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Why IAS officer-turned-BJP candidate in Raigarh is a talking point in Naxal hotbed Dantewada, 600 km away

Dantewada: IAS officer-turned-BJP leader OP Choudhary defies the norm in poll-bound Chhattisgarh. While most regional leaders are known only on their own turf, Choudhary has fans all the way in Dantewada— 600 km away from Raigarh, where he is contesting. Even more remarkable: Choudhary has never even won an election.

There’s a concrete reason for his popularity in the Maoist-affected district of Dantewada — the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Education City. This sprawling academic complex took shape during his tenure as the district magistrate of Dantewada between 2011 and 2013.

Located off National Highway 63, which slices through the red corridor linking Jagdalpur, Bastar’s major town, with Telangana, this 120-acre educational complex houses a polytechnic college, numerous schools (including one for children orphaned by Naxal violence), an auditorium, and a commercial building.

Many here credit Choudhary for driving the project as a young IAS officer. His work on educational initiatives also earned him the Prime Minister’s Excellence in Public Administration Award for 2011-12 under the UPA government.

Dantewada college
The polytechnic college building in the Dantewada education city complex | Photo: Sourav Roy Barman | ThePrint

However, Choudhary told ThePrint that he believed the complex had suffered neglect since 2018, when the Congress unseated the three-term BJP government in Chhattisgarh.

“They were not comfortable with the fact that my name remains so deeply associated with it,” he said, alleging that the incumbent Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government failed to develop the project further.

“I could sense some degree of political vendetta at play. But under public pressure, they were forced to course-correct and could not target it. Of course, there has been no value addition to the project over the last five years,” Choudhary said.

Asked about this, Congress spokesperson Sushil Anand Shukla alleged that Choudhary had “usurped the land of tribals” during his tenure as the Dantewada collector.

“He obtained the award from the Manmohan Singh government through falsehoods and faking his achievements. The Congress government also instituted inquiries against him after coming to power. He has obtained a stay in the case,” Shukla claimed.

Choudhary, however, dismissed these allegations as baseless.

A Chhattisgarh-cadre IAS officer of the 2005 batch, Choudhary put in his papers and joined the BJP in 2018. He was reportedly inducted into the party at the behest of former chief minister Raman Singh, amid speculation that he could be made a minister if the BJP won.

However, Choudhary lost to the Congress’s Umesh Patel by nearly 17,000 votes from the Kharsia assembly seat in Raigarh district. Overall, the BJP secured only 15 of the state’s 90 seats, while the Congress won 68.

Also Read: ‘Enormous asset for BJD’ — what’s next for star Odisha officer Pandian who quit IAS, got new role

‘Absence of education contributed to Naxalism’

In the under-served tribal Bastar-Dantewada region of Chhattisgarh, where Naxalism continues to raise its head, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Education City provides educational opportunities and a springboard for aspirational students.

Mukesh Thakur, the college’s principal, told ThePrint that the institute, with an annual intake capacity of 120, has maintained a 100 percent admission rate over the past five years. Additionally, students have secured employment with both private companies and regional PSUs. The polytechnic is funded by the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) under its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative.

Rajendra Kashyap, a third-year student of electrical engineering who comes from Dantewada’s Bacheli village said that the polytechnic had helped him broaden his horizons.

“After clearing the third year, I will take the JEE to pursue B Tech. I am the first person from my family to attend college. This college is the reason that I can even aspire to pursue an engineering degree,” Kashyap told ThePrint.

His batchmate Sandhya Tamo, from remote Bhairamgarh, is also a first-generation learner who grew up in the shadow of the Naxal conflict. “I like it here, away from the conflict. I have not decided my next career move but I will definitely continue to study,” she said.

Dantewada student
Sandhya Tamo, a third year student at the Dantewada polytechnic | Photo: Sourav Roy Burman | ThePrint

Bhubaneswar Prasad, a 2010-13 batch passout from the college, is currently employed as an assistant loco pilot with the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC).

“Even though Maoism was raging, we never felt scared inside the campus. The faculty helped us throughout,” he said.

Some graduates, like Vikas Kumar, have pursued careers in the security forces. A native of Dantewada, he joined the CRPF as a sepoy after completing his diploma in electrical engineering from the college in 2018.

OP Choudhary told ThePrint that one of the insights he gained as a young collector was that lack of education was one of the reasons why Naxalism made inroads in the region.

“If you consider West Bengal, unequal distribution of land and the oppression of zamindars paved the way for the Naxal uprising. In Bihar, caste discrimination played a role. In places such as Jammu and Kashmir and the North East, there were secessionist tendencies. None of those conditions existed in Bastar, where the poorest of adivasis tilled their own land,” he said. “Naxalism was imported here due to the fact that people were largely voiceless and there was an absence of education.”

Dantewada school
The school in Dantewada for children orphaned by Naxal violence | Photo: Sourav Roy Burman | ThePrint

Choudhary said that this understanding led him to devote his energies to educational initiatives.

“No OP Choudhary or Arundhati Roy or Jean Dreze can decide for the people of Bastar. Instead, we should educate and empower them to make their own decisions. I don’t bother if they choose left or right, but the decision-making should be their own,” he added.

However, according to Choudhary, the education city has not been allowed to reach its full potential.

“For instance, the BPO facility inside the complex has been shut,” Choudhary said.

Principal Thakur explained that an 18-month training module on programming languages was slated to replace the BPO operations that previously ran from a separate building on the campus. The biggest challenge, according to him, was to prevent dropouts, which he said stood at around 10 percent.

‘Kharsia was a tough seat’

In Dantewada, where Naxal ambushes have claimed the lives of security personnel as well as political leaders, the upcoming election will feature a contest between Congress’s Chavindra Karma and the BJP’s Chetaram Arami.

Chavindra is the son of the late Congress leader Mahendra Karma, the principal force behind the now outlawed counterinsurgency militia Salwa Judum. Mahendra was killed during a Naxal ambush on a convoy of Congress leaders in 2013. The BJP’s Bhima Mandavi, who had won the seat in 2018, was also killed in a similar Naxal attack in 2019.

Following Mandavi’s death, Mahendra Karma’s wife, Devaki Karma, won the bypoll. However, this time, she has made way for her son.

Meanwhile, in Raigarh, Choudhary said he was hopeful of posting a victory this time. He told ThePrint that Kharsia, where he lost in the last election, was “a very tough seat”.

“The BJP had never won that seat, not even after Emergency. I was almost aware that I would lose. The people of the constituency I am contesting from this time have embraced me. But in politics there are many factors at play and I am taking care of that also,” Choudhary said.

The Congress has fielded its current MLA, Prakash Naik, from Raigarh. On the day of Naik’s nomination, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, who accompanied him, took a dig at Choudhary, saying that the former civil servant might be forced to contest from “another seat next time”.

Choudhury, however, was unruffled.  “Whenever I get under (Baghel’s) skin, he makes such remarks. It is par for the course in politics,” he said. “But the perception that the Congress is set to return is bogus, I can assure you.”

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also Read: Roads, security camps & a bridge put Bastar villages on poll map. Maoists resist with pamphlets & bombs

Source: The Print

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