Meghalaya voters defy shutdown, cast ballot

Last Updated: Sat, Feb 23, 2013 05:37 hrs

Shillong: Ballotting was peaceful Saturday morning across Meghalaya as people came out to vote despite a shutdown called by an outlawed group.

Over 1.5 million voters - about half the population of the state - are eligible to decide the fate of 345 candidates, including 25 women and 122 independents. The state will elect its 60-member ninth assembly.

The State Election Office said polling began at 7 a.m. and will be held till 4 p.m. Ballotting is taking place at 2,485 polling booths, out of which 842 have been termed hyper-sensitive.

"Polling is picking up slowly and over 11 percent voters have cast their votes so far across the state," Chief Electoral Officer Prashant Naik told IANS.

The Border Security Force (BSF) has stepped up patrolling along the India-Bangladesh border in Meghalaya following the shutdown called by the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC).

"We have put our troopers on high alert all along the Bangladesh border to prevent possible infiltration of HNLC rebels into Meghalaya to disrupt the elections," BSF spokesman Ravi Gandhi said.

The HNLC, which runs hit-and-run operations from its hideout in Bangladesh, has been demanding a sovereign Khasi homeland in eastern Meghalaya.

In the 60-member assembly, the ruling Congress has fielded candidates in all constituencies followed by the United Democratic Party (UDP) in 50 seats.

The Purno Sangma-led Nationalist People's Party (NPP) has 32 candidates while the Nationalist Congress Party will contest in 21 seats.

Smaller parties like the Hill State People's Democratic Party have fielded 17 candidates.

Former chief minister and United Democratic Party Chief Donkupar Roy cast his ballot at around 7.30 a.m. at the polling booth in Disong in Shella constituency.

"I am confident that the UDP will gain more seats in this election and we are confident to oust the Congress party from power," Roy told IANS after casting his vote.

Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, besides three of his predecessors -- Salseng C. Marak, D.D. Lapang and Donkupar Roy -- are among those whose fate would be sealed Saturday.

Others include opposition leader Conrad K. Sangma, Home Minister H.D.R. Lyngdoh and former Rajya Sabha member Thomas Sangma.

The 2013 polls will be held in the newly formed constituencies where 16 outgoing legislators are pitted against each other.

Ninety-one companies of paramilitary troopers have been deployed across Meghalaya.

Twenty-nine of these paramilitary forces would be deployed in insurgency-ravaged districts in Western part of Meghalaya, apart from those already conducting counter-insurgency operations in the troubled districts of the region.

Authorities are not taking any chances following the 36-hour shutdown call from 6 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Sunday (Feb 24) to boycott the assembly elections in the entire Hynniewtrep region (eastern Meghalaya).

Meghalaya shares a 443 km-border with Bangladesh, part of which is porous, hilly and unfenced and prone to frequent infiltration.

"The government will ensure that everyone casts the ballot in a free, fair and secure environment," Principal Secretary Home K.S. Kropha said.

Counting of votes will take place Feb 28.

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