Habib Khan: Woman of the Book

Illustration by despardes.com

I had traveled to Dalbandin which is some 200 km west of Noshkay, in December of 1970, when I was still in Grade 10, and the National Assembly elections had already taken place but the provincial assembly one’s were still a week away.

Many voters in the National Assembly polling had not been able to cast their vote properly either because they were not trained enough to cast their vote or their name could not be identified in the voters’ list and were sent back.

So me and few other students were given a room in Dalbandin with the voters’ lists of the region and our duty was to copy the name and number of each voter on a piece of paper and compile them polling station wise. which were then to be distributed among the polling stations spread from Dalbandin to Taftan some 300 km further west.

We would work all day in that one room and had three free meals in an adjacent hotel starting with siah cha (Black tea) with bread and then lunch and dinner mostly of unpeeled potatoes; further we could have as many teas as we wanted during the day.

While writing the names, some of them intrigued us as none of us had heard them before and some we pronounced incorrectly and later laughed at our own incompetence. One example that I still remember, Shahji Ashraf dictated me a name and said (or ordered), write “Bilo Mil”. What name is that?”, I commented, until Shabir Ahmad (who later became MP himself in the 2002 elections) corrected us with sarcastic laughs “Baloo Mal” man “Baloo Mal”.

The people may have been illiterate ignorant or untrained but at least the system was civilized and the Hindu and Muslim voters had names in the same voters list and voted for the same candidates.

Many discrepancies still happened in the PA elections but nothing could have matched something that had happened in one of the remote polling stations where an old lady had come with the intention of putting her stamp on the “book” (a election symbol).

No one had told the poor woman that there would be a ballot paper with many symbols and that you will select the book out of those symbols and put your stamp on that symbol.

She was just told to stamp on the book, so she was looking for an actual book and put the stamp on it. She did not find any book in the polling booth, but since the polling station was located in a school, she noticed an old register placed high on the ventilator sill in the polling booth.

“That must be the book”, she thought, and swung a chair over a table to reach for it–that voting for the book would eventually take her to jannat (heaven) they were told–but she ended up in the hospital, as the chair slipped or gave way under her weight, and she fell on the floor, unconscious, with a serious head injury.

We could not learn about the fate of the lady though her candidate remained where he was, as we proceeded toward Noshkay sitting on top of a truck in a victory procession.

–by Habib Khan, Quetta