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Violence marks first phase of West Bengal polls

Violence marks first phase of West Bengal polls
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Sporadic incidents of violence were reported from some areas that are voting in the first phase of the assembly elections in West Bengal on Saturday, even as the overall poll situation was peaceful with 36.09 per cent turnout recorded till 11 am, officials said.

Elections are being held in 30 seats, most of which are in the once-Naxal-affected Jungle Mahal region, across five districts amid tight security, they said. 54.90 per cent of 73.80 lakh voters exercise their franchise till 1 pm in 30 seats where polling is underway for first phase.

The elections are being held following COVID-19 guidelines in all nine seats in Purulia, four in Bankura, four in Jhargram and six in Paschim Medinipur, besides the seven seats in high-stakes Purba Medinipur.

The seats in Purba Medinipur recorded the highest turnout at 38.89 per cent, followed by Jhargram (37.07 per cent) and Bankura (36.38 per cent). The seats in Paschim Medinipur recorded 35.50 per cent turnout, while those in Purulia saw 33.58 per cent voters exercising their franchise. In the Kanthi Dakshin seat in Purba Medinipur, voters staged a protest outside a polling booth over EVM malfunctioning.

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The protesters blocked a road outside the polling station at Majna, claiming that even if they voted for one party, the VVPAT slip showed another party. A contingent of central forces was deployed to control the situation, an EC official said, adding that the VVPAT machine was replaced. BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s younger brother Soumendu was attacked in Kanthi by TMC supporters, his party alleged. His car was vandalised and his was driver injured in the attack.

In the Salboni seat of Paschim Medinipur, CPI(M) candidate Susanta Ghosh was heckled and stones were hurled at his car allegedly by TMC supporters, police said. As soon as he reached Salboni Bazar, some TMC supporters gheraoed and heckled him, following which they also attacked his car, eyewitnesses said.

Police personnel posted in the area rescued and escorted him to safety. “This is an attack on democracy. This is jungle raj going on,” said Ghosh, a former minister in the Left Front government. Some journalists who were reporting on the attack were also manhandled and their vehicles vandalised.

An EC official said that three persons were arrested in connection with the incident and a report has been sought from the district administration. The TMC denied any involvement.

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A man, in his mid-30s, was found dead in Keshiary’s Begumpur area in the Paschim Medinipur district in the morning, police said. He has been identified as Mangal Soren, they said, adding that his body was found outside his home.

The BJP claimed that Soren was their supporter and was allegedly killed by TMC “goons”, a charge rubbished by the ruling party. However, the district administration in its report to the EC said that there was no connection of the death to the polls.

Long queues were seen outside most booths in the morning hours with people stepping out early to avoid the sweltering heat, besides the uncertainty of being able to cast their votes in case of violence later in the day.

Voters in several areas, including Bhagabanpur in Egra and Midnapore, complained of intimidation to the central forces who assured them of security and took them to the polling booth. Besides, there were allegations against both BJP and TMC of trying to influence voters by providing them food packets, tea and snacks. So far, 107 EVMs have been found to be non-functional, an EC official said.

“Forty-seven EVMs have been restored by our sector officers and the rest are being mended,” he said. The Trinamool Congress also raised concerns over the fluctuating turnout figures on the EC’s mobile app and malfunctioning of EVMs at several booths. Most of the voters and political party workers were seen without masks amid a resurgent coronavirus. In some booths, the voters were provided masks, while sanitizers and polythene gloves were made available at most locations. More than 73 lakh voters are eligible to exercise their franchise to decide the fate of 191 candidates in these 30 seats.

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The elections, which will continue till 6 pm, are being held amid tight security with the EC deploying around 730 companies of central forces, guarding 10,288 polling booths housed in 7,061 premises, officials said.

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