They were part of the first polls held in independent India, and have cast their vote in almost every election since. As Lounge reached out to them over the phone, the three voters maintained that neither inclement weather nor ill-health would hold them back from exercising their ballot.
‘Freedom needs to be absolute’
It was a historic year for Kamakhya Prasad Chakravarty. The year 1952 marked a series of firsts for him—not only was he part of the inaugural batch of graduates from Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh, he also voted in independent India’s first election. “At that time, nearly everyone voted for the Congress. People had great hopes for the nation,” says the 92-year-old retired gynaecologist, now based in Tezpur. He is the ninth generation in a family of priests who came to Assam from Kannauj during the reign of Raja Nara Narayan (1540-87) to oversee royal rites and rituals.
Chakravarty inherited his patriotic instincts from his father, a jute entrepreneur and freedom fighter, who was close to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (the fifth president of India). While studying in the only high school in Abhayapuri, a small town in Assam’s Bongaigaon district, Chakravarty was even jailed for a few hours as part of the nationwide protests during the Quit India Movement in 1942. It was a time when Jawaharlal Nehru was held in great reverence, and he was no exception.
He has vivid memories of the time in 1946 when Nehru crossed the Brahmaputra from north Guwahati to the main city. “I was one of the volunteers, and still remember having worn a shirt with blue stripes. During the trip, he touched my sleeve. When I went home, I wrapped up the shirt and never got it washed or wore it again. I wanted to keep it intact as a reminder of that brief meeting,” he says. Today, Chakravarty feels differently about politicians. Most, in his view, are self-centred, with a personal agenda to pursue. “They all come and shout during election campaigns, touch your feet, and then forget about it all the next day,” he says.
Chakravarty has voted in every election—he kept up the record on Thursday —but, for him, the issues continue to be the same: roti, kapda and makaan (food, clothing and shelter). “There needs to be easy access to healthcare, and freedom of expression. Independence should be absolute,” he says. An avid reader, he also watches Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches closely. Chakravarty has learnt to use the mobile and even has a Twitter handle. Every morning, he sends a picture of the front page of The Telegraph to his daughter in Delhi for her comments.
“Besides following politics, he feels passionately about cricket. At one point, he used to go for all the Test matches in Kolkata during December,” says his daughter, a senior government official in Delhi who doesn’t wish to be named.
‘Security for all’
While independent India’s first election was to take place in February 1952, the hills of what is now Himachal Pradesh went to the polls five months earlier so that people wouldn’t have to trudge through snow to cast their vote. Ballot boxes were carried to remote locales, and one of the first was set up at a small primary school in Kinnaur. Shyam Saran Negi, a young schoolteacher, was on election duty in the area and inadvertently ended up becoming part of history. “He requested a senior officer to allow him to cast his vote first, before fulfilling his polling duties,” says Negi’s son, Chander Prakash. “Thus, he ended up becoming the first voter in independent India.” Since then, he has voted in every election, be it for the panchayat or the Lok Sabha. “Koi bhi nahi choda,” the 102-year-old Negi says feebly.
Every time the country goes to the polls, Negi is back in the spotlight. In 2014, for instance, the Himachal Pradesh Election Commission appointed him its brand ambassador to encourage the youth to vote. In the same year, a video by Google India about Negi went viral. Mementos and photographs are scattered across his home—of him cutting a cake with the local administration on his 100th birthday, of the Kinnaur deputy commissioner welcoming him at the polling booth with a cap, and more.
While news of his milestone make its way to different corners of the country every five years, Negi himself has never ventured beyond the remote town of Kalpa in Kinnaur.
Today, one can sense a certain wariness in him when it comes to reliving the moments from 1951. “The elderly and children behave the same way. There is no telling what puts them off,” says Prakash. On most days, Negi can be found seated outside his home—which, incidentally, made an appearance in the film Sanam Re—listening to the radio. Sporadic instances of violence in the state are a critical issue for him. “He is raring to vote again. We will be taking him by road to a voting centre located 2.5km away,” adds Prakash.
‘Peace in Kashmir’
It’s not unusual to find 99-year-old Shivnarayan Bhattad pounding away at roots, leaves and herbs in the veranda of his house. He has been making herbal medicines and oils, and treating people for free, for seven decades. His hearing is not as sharp as it used to be, and the radio is no longer a preferred companion. However, he reads the newspaper daily, and, from his home in Paradsinga village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara district, keeps a keen watch on world events. For the moment, he is tracking the ongoing Lok Sabha election. “He doesn’t support a particular political party, but feels keenly about current affairs,” says his granddaughter and contemporary artist Shweta Bhattad, who helps put across my questions to him.
At the moment, Shivnarayan Bhattad, who has voted in nearly every election, is busy putting the finishing touches to a letter to the prime minister, requesting peace in Kashmir. “He has written that soldiers from both India and Pakistan are dying and this bloodshed is not doing anyone any good. He wanted to get it signed from residents of the village, but people are scared to take a stand,” says Shweta.
Bhattad has always played a key role in the village. He would glean lessons from periodicals such as Kalyan (a monthly spiritual magazine) and ancient epics, and help people apply those to their daily lives. “My grandfather’s ancestors moved to this village in the 1900s from Phalodi in Rajasthan. They took up farming and moneylending as professions, something that he practises even today,” says Saket Raman Bhattad, a Nagpur-based lawyer and Bhattad’s grandson.
The nonagenarian works solely with organic seeds and refuses to plant BT cotton, which is widely used in the area. “He continues to work and treat people selflessly. There isn’t a day when he doesn’t go to work,” says Shweta.