations I had earmarked one particular booth for a visit. That booth was nestling just below a chain of hills which were under Naxal occupation. And it was only one km off the main road, well within the 2 km limit set by the Collector.

I decided to go ahead in spite of the protests. They warned me that the Naxals will swoop upon us as soon as they see a police vehicle in their territory. I disregarded the advice.

Before I could get down at the polling booth suddenly the hills came alive with loud yodeling noise. About 20 men and women swooped down the hills heading straight towards us. They were brandishing all kinds of lethal weapons. And most of them sported a white bandana with a red flag jutting out. And they were closing down on us.

It was a fearsome sight. As quickly as possible we turned tail and ran for our lives.

We had to hit the main road before the Naxals got to us.

Road or Goner. It was that simple.

In the end it was close call. Our hearts were rate was hopping mad . Our faces were ashen. Fear was the Key.

I took the blame. And vowed to heed good advice in future

At the fag end of our election duties we were surprised to find another Observer joining us. He didn’t tell us much about his assigned role but let on casually that he was well connected with the well heeled in Madhya Pradesh. But he was a big sport and joined us in all activities.

One day before the polling when we were directed to be available at Headquarters, the New Observer packed all of us in two cars and set off for a picnic to a distant Govt Guest house in the hills. All arrangements for our night stay and dinner were in place.

It was a beautiful place with quaint rooms and facilities. We had a lovely meal washed down by Single Malt.

Next morning we went to take a look at the well known fully residential Netarhat Public School. The school stands on a huge plateau amidst hills. It is the pride of Bihar. I was aware of its reputation as my batch mate Prakash was a product of that School. I felt happy.

Our new Observer also gave us a bit of an advice which we all loved: if someone tells you that there’s danger on the north side then perform your duties on the opposite side. You’ll be safe.

One last word before I close the tales from Palamu.

During my tours I saw a number of half constructed but abandoned buildings.

Why?

The answer was easy as you like: Sir these buildings are being constructed under combined funding from the Centre and the State. Funds received from Centre have been utilised. The State has included its quota in the budget but NOT released. They too will be released but in the last ten days of March only to be surrendered by 31st March. Happens Year on Year! No wonder they stood alone and forlorn.

Thanks for the Patience

Comments
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H.R.Bapu Satyanarayana   |2016-08-02
A riveting account and it reminded me of my posting in Assam when Iwas in
Shillong which was later became the capital of Meghalia
Avinash Gaur   |2016-08-03
Only read such stories in the media. Must be a terrifying experience.
Vinod Puri   |2016-08-08
Enjoyed reading this tale. I am sure most of the Indians don't have clue as to
the conditions in these remote areas of India or what the Naxals are all about.
The fictional and non fiction accounts I have read leave me bewildered as to why
Indian politicians can't understand the needs of the poor tribals.
subhash mathur   |2016-08-11
thanks Vinod ji. close encounters they were. but the conditions for the polling
staff were pathetic but the poor chaps had to carry out their duties diligently
even in hostile conditions
subhash mathur   |2016-08-21
thanks Bapu satya all of us can recall difficult days
Thakur Kesari Singh   |2016-08-27
Ihave served in erstwhile Bihar and your narrative took me on a nostalgic trip.
A gripping account which kept me engrossed til the end.
Kesari
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