As the state gears up for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the Telangana police have been carrying out various awareness campaigns to fight fake news and social media rumours to ensure ethical means of voting. As violence during polls still remains a persistent issue in the rural strips of Telangana, the police officials of Mahbubnagar have gone a step ahead to ensure peace during polls.
Helming the effort is the district police chief Rema Rajeshwari, who along with her officials, has been conducting street plays across the district, creating awareness on the ill effects of votes-for-cash, and how villagers can ensure peace and curb the spread of fake news during polls.
“We have a police cultural troupe which has been working extensively to curb fake news. Depending on the prevailing social conditions, we thought why not use the folk team to spread the message of how money and liquor can disrupt peace and evoke violence among villagers living harmoniously. So we penned down a script along the same lines and in the past seven months, we have staged over 200 plays in different parts of the district,” Rema explains.
The play outlines the story of two brothers who are very hard-working, cultivate a piece of land and live together quite harmoniously. A political leader visits the house and offers one of the brothers a hefty amount and liquor.
“This causes a rift in the family as the brothers end up fighting and the younger one hits the elder sibling. He gets admitted in the hospital and the younger one gets charged with a case. He loses his respect in the village and the family is broken. Gang wars break out and the whole village is engaged in a fight,” Rema narrates, adding, “By the time the villagers realise their folly, it’s too late. Elections happen, the candidate wins and he goes about with his life. But the lives of the villagers are scarred as they keep doing the rounds at the police station and courts. So, the play is a short sneak-peek into how election violence can disrupt a peaceful community.”
The team not just performs plays, but also engages the crowd with songs, spreading social messages. Dressed in khaki pants and T-shirts with a red shawl tied around the waist, the core members of the team include constable Ramulu and four other home guards, who are organisers and actors in the play as well.
“We hired a woman artist, because we didn’t have anyone from the police team to play female roles, and she is also an aspiring police home guard. So it’s a six-member team,” says Rema.
Currently, Rema and her team are focusing on spreading awareness only at critical polling locations which are known to have a long history of election violence.
“According to the Election Commission guidelines, we have categorised different polling locations in the district according to the number of cases reported from each village. We have picked areas that have witnessed years of election violence, where political rivalry is prominent and areas affected by gang rivalries. We are just finishing our first round of performances, and if we still have time, we are planning to extend it to other villages too,” explains Rema.
The location and time of the plays are coordinated through the village chiefs and women's organisations. The station house officer (SHO) of the selected village is alerted in the morning about the performance, and s/he then goes to the village and conducts a community connect meeting.
“S/he calls the sarpanch, the village and community leaders, different Mahila Sanghams and requests them to attend the play in the evening. The play usually begins at 7 in the evening, the time when the villagers are back from their fields and can conveniently spend time watching the two-hour long performance. Last night at our play in Garlapahad village, around 500 people turned up, which is almost the entire population of the village,” the officer claims.
Gram Panchayat elections in the district are fought fiercely and Rema says that it’s during these polls that the maximum incidents of poll violence break out. The team began staging the plays long back in September, when Telangana was gearing up for the assembly elections.
According to the statistics provided by the Mahbubnagar police, during the 2009 and 2014 elections, a total of 13 cases of poll violence were reported from villages in Mahabubnagar. Devarakarda and Kolikanda villages witnessed the most number of cases.
“After collecting the data, our teams performed extensively around these villages and there has been a remarkable decrease in the cases reported during the 2018 assembly elections,” Rema adds.
According to the 2018 and 2019 data, Devarakadra and Kolikanda have witnessed only two minor cases of poll violence, registered under Section 324 of IPC (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means).
“The plays are also part of my ongoing experiment to use storytelling in law enforcement. I have realised that it’s a very effective tool for policing interventions in rural areas. We have had great success in reducing child marriages and averting jogini dedication to temples in the past using the tool,” Rema says. She goes on to add, “We began the practice of leveraging this ancient human tradition of storytelling to bridge the gap between cops and community. When we add humour to it, people get our message very clearly: Stay away from poll violence.”