Guwahati: In a serious case of violation and possible EVM theft, the car belonging to a contesting BJP candidate was found to be transporting the electronic voting machine (EVM) that was voted on hours after polling concluded for the second phase in Assam’s Karimganj, late on Thursday evening.

There were also reports violence from Karimganj after a mob spotted the BJP candidate’s vehicle being used to transport a polled EVM to the strong room, forcing the police to fire in the air to bring the situation under control. Eyewitnesses said the assembled crowd vandalised the vehicle and tried to manhandle the officials, upon which the polling party ran away, leaving behind the EVMs.

The incident snowballed into a huge controversy on Friday with the opposition Congress and AIUDF alleging that the EVM was being “stolen”, while the Election Commission suspended four poll officials and ordered a repoll at the booth as a video of the fiasco went viral on social media.

“The Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police reached the spot immediately and they tried to pacify the mob. But the crowd did not listen, forcing the police to fire in the air to disperse them,” police sources said.

The BJP candidate was identified as Krishnendu Paul, who is also the party’s candidate from the Patharkandi seat this time. Ratabari is represented by BJP MLA Bijoy Malakar, who is also contesting the election. Both constituencies went to the polls in the second phase on Thursday.

According to the ECI’s ‘Factual report involving EVM at Karimganj,” the polling party of No.149-Indira M.V. School of LAC 1 Ratabari (SC) met with an “unfortunate incident”.

When contacted, Deputy Commissioner Karimganj Anbamuthan MP told EastMojo that the four members of the said polling party have been put under suspension.

“We are drawing departmental proceedings against them. The four are teachers,” the DC said. A criminal case has also been registered against those who attacked the vehicle.

A senior police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told EastMojo that the police is looking into various angles in the probe. “It is likely that the Sector Officer in-charge of the security of the EVMs did not do his duty properly. We are inquiring into that.”

According to this official, the two BJP candidates from Patharkandi and Ratabari are also under the ambit of the probe, but refused share details.

“We are also inquiring into who the attackers were and if they belonged to any party and who instigated the attack. It could be a conspiracy.”

TIMELINE

After completion of polls at 6 pm on Thursday, the ECI report says, the polling party was returning in a convoy escorted by an armed escort led by PSO ABSI Luhit Gohain. “The weather on April 1 was inclement and it was raining heavily in the late hours of the day, leading to the roads being muddy,” the report says.

“Due to traffic congestion and the prevailing weather condition, the party became detached from its convoy. The party alighted from the vehicle and called the Sector Officer Ajoy Sutradhar and informed him. While the SO was arranging for an alternate vehicle, polling party decided to arrange the vehicle on its own so as to reach the Material Receipt Centre faster since they were in custody of polled EVMs,” the report says.

At about 9:20 pm, the ECI’s report says, the polling party — comprising of a Presiding Officer and three polling personnel, who were accompanied by the police personnel comprising of a constable and a homeguard — hailed a passing vehicle and boarded it along with their EVM and other things without checking the ownership of the vehicle bearing the number AS-10B-0022.

“They were surrounded by a mob of about 50 people, which started pelting stones at them, not allowing the vehicle to pass. The mob leader told the polling party that the vehicle belonged to Krishnendu Paul, who is contesting from the Pathrakandi constituency,” the report states.

Paul’s electoral affidavit confirms that his wife, Madhumita Paul, owned the vehicle bearing registration number AS10B0022.

“It was only then they realised that something was amiss and alerted the SO… They were attacked and held hostage by a mob along with the EVM in the vehicle at 9:45 pm, alleging that the EVM was being taken to be tampered with,” the EC’s report states.

In all of the drama and commotion, however, the first polling officer of the party went missing until early Friday and a separate search party had to be launched to trace him all night. The official was later found hiding in the nearby undergrowth, which the ECI claims, delayed them from reporting the incident.

“The Presiding Officer was issued a show cause notice for violation of the transport protocol. The PO and three other officials have been placed under suspension. Although the seals of the EVMs were found intact, it has nevertheless been decided to do a re-poll at No. 149-Indira M.V. School of LAC 1 Ratabari (SC) as added precaution,” the EC report says.

According to EC officials, the polling party taking a lift from a passing vehicle was done “without any malafide intent.”

When DC Karimganj Anbamuthan MP was asked if polling parties take lifts as a practice or if there were provisions where the ECI could provide alternate vehicles, he said, “There is a provision for alternate vehicles. But they couldn’t wait for it. They got impatient and took a lift.”

WHY WILL I DO IT, ASKS KRISHNENDU PAUL

Paul rubbished the allegations of EVM tampering and said his brother, who was in the vehicle when the incident happened, only gave a lift to the poll officials as their vehicle broke down.

“My brother was returning from Patharkandi when some people waved at the vehicle for a lift around 9 pm. He gave them a lift as their vehicle broke down,” he told PTI.

“There was a huge traffic snarl on the highway as hundreds of poll vehicles were returning to Karimganj following the elections. Our vehicle, a Bolero, was stuck in the snarl near Karimganj town, and suddenly a politically-motivated mob arrived at the spot and created a ruckus. They thrashed my driver and vandalised the car,” he said.

Paul said that the party’s Ratabari candidate is winning the election by a huge margin and there was no question of tampering.

“I am from Patharkandi, and the EVM was of Ratabari. What reason would I have to tamper with them? Bijoy Malakar is anyway winning the Ratabari seat by at least 40,000 votes, why will the BJP attempt tampering?” he said.

OPPOSITION REACTS

Meanwhile, top opposition leaders, including Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, cited this incident to allege malpractices by the ruling BJP.

Reacting to the now viral social media video of the EVM incident, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on Friday said the ECI needs to start acting decisively on reports of private vehicles transporting EVMs, and a serious re-evaluation of the use of EVMs needs to be carried out by all national parties.

Tagging the tweet which carried the video, Gandhi said every time there is an election, videos of private vehicles caught transporting EVMs show up.

“Unsurprisingly they have the following things in common: 1. The vehicles usually belong to BJP candidates or their associates. 2. The videos are taken as one off incidents and dismissed as aberrations 3. The BJP uses its media machinery to accuse those who exposed the videos as sore losers,” the Congress general secretary said.

The fact is that too many such incidents are being reported and nothing is being done about them, she said.

“The EC needs to start acting decisively on these complaints and a serious re-evaluation of the use of EVMs needs to be carried out by all national parties,” she said in a series of tweets.

Also, Congress’s Sushmita Dev, through a video message, demanded immediate action against all the officers involved in the incident and disqualification of the concerned candidate.

She said this was a conspiracy by the BJP, which is using illegal means to win Assam.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also attacked the BJP over the incident. “EC’s car breaks down, BJP’s intentions are bad, the condition of democracy worsens,” he said in a tweet in Hindi.

Demanding an explanation and immediate action, Assam Congress chief Ripun Bora said the party will consider boycotting the election if “this open loot and rigging of EVMs” does not stop immediately.

Lok Sabha MP and Assam Congress Campaign Committee chairman Pradyut Bordoloi said: “Why can’t the BJP gracefully accept they are losing #AssamAssemblyElections2021? Stealing EVMs and rigging the result won’t do you any good. Assam will never forgive you even if @ECISVEEP does.”

Congress Manifesto Committee chairman Gaurav Gogoi said the EC needs to save itself before public trust is eroded completely as it is the “same script” in every election. He tweeted: “This is the only way the BJP can win Assam: by looting EVMs. EVM capturing, like there used to be booth capturing. All under the nose of the Election Commission. Sad day for democracy.”

AIUDF chief and Congress’ coalition partner in Assam Badruddin Ajmal also shared the video on Twitter, saying: “Polarisation? Failed. Buying votes? Failed. Buying candidates? Failed. Jumle-baazi? Failed. Double CMs? Failed. Doublespeak on CAA? Failed. Loser BJP’s last resort: steal the EVMs. Murder of democracy.”

Holding a press conference in Guwahati, the newly-floated Raijor Dal also criticised transporting the EVM in a BJP candidate’s vehicle and said it is the signal of the party’s defeat.

“Not only in Karimganj, but we heard many such incidents from other constituencies as well. Reports came from even Sibsagar seat, where Akhil Gogoi contested, that there were some irregularities related to the EVM,” Raijor Dal adviser Sitanath Lahkar said.

The second phase of Assam Assembly Election was held in 39 constituencies across 13 districts of Assam on Thursday. A voter turnout of 74.76 per cent was recorded during the second phase.

Polling for the third and last phase will be held on April 6 and the counting of votes will take place on May 2.

With inputs from PTI

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