Shyam Saran Negi never failed in his democratic duty
Ain the video started, the snow was falling. He fell upon the orchards, the pine forests and the wooden houses of the village of Kalpa, high in the Himalayas. In one of these houses, an old man picked up his watch by his eyebrow beads and boiled a kettle on the stove for a glass of tea. He smiled as he stroked her. It was early morning on a certain day.
In front of the long mirror he put on his essential layers: sweater, jerkin, heavy woolen coat. Carefully, he placed a woolen cap over his ears. Even in summer, in Kalpa, he had to wear a lot of this. The weather had turned down and swept like an apple, but when he went out into the snow, staff in hand, his path was firm. His destination was the polling station.
Through the narrow paths, already moved over, he made his way. He climbed slippery steps with ice, where he had to hang on to the wall. But when he arrived at the town square and saw the long queues already forming, his face lit up with joy. People ran forward to greet him namaskar, put a white scarf around his neck and send him into the polling place. When he had dropped his ballot into the box and his indigo painted index finger, he successfully held it up for the camera to see.
The video was made in 2014, a general election year, for India’s #PledgeToVote campaign. It went viral, drawing three times as many views as one featuring a top actress, a glamorous model and a famous cricketer. The old man, Shyam Saran Negi, then 97 and well forgotten, became a household name. Because he was not only very old, but also the first person who ever voted in independent India. And since then he had not lost a single election, be it for Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament), state or district legislative assembly. panchayat. People, he always said, had a duty to exercise their franchise. The way to help India develop was to vote out the bad and vote in the best, and he would be happy to set the example.
He was not a very educated man, and he hardly left Kalpa in his life – living there, he said, like a frog in a well, happy with his work, in a good marriage and nine children. It took him until the age of 20 to pass the 9th Standard examination, and the classes he taught for 23 years at Kalpa Lower Middle School were at the junior primary level. But he was well informed, always listening to the news, alone in his room, holding his heavy transistor radio close to his ear. Kalpa was not completely out of the way of the world; It lay close to the border with Tibet, and therefore under the shadow of China. After India was humbled in the 1962 war the government built a proper border road, and encouraged commercial apple growing, to revitalize the region. He could also give it a boost, by promoting democracy. Back at his school after he retired he continued to guide the children, gathered in wonder around their bright blue uniforms, on how to make their voices count. When the Election Commission of India needed a brand ambassador to get young people to vote, he was the natural choice.
Being the first voter was a series of happy accidents. The first general election after the end of the British Raj was set for February-March 1952, but in Himachal, which was under snow for half the year, the poll was advanced to the end of October. It was a busy time of preparation, just before the Lavi fair in Rampur when hill people traded their dry fruits, cognac, apples and woolen goods for winter stocks of ghee and grains. That year the celebratory spirit spread to voting as well.
Mr. Negi was ready. He had no love for the British Raj and its bully henchmen. When he was drafted in to lead the election process, as he carefully said, he went in earnest, even though it meant taking the ballot boxes by mule to other towns in the mountains, Moorang, Purvani, Nesong, which he and his team took ten. days. His only concern was that he had to vote in Kalpa before he started; therefore he asked for permission to do so as early as possible, at 6.30 am, half an hour before the official opening time. This was his new day, and India. His pleasure at his newly blackened branch was so intense that he spent the next month, well beyond the call of duty, encouraging people throughout the area to do as he did. That pride never left him for the rest of his life.
Once he was famous, every political party hoped to claim him. They didn’t have much luck. In 1951 he had voted for Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress, which won in a landslide. He claimed that Lal Bahadur Shastri, who became prime minister for a short time in the mid-1960s, was his ideal leader, as he had improved food production. When the Congress got into a scandal and did not eradicate poverty it started to go towards the BJP, but protested strongly in 2019 when his name and photo were used without permission in their local publication. He had a good pension of 15,000 rupees a year (as a teacher, he had earned only 700 a month), but that did not endear him to the government of the day. He did not belong to any side. Too many politicians were wasting the precious time of Parliament by creating a rocket rather than holding serious debates. They should serve the public good by rooting out corruption, keeping prices down and, above all, educating girls. His Himachali cap-band was neither all green, for the Congress, nor all maroon, for the BJP. He would wear it as he liked and as was the fashion of the area.
After reaching 100 in 2017, his every appearance at the polling station was a celebration. A red carpet was laid, goatskin drums beat a dance and trumpets sounded; he was decorated with scarves, garlands and caps decorated with flowers. This was how he felt that voting should be a religious ritual, with the polling station as a temple and the ballot box as a shrine.
Election officials gently suggested this year that, at 105 and blind, with immobile legs and sore knees, he might prefer to cast his 34th vote, for the senate, at home . He was given a 12D form for postal voting, but he returned it; he would go to the polling station, as he always did. Finally, he was too ill on November 2nd to make that trip. But he did not neglect his duty; the ballot box, instead, was brought to him. ■