No deliberate or mala fide intention to disrupt poll process: EC's special observer on Assam EVM row

By PTI
NEW DELHI: The Election Commission’s (EC) special observer on Friday said there was no “deliberate or mala fide intention” to disrupt the poll process after a controversy erupted in Assam when a polling party carried an EVM after voting in a vehicle that belonged to the wife of a BJP candidate from a neighbouring seat.

The observer said the incident appears to be an isolated one “due to the total negligence and foolishness of the presiding officer and his team”.

The commission ordered a repoll on Friday at a polling booth in Assam’s Ratabari Assembly constituency after the controversy.

To prevent the polling team from being assaulted in Karimganj by a mob, which alleged that the electronic voting machine (EVM) was being taken for tampering, police had to use force.

In a statement earlier in the day, the EC said the presiding officer and three other officials were placed under suspension.

The special observer also recommended that action be taken against the armed escort officer for leaving behind the stranded polling party and not ensuring its safe arrival at the destination.

He said there does not seem to be any ground to change the RO (returning officer) as it appears to be an isolated incident “due to the total negligence and foolishness of the presiding officer and his team”.

“There is otherwise no deliberate or mala fide intention in the incident aimed to disrupt the polling process,” the special observer said.

To ensure credibility and fairness, it is appropriate to order a repoll in PS (polling station) number 149 – Indira MV School of LAC 1 Ratabari, the observer added.

“Consequent to commission’s decision, Presiding Officer Sahab Uddin Talukdar, First Polling Officer Sourav Acharjee, Second Polling Officer Abdul Mumit Choudhary, Third Polling Officer Sahab Uddin Tapadar have already been placed under suspension since forenoon today,” the poll panel said.

Thereafter, on the receipt of the special general observer’s report, Armed Escort Officer Luhit Gohain, Sub-Inspector of Police (Armed Branch) of the 3rd Assam Police Battalion, Titabor, was also suspended, it added.

“Although the seals of the EVM 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 an added precaution,” the poll panel said in the afternoon.

According to the details made public by the EC, the polling party of polling booth number 149 of the Ratabari constituency consisted of a presiding officer and three polling personnel.

They were accompanied by a police constable and a home guard.

After the completion of polling at 6 pm on Thursday, the polling party left in a vehicle provided by the election authorities and was escorted by an armed escort.

It was raining heavily and the vehicle developed a snag.

“Due to traffic congestion and the prevailing weather condition, the party became detached from its convoy,” the EC statement said.

The polling party got off the vehicle and asked the sector officer over the phone to arrange for another one.

While the sector officer was arranging for a vehicle, the polling party decided to arrange one on its own to reach the Material Receipt Centre faster since it was in custody of polled EVMs.

The polling party stopped a passing vehicle and boarded it along with the EVM, comprising a ballot unit (BU), a control unit (CU) and a paper trail machine (VVPAT), and other things, without checking the ownership of the vehicle.

As reported by the polling party, the vehicle moved towards Karimganj and had to slow down due to traffic.

As the vehicle slowed down, it was surrounded by a mob of about 50 people that started pelting stones at the polling party.

The mob also abused them and did not allow the vehicle to pass.

When they asked the leader of the mob, he said the vehicle belongs to Krishnendu Paul, the BJP candidate from a neighbouring constituency (Patharkandi LAC-2), and alleged that “the EVM was being taken to be tampered with”.

“It was only then that they realised that something was amiss and alerted the sector officer. However, a larger crowd had gathered by then and they were attacked and held hostage by a mob along with the EVM in the vehicle at 2145 hrs, alleging that the EVM was being taken to be tampered with,” the statement said.

“In the meanwhile, the antecedents of the vehicle were ascertained and it was found to be registered in the name of Madhumita Paul, wife of contesting candidate, Patharkandi LAC (legislative assembly constituency) No 2, Krishnendu Paul,” it added.

Police reached the spot along with the district election officer and used force to pull out the polling party.

Later, on examination, the seals of the polled EVM were found to be intact with no damage whatsoever.

“All the items have been deposited in the strong room,” the statement said.