By Sat Singh
Jind (Haryana), Nov 9 (IANS/ 101Reporters) As the clock ticks at midnight, Anguri Devi remains unperturbed. She has voluntarily given up her sleep ever since the announcement of Haryana panchayat elections on October 7. At 85, nobody expects her to stay awake to keep a check on the lure of liquor among voters. But she does anyway, armed with a stick and a group of supporting women.
Offering liquor as a bribe to voters is a common practice in Ramkali, a village located 25 km from the district headquarters Jind. Youth in the area first formed an anti-liquor squad to ensure free and fair elections, which inspired Anguri and team to go on night patrol. Jind went to the polls on November 2.
"I came to this village as a teenager. Alcoholism has destroyed many lives in this village. I have seen it first-hand. Women work as domestic help and in agriculture fields, but men mostly while away playing cards," Anguri told 101Reporters.
When elections are around the corner, they simply forget all their responsibilities and drink day in and day out. "Free flow of liquor during polls makes them go wild," she said.
A night patrol team member, Darshana Devi (52) echoed Anguri as she elaborated on the ill effects of alcoholism. "Women suffer domestic violence. Whatever money is kept aside for children's education is diverted to feed the addiction. We are already dealing with inflation and limited means of livelihood. Alcoholism and its impact on health are extra expenses that no family can afford."
Young and 'restless'
Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Sewa Samiti and Azad Yuva Sangthan first put the idea of night patrol into practice. "We formed WhatsApp groups to coordinate our campaign," said Mahavir Singh, a member of the group and former president of Azad Yuva Sangthan.
Presently, the team has 121 members who post a message whenever they come across suspicious activity. "If any candidate or supporter is found attempting to influence voters by distributing cash or liquor, they will be boycotted by like-minded voters of the village," he explained.
In such cases, the youth organisations will also launch a formal complaint against the defaulting candidate with the State Election Commission. Such incidents usually go unreported, hence the State Election Commission has not taken any action in the village prior to this.
Priyanka, an arts graduate from Ramkali, told 101Reporters how liquor distribution was done openly during the previous elections. "The sarpanch candidates would spend half their election funds to distribute free liquor!"
She said the village women objected to the opening of a liquor vend inside the village almost four years ago. When the protest intensified, the panchayat gave an undertaking seeking its closure. "That was the first victory for men and women who wanted to wean villagers away from liquor," Priyanka said.
Incidentally, in 2017, women of Gohana in Sonipat had torched liquor vends demanding that they be shifted out of villages.
Bhateri Devi, a village elder, lauded the anti-liquor squad. "Over the years, liquor has taken the lives of many men in the village. Women and children had to bear the hardships afterwards," she pointed out.
Strengthening the social fabric
Liquor and elections have a long complicated history in Haryana. Former chief minister Bansi Lal had come to power in 1996 on the prohibition poll plank. His regional outfit, Haryana Vikas Party, got the support of women voters. The ban on liquor sales was lifted later in 1998, after a rise in liquor smuggling in the State.
Later, in the 2019 elections, Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) promised in its election manifesto that no liquor vends would be permitted in village limits. But after forming a coalition government, JJP leader and Haryana Deputy Chief Minister Dushyant Chautala, who also happens to be the Excise and Taxation Minister, fulfilled the promise only partially.
In all, 850 village panchayats had given written undertakings to the State government, and the shops shut accordingly.
Former sarpanch Surendra Singh Mor, who is not in the fray this time, said, "The initiative by village youth has put hurdles in the way of aspirants seeking to influence voters through unethical practices."
"Our village and society are already battling liquor abuse, which gets aggravated during elections. The village men drink free liquor, mostly spurious, and quarrel with their wives, leading to increased cases of domestic violence."
Narender Malik, a committee member of the patrolling task force, said they aimed at strengthening the social fabric by following the rules and ensuring free and fair elections. "We want to prevent the pre-election fracas that is very much a norm here," he added.
Jind Block Development Officer Renuka Nandal said such checks at the village level were helpful as it was practically impossible for the election officials to be present everywhere all the time.
"The initiative is commendable. The district administration is on vigil against such illegal activities, but awareness at the village level is always a plus," Jind Deputy Commissioner Manoj Kumar remarked, hoping that other villages would learn from the initiative.
(Sat Singh is a Rohtak-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)