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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 May, 2004, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Voting in Bihar's badlands

By Ayanjit Sen
BBC correspondent in Bhagalpur, Bihar

Ramsa Patel is blind, not by birth or accident but because policemen in Bhagalpur poured acid into his eyes more than two decades ago.

Ramsa Patel
Ramsa Patel: Voting to keep a candidate out of office
The horrific "Bhagalpur Blindings" earned this sleepy town in the northern Indian state of Bihar national recognition, and a notorious reputation.

Arrested for stealing Mr Patel, now in his 50s, was rendered immobile for the rest of his life.

But on voting day on Wednesday, he has woken up early to get ready and head to the polling station.

"I shall definitely cast my vote because I want the candidate to lose. He has not responded to my plea for a job for one of my family members.

"I have to pay for the wedding of my two daughters and I have no savings left," Mr Patel says, sipping his tea.

Congress decline

Bhagalpur, about 225km (140 miles) from the state capital Patna, is a violence-ridden city where the crime rate has been shot up during the past few years.

Police in Bihar
Security personnel were deployed throughout the town
"Why should I vote? Just because I am a citizen! Where were these politicians when my entire family were chopped to pieces by swords before my own eyes?" asks Malika Begum, whose husband deserted her nearly a decade ago.

"I do not even have a permanent job now," she says.

Malika Begum's right leg was hacked off during Hindu-Muslim riots in Bhagalpur 14 years ago, which claimed nearly a thousand lives.

Local journalists say the riots alienated Muslim voters from the Congress party which was voted in from Bhagalpur for over 30 years.

The local political configuration has changed since then.

It is now a head-on fight between a communist leader who is trying to hold on to his party's lone bastion in this state and a senior figure of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Tight security

Voting began briskly with long lines of voters queuing up from early on Wednesday morning.

These politicians come to us when they want votes but they disappear later
Hari Prasad Khaitan
But there were reports of some electronic voting machines breaking down.

Security was visibly tight with the borders of the district sealed.

Nearly 7,000 security personnel including paramilitary troopers were deployed across the constituency.

Checkpoints were set up by the police to keep a close eye on the proceedings, particularly after poll violence in Bihar in the earlier rounds of voting.

Police Sub-inspector SS Singh, posted at one of the polling stations, was calm.

"We are on alert and well-equipped to handle any incidents that take place," he said.

Left-wing rebels, active in this region, have called for a boycott of the polls.

A member of Shanti Pal, a local left-wing rebel group, told the BBC that the government had not done anything to improve the living conditions of the poor.

Unkept promises

The polls have also been boycotted in one part of Bhagalpur by residents who say no civic development has taken place there during the past five years.

Some say the story of Bhagalpur's vote is one of unemployment and tall promises made by candidates.

"There are many handloom weavers in this city who are unemployed after the government lifted restrictions on foreign goods," says Hari Prasad Khaitan, a local trader.

"These politicians come to us when they want votes but they disappear later," he adds.

Silk weaving is a big industry in Bhagalpur but many factories have closed down leaving weavers helpless.

They say they have no hope and this industry may die a slow death.

Their experience has made them bitter cynics.

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

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