ELECTIONS '97 IN THE SOUTHERN DISTRICTS OF N-WFP
2nd. February 1997.
It was a wet and dreary day when the plane carrying me to Dera Ismail Khan took off from Peshawar airport. Elections (on 3rd. February) beckoned. Many of my relatives were standing from various National and Provincial constituencies, and experienced and reliable polling agents were in great demand.
Many Southern District constituencies have privately disenfranchised women; but my aunt, Kulsum Saifullah, has been working in Ghazni Khel for the last 26 years. Being a social worker since her early days, she had made women aware of this right, and had enough clout to override any reservations the men might have. So it was GhazniKhel where I was heading to, to be Humayun Saifullah's polling agent. Humayun was standing from PF 61 and PF57; Saleem from PF62 and Anwar from NA20.
Waiting for the plane to take off I had thought of how, as children, we used to argue fiercely about the merits of Khattak Vs Marwat. The Saifullah brothers still have not won the argument. It is a Khattak, their mother, who is the architect of their success, although she would prefer to give them the whole credit. Humayun, six months elder to me, was my childhood playmate and favourite cousin. He is a warm, nurturing person who can be called a 'good' person in every sense of the word, without any reservations. I remembered he always loved a good argument; enough to argue both sides if faced with an indifferent opponent. I remembered how Anwar's droll humour and his flair for mimicry used to have us in stitches. Saleem, three years younger to me, used to be a skinny, naughty child with an infectious laugh, and had to be cajoled for every morsel he ate.
Humayun's daughter, Hoor was accompanying me to GhazniKhel. It was drizzling when we took off, but we soon flew out of the bad weather. The view was breathtaking. Layers upon layers of snow-capped mountains, ringed with clouds, rose to the right. We soon ran into thick clouds again, but, in the distance some mighty mountain reared their heads still higher, and held my interest in the otherwise blank view.
Soon the terrain changed again. Now there were rough, creased bare mountains below. I asked the hostess about them. She said the slate-grey-bare ridges were the hills of Bannu. Then the hills ended abruptly, and we were flying above the wide, flat expanse of the green plains of Bannu. The desert of Dera Ismail Khel was visible in the distance, and still further were more towering peaks. As the plane gradually lost altitude, we were buffeted and enveloped by more clouds. Tipping to the right we over flew the green fields that surround DIK proper, and began our descent.
A car was awaiting us and we set off. We were soon driving past the Lucky Cement Factory and Pezu Bazaar. There was no electioneering in progress. Although the bazaar was crowded, not a single woman was in sight. The cement-leaching Pezu hills were bare of trees, just brush, rocks and sand. The landscape kept changing, each with a charm of its own as it was so different from what I had been used to. Now it was flat, dotted with 'Keekar' and 'Guzz' trees with 'Channa' and Wheat fields beyond. Then we drove past ShahbazKhel and TatarKhel and I wondered whether the descendants of Tartars were settled there.
Finally we arrived at GhazniKhel.This is when the driver chirruped up and asked where he was to take us. This posed a problem as we did not have a clue. Finally he decided to stop at the GhazniKhel District Council Rest-house and ask someone where 'Ma'mmy' could be found. Kulsum Saifullah is 'Ma'mmy' to all the Marwats. Without a second thought a man hopped into the car and took us to the Saifullah's house in GhazniKhel. This was a simple village house, with a brick paved courtyard, two bedrooms leading off the polished verandah and a very basic kitchen. An outhouse and a 'baithak or hujra' (men's quarter) made up the rest of the house. The piles of mattresses in a corner of the verandah bespoke of many over night guests. A diesel generator and the satellite dish on the roof showed that all the comforts of modern technology were not completely dispensed with. A boy was halfheartedly chopping firewood in a corner of the courtyard. We were greeted by a bevy of waiting village women in their sunday best, (gota, kinari, the works!). Each wanted to shake the hand of "Mayun" (as Humayun is called in the village) Khan's sister and daughter and asked the usual questions of how many children we had. One old lady wondered how long it must have taken us to arrive from far away Peshawar while another showed off her worldly knowledge and said we must have flown in an airplane, which was fast. Ofcourse, politics was seriously discussed too!
They seemed amused by Imran's confession that he had no money to arrange transport for his voters. They were not impressed by the connotations of his confession. They were offended. One woman told us that he had collected a whole lot of money for his hospital and had married a rich woman and yet would not part with any for the comfort of his voters! While I had been chatting with the women, Hoor had been on the phone. She found that her grandmother was in Bannu. Getting away was a little tricky as half the women wanted to come with us. They were carrying slips of paper with 'sifarish'.
We draped ourselves in our 3 yards long chaddors and covered our noses before stepping into the car. Yes, here it is not enough that you are modestly dressed and wrapped in a chaddor; only the eyes are supposed to be visible if you want to be taken for a respectable woman.
The road from GhazniKhel to Bannu is straight as an arrow. We passed brassica fields beyond Tajazai (do descendants of Tajiks live here?). Children playing cricket in the villages that seemed to merge into the earth-toned landscape, make it all seem so familiar ... yet so very different. The number of petrol pumps made me think that Anwar must not have had anything else to do as Petroleum Minister, except give his constituents petrol pump licenses!
Next came Gambela with masses of Sohan Halwa in every shop. Every petrol pump we passed had queues of "datsuns" as they are indiscriminately called, waiting to be filled up for D-day tomorrow. Then came Sarai Naurang, where Anwar had his base camp. It is a large hodge-podge, higgledy-piggledy market town. Tongas, buses, "datsuns", cars, donkey carts, rehras, people and yet more people wandered around all over. The mud and mire add to its unattractive look.
I was fascinated by all I saw, but Hoor concentrated on her worry beads. Once away from population, I quickly pulled down the chaddor from my nose, it was suffocating. Our guide insisted on giving us messages for "Mayun Khan". It is always like this in an election. Each person proves his loyalty by whispering of the treachery of another; enough to make one feel paranoid and friendless. We finally arrived in Bannu, famous for its masala and 'naswar'. There was more mud, more 'datsun', suzuki, tongas and the everpresent sea of male humanity.
Armed men crowded the gate of the Bannu house. This is necessary in trigger-happy Bannu. Heads bent, noses covered, we hurried into the 'zenana'. The place was awash with women and girls. After freshening up I went to the durree-covered backyard where groups of women were sunning themselves and chattering incessantly. There was a lot of talk about Kabir Khan, Anwar's opponent, who had opened his coffers after the Supreme Court ruling. The gossip was that he had gone from door-to-door dishing out 1000 Rs. notes to everyone, in exchange of a promise to vote for him.
Meanwhile, groups of girls were being called up, polling station by polling station. Aunty Kulsum, newspaper in hand, tested their reading and writing ability. Many were found wanting and sent off with a flea in their ear. I do not know how anyone could make themselves understood above the din of the loud babbling voices in the open-air backyard! I finally beat a hasty retreat from the cacophony to the comparative peace of the bedroom I was to share with two other cousins.
An SOS came from the person incharge of vehicles. The Commissioner Kohat, to deploy the soldiers the next day had requisitioned One hundred and twenty-five coasters. That they had been paid for by the Saifullahs was conveniently ignored. Aunty Kulsum was up half the night trying to get her vehicles back, but no amount of arguments and cajolery worked.
We were each posted to stations that were expected to be troublesome, and began working out an election strategy, then finally turned in. We had to get up at 4:00 A.M to reach our stations in time for polling, which was to begin at 7:00A.M. Then the bedroom door creaked open and someone said "Heloo". Humayun was silhouetted in the doorway. Screaming with delight I jumped out of bed. A round of hugging and kissing took place (we are a very expressive family), and then he told us about his campaign and what we were to expect the next day. Humayun asked which station I was going to be at. MinaKhel, I told him. I knew my citified ways were no match for the bristling, crude vulgarity that village women are capable of. I was not looking forward to it. Humayun comforted me, saying he would be in Lakki Marwat and all I had to do was call for help. Then Anwar turned up. After another bout of hugging, kissing and squealing, he soon had us in stitches, relating tales of Irfanullah Marwat, mimicking him to a 'T'. Presumably, Irfan had been going along the campaign trail, with a drummer and dancing boys. His trump card at every meeting was when he proudly announced to his bemused constituents that he had earned an M.A degree in 'Badmashi' in Karachi. I for one, believed his boast!
D-Day 3rd. February 1997.
The alarm went off. I tried ignoring it. Finally Hasina turned it off. Sehri was taken in silence. I had a knot in my stomach. Tension was high. Finally, wrapping myself in my chaddor (not forgetting the nose) and pinning on my badge, I was ready to face ELECTION '97. Outside, the vehicles were starting off on their job of collecting the voters for polling. The day was just beginning to dawn when Samina and I set off at 6:15. By then all the vehicles had left and the place was eerily quiet. Samina (Anwer's wife) was to go to her father's village, IsmailKhel. We turned off the Bannu/Lakki road on to the winding road to IsmailKhel. All the roads here were surprisingly good, or not so surprising, since they led to the ex-presidents village. The Saifullah brothers had put their years in Government to good use. The quiet village seemed fast asleep, although Inamullah Khan's household (our destination) was humming with activity.The sun was now rising over the towering date palms and the brassica fields.
The coaster driver was from Peshawar and did not know the way to MinaKhel, so an unwashed young man in a khaki chaddor was sent with me as a guide. It seems all the men here wear khaki chaddors. I am not quite sure whether that was the original colour.
By now 'datsuns', Suzuki's and coasters, flying the flags of various parties, were driving up to be loaded with their precious cargo of voters. I was getting edgy. Voting must have already started. We passed through Sarai Naurang, where the debris of yesterday still made the sleeping marketplace look untidy. Then we ran into a heavy mist. Sitting knee-to-jowl I was sure the coaster owner had picked up a few tips from the PIA. He had added as many rows of seats as was humanly possible, without making his passengers sit atop one another.
By the time we reached TajaZai the sun was piercing the clouds and we picked up speed. Deciding not to waste any more time I asked the driver to take me to Humayun's Lakki Marwat office. Here I met Neelo who looked harassed. She was glad to see me as she had discovered by accident, that two new polling stations had been set up overnight, and she had no one to staff them. Shifting to her car it still took us half an hour before we could leave, as she kept calling out instructions about gathering up girls for polling duty.
I arrived at Government School No. 2. Neither Anwar nor Humayun had an agent in the station. Of the ten contestants, only four had known of the new station. They were said to enjoy official patronage. There were ten of us in the station. Two returning officers and two assistant presiding officers, and six polling agents. One agent from Khalid Lateef's camp seemed on very friendly terms with the lady officers and my Paranoia was beginning to raise its head again. I felt like such an outsider. Luckily I had arrived when the third vote was being polled and I got down to business right away. One lady was carrying on a long conversation with the returning officer about where to affix the stamp. I objected. The other agents jumped to her support. It took almost fifteen minutes before Havaldar A.Razzaq Chowdrey, of the 21st. FF brought everything under control. He had been given the unenviable task of keeping the peace in a women's polling station. I must say his behaviour that day raised my flagging trust in the armed forces.
Neelo turned up with a local girl to help me. The lady officers recognized her and I felt a little better. Irfanullah Marwat's agents came without voter's lists. They hung around for a few minutes and then left. We never saw them again. Next the mother of an assistant presiding officer came. She asked us all whether we had any objections to her stamping the ballot paper for her mother. We did not .So she went ahead and polled the vote for her mom.
Since there was nothing to do, we all began to chat. I asked Kabir Khan's agent/relative whether it was true that he had spent crores in this election. She proudly informed us that he had kept 20 lakhs in each village as surety for the development work he had promised during his campaign. Private money for public works? This was a new one on me!
Only five votes polled so far. At this rate, with an average of one vote every thirty minutes, we could expect only eighteen votes to be polled during the nine hours from 7:00 A.M to 4:00 P.M.
A young girl came to vote. It happened that I checked up her age and found that she was forty-three. This I did not believe! I told her that I was going to challenge her vote and she would go to prison if she was polling a bogus vote. She ran out of the room. The presiding officer, Mr. Abdus Samad brought her back and said she could poll her vote and he would guarantee nothing happened to her. He tried to discourage me from challenging her vote. That is when I pulled out my press card and pinned it to my chest. He then objected to my being a polling agent and wanted to have me thrown out. But that was easier said than done. I browbeat the poor man in fluent english and he retreated.
Voters were now arriving in twos and threes, but they were mostly the opponent's voters. Two women went behind the curtained partition where they were to stamp the ballot papers. I raised a hue and cry and was accused of intimidating the voters. Then came another bogus voter. The ID card gave her age as twenty years younger than what the voter's list said. I refused to allow her to poll her vote which really made the presiding officer (Abdus Samad) very angry. After another hot exchange with him I threatened to send for Humayun. Abdus Samad called the Additional Session Judge Subhan Sher. In very bad english, Mr. Subhan Sher said it made no difference what the voter's list said and I had no right to object. When I continued to argue, he became nasty and rude, I returned the compliment, but, might is right. So according to the ruling of the learned judge, the information in the voter's list was disregarded. I found this most disturbing and he could not give me a satisfactory reply as to the function of the information on the voter's list if it was to be disregarded with impunity. This is when I began to challenge all voters who had discrepant information on their ID cards and the voter's list. The presiding officer was most displeased with me!
In all this hullabaloo one woman walked off with the stamp. After searching high and low, it was found in the shrubs. It had barely been recovered when another was caught at the door, walking off with anther stamp, she gave it up amidst peals of laughter. The Havaldar was most amused, he kept his good humour all along.
By now I had been challenging every suspect vote and was running out of change (2 Rs. per challenge). The sister-in-law of Mr. Khalid Lateef, was also very, very angry with me. She came charging up to my table and said,
" What is your name? I will report you to Begum Kulsum Saifullah for being a nuisance."
"Zeenath" I shot back at her. That is when her polling agent told her that I was infact, Kulsum's niece. She kept her distance after that.
I was hungry and thirsty from all the arguments. Three long hours to go, and the minutes were barely crawling by.
I halted the voting since two of the Returning Officers had gone off for ablutions and prayers. I told the young sipahi not to allow any voters in until the staff had returned. While waiting for the staff, we began chatting. One woman loudly asked herself whether Kabir's womenfolk had any conception about the voting process. This raised a loud chuckle. Then another told us of how his mother was found busy praying for the success of all the candidates. She was finally convinced that if they won her son would surely lose.
Voting restarted after everyone had suitably purified themselves. This is when we had our biggest 'tamasha' .One woman became enraged when I challenged the suspect voters she was ferrying in. Knowing I was an outsider, she pretended to belong to Humayun's camp. She did not realize that I had remembered her from when she had come to poll her vote and announced to all and sundry that she was voting for the 'book'. I ignored her. She then pointedly began to pray that the government of the 'angraiz' does not return. I was later told that she was calling Humayun an angraiz as an epithet. I continued to ignore her, as I could not really understand the Marwat dialect. My equanimity must have ired her, as she came up to my table waving her hand under my nose. I am glad the Havaldar heard the noise and came in before I lost my patience with her. He tried removing her politely, but did not succeed. He was firm, with even less success. She included his belt, and my reading glasses in something curses that I could not understand. He finally succeeded in removing the lady who was still frothing at the mouth.
Another lull in polling led to another round of gossip. The girls repeated, with gales of laughter Irfan's claim to an M.A degree in 'Badmashi'. They said he claimed to know more about badmashi since he had been a successful badmash in a place like Karachi. This is when I was told that the woman who had created the scene a few minutes ago was the wife of Amir Nawaz, a candidate for NA 20.
Only eighty-three votes polled so far. The Assistant Presiding Officers seemed to be impressed by my (common-sensical) knowledge of the rules. During a long lull in polling they asked my permission to go out in the sun until the voters came. I magnanimously allowed them to do so.
They could not stay out long. Amir Nawaz's daughter-in-law, Shahana, now took her mother-in-law's place in ferrying bogus voters. I was busy writing when I noticed the Returning Officer point to me, while talking to her. I joined them at the table. Just in the nick of time it seems. Shahana was on the point of stamping the ballot paper of the women she had brought in. Flinty eyed, she turned to me. If looks could kill, I would be dead. Reading her body language I knew that she was on the verge of attacking me physically, so I judiciously kept the Returning Officer between us.
The 91st voter entered and we almost clapped. While leaving she prayed that we should all 'pass'. The girls said we all could not 'pass'. So she satisfied herself by praying that whosoever won, we should all be happy.
Only half an hour to go. The Havaldar came in and asked if he could allow the voters into the station as he planned to lock the main gate at four O'clock sharp. I slipped into my role of GrandMaster and grandly gave him permission.
We crossed the 100 mark with a rush as a group of six women entered together.
There were no female voters within the precincts of the station. The Presiding Officer came in and declared voting closed. He took our signatures on a blank piece of paper. Now counting of the ballot papers would start in the presence of the polling agents. At least that is what usually happens. Not this time though. Open-mouthed I watched as the ballot boxes were carried away. I protested. I kept protesting the disappearance of the ballot boxes and only agreed to leave when the good natured Havaldar told me that that was that, and I had to leave.
There was no vehicle available. The lady whom Auntie Kulsum had told to make sure I reach home safely took charge and we walked off to Neelo's polling station. Neelo put me in a car and I was set off home. Iftari caught us in the middle of nowhere, but Neelo's driver was an enterprising man. He had been carrying flattened, cold pikoras for just such an eventuality. He shared them with me. I was literally starving, and they were the tastiest pikoras I have ever eaten!
One great disappointment of election 97 was that they followed Zia-ul-haq's policy of presenting the complete result. The announcement of progressive results not only adds to the interest and excitement, but also is more believable. Now came the nailbiting wait for results from the polling stations. One moment we were leading, the next we fell behind. Only Anwar's results were satisfying. He had a good lead over his nearest rival Kabir. Then suddenly the results from Anwar's polling stations stopped coming in. Humayun and Saleem's results came tumbling in and by midnight we knew they had won. If there were any doubts the wild firing outside the house convinced us.
4th. February 1997
We left for GhazniKhel early next morning. Groups from various villages in the three Saifullah constituencies were converging on GhazniKhel. Now was the time for celebration. Although Anwar had not won, there was little doubt in everyone's mind as to the cause. The grounds outside the walls of GhazniKhel were covered with tents. The women went to the house. Each band was led by drummers and heralded its arrival with loud gunfire. Then began the dancing; head bent, flailing arms, they took tiny steps to the right and left while we clapped them on.
Although the victory celebration is the best part of the whole election I had to leave, it was time for me to catch my flight.
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