Class IV student Biswanath Singh huddled through electoral rolls under a tree near a Burijhor primary school, where residents waited in queues to vote. Chiranjit Singh, a class V student, helped him as the two worked for independent candidate Jaleshwar Singh.
A group of five children huddled with a voters list and a bag of sweets about 40 kilometres away in Boro near the Jhargram-Purulia border. One of them, Nitish Kubhakar is the son of Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate, Amar Krishna Kumbhakar. The 16-year-old, who took his secondary examination this year, was in charge of refreshments for voters along with much younger children.
Children were seen working at a number of polling booths in Jhargram, Lalgarh and surrounding areas. They manned camps outside polling stations, gave voters slips and served refreshments. Little violence was reported from Jhargram and adjoining areas unlike most parts of West Bengal. Some political leaders credited involvement of children as political workers for this.
“I am counting who voted and who is left. Those, who have… voted, we have ticked their names on the list. This is hectic work,” Chiranjit told The Indian Express.
Jaleshwar likened elections to festivities and said everyone participates in them. “It is a holiday today. So some children may have come to join their parents or locals who are our supporters. There is nothing wrong with it and almost all candidates are doing it.”
A Trinamool leader in Lalgarh said some independent candidates were using children to prevent attacks along with political parties in areas where they are weak. “In case camps are attacked and children get hurt, it will turn voters against the attackers and anyone backing them. This is my opinion. Who knows? Maybe that is why there was not much violence in these parts…,” he said on the condition of anonymity.
Pradip Kumbhakar, a class IX student and resident of Nekra, said he offered sweet packets to voters. “I have been specifically told not to give more than one packet each to our genuine voters.”
Bhaskar Kumbhakar, a grandson of a panchayat candidate, said children were helping them.
Children mainly worked for independent tribal candidates in Bokdubi and Burijhor Kankarjhor. In places like Dharampur and Kantapahari, they worked for political parties. In some areas, they were running errands for political workers.
The TMC and BJP blamed each other for using children. “I will look into it. It is definitely wrong to use children. If our candidates have done so, it is wrong. But as far as I know, the BJP is using children since they do not have workers here. They are trying to hide behind children,” said TMC’s Lalgarh block president Bonobihari Roy.
BJP’s Sukhomoy Satpathi targetted the TMC. “They know people will resist their violence and therefore are using children in their camps. On one hand, they are trying to rig the polls at some booths and on the other keeping children in their camps fearing retaliation.”