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523 lions and one voter live in Gir forest. This is how he casts his ballot

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Civic duty accomplished.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Banej, GujaratPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are lions in India. At least 523 of them, according to the 2015 census, though unofficial counts put the number north of 600.

Unlike their more glamorous tiger cousins, who live across the country in natural reserves, the Asiatic lions are all concentrated in one location: Gir forest, a large savannah-like setting in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. They live there, protected by wildlife laws and hopefully multiplying, with hundreds of leopards—which are far more ferocious, and dangerous to humans—and a much rarer species: A lone specimen of Indian election voter.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
A female Asiatic lion in Gir forest.

With the exception of monsoon season, the Gir landscape would be more akin to a desert, if it weren’t for the plants that somehow grow here. The trees that emerge from the powdery ground are mostly bare, precariously holding onto a few dusty leaves, their trunks and branches bent in knotty shapes. They can be so light in color that they look like sculpted marble.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Peacocks don’t do camouflage.

Temperatures reach above 110°F (43°C), and it does not rain for months, turning everything the color of sand. Indigenous lions, leopards, deer, jackals, and blackbucks have an easy time blending into the camouflage. Carelessly vain, only the peacocks stand out, like mirages amid the monotony.

Nested 35 km (about 22 miles) inside the forest, more than a two-hour drive through very bumpy roads and relatively far from where the lions like to spend their time, stands Banej. By a small stream from which emerge the bulging eyes of crocodiles, a modest temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is the home of Guru Baharatdas Darshandas, a 68-year-old monk originally from Pali, Rajastan, who acts as its caretaker.

Darshandas lives there, and can usually be found sitting in a room decorated by old photographs (including one of his meeting with Narendra Modi in a nearby location) and religious paraphernalia, all washed out by the harsh Gujarati sun. He is not lonely. The universal rule of religious pilgrimages applies here: No matter how remote a holy place may be, busloads of devotees will show up. About 100 per day do so, according to Anil Solanki, the forest patrol officer for the area,. The numbers grow to more than over 1,000 for festivals.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Guru Baharatdas Darshandas sits in his room in Banej; details from the wall.

Every election cycle since Dashandas moved to Banej, there is a very different pilgrimage to Banej—one that ends just a few hundred meters from the temple. It’s a mission to perform the fundamental ritual for the secular deity of democracy. For two days, a team turns the local forest department building into a polling booth, for the law demands that every citizen of India be given a voting location within two kilometers of their home. The booth cannot be set up in a religious or private building.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
The Shiva temple in Banej.

Darshandas votes every time. The Banej polling place, which falls under the Junagadh constituency, has a 100% turnout.

1 man + 1 vote = 8 workers

Like all of Gujarat, Banej went to the polls during the third phase of the Lok Sabha elections, on April 23. The journey of the polling-booth staff started a day before in Una, a town about 65 km away. There, a dispatching center serving 278 booths around the area was set in the Shah HD high school for three days. All the machines, equipment, and staff were gathered there before they were sent to out to polling stations. They gathered there again after the voting, before being transported to the district collector’s building.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Shah HD high school, in Una, Guajarat.

On the morning of April 22, the day before the election, election staffers met in the high school. To minimize the risk of election fraud, none of them knows where they will be posted until then. Election officers assigned to Banej had no clue they’d end up there and didn’t necessarily come prepared for the adventure.

Mahendra K Prajapati, the deputy collector for the Una subdivision of Gir Somnath’s district, is in charge of ensuring everything goes according to the election commission’s directions. Hailing from Ahmedabad, he was assigned to Una in 2016. This is the first Lok Sabha election he oversees here.

He was in charge of the team of eight that went to set up the booth in Banej and conducted the voting operation for Darshandas. The law requires at least six people—a presiding officer, a first polling officer, a female polling officer, a laborer (whose official title is “peon”), and two police officers, of whom one must be female—to cast even just one vote. In Banej, two more people helped the team.

Your polling booth helpers

Here’s a look at the team that made sure Darshandas—and therefore Banej—was able to vote.

Mahendra K Prajapati | District collector

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Mahendra K Prajapati inside Shah HD high school, Una.

Responsibilities Coordinating voting for the entire Una district

Profession Subdivisional magistrate

Home base Una, Gujarat (40 km southeast of Banej)

Has ever been to Banej? Once, to check on the facilities and make arrangement for the booth to be set up

Thoughts about the polling place in Banej The lone voting booth is just one of nearly 300 he has a duty to supervise. Very matter of factly, he says it is the election commission’s mandate to meet each voter, even when he is a solitary monk living in the forest.

Did he cast a vote this election? Yes, on April 23

Damudra Kishore Kumar | Presiding officer

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Damudra Kishore Kumar, presiding officer of Banej.

Responsibilities Presiding over the operation in Banej, including setting up the booth, sharing responsibility among personnel, handling the voting record

Profession Head teacher

Home base Kodinar, Gujarat (61 km southwest of Banej)

Had ever been to Banej? Has visited with his family

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej Thinks it’s important to ensure that each vote is cast. “I enjoy it also,” he adds, “all this attention.”

Did he cast a vote this election? Yes, on April 12, via post

Chauhan Manjibhai | First polling officer

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Chauhan Manjibhai, first polling officer of Banej.

Responsibilities Assisting presiding officer, marking the voter’s finger with indelible ink so he doesn’t vote twice

Profession: Municipal corporation office clerk

Home base: Kodinar, Gujarat (61 km southeast of Banej)

Had ever been to Banej? No

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej: Not happy to be there. The journey is too long and the eating and sleeping arrangements aren’t good.

Did he cast a vote this election? Yes, on April 12, via post

Sarita Patel | Female polling officer

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Sarita Patel, female polling officer, Una.

Responsibilities Checking the voter’s ID against the voter roll

Profession: Primary school teacher

Home base: Una, Gujarat (40 km southeast of Banej)

Had ever been to Banej? No

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej: “It’s good,” says Patel, though she later joins Majibhai’s complaints about the length of the journey and the amount of work demanded from officers.

Did she cast a vote this election? No

Vadher Mansingh | Peon

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Vadher Mansingh, peon of Banej polling booth

Responsibilities Support of the booth setup and operations

Profession: Canteen worker in a primary school

Home base: Amodra, Gujarat (47 km southeast of Banej)

Had ever been to Banej? No

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej: It’s a long way to travel but a worthwhile mission.

Did he cast a vote this election? Yes, on April 12, via post

Manisha Dhabi and Vishal Solanki | Police officers

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Vishal Solanki (left) and Manisha Dhabi.

Responsibilities: Maintaining order in and around the booth, protect the machines and equipment from any tampering

Home base Gir Forest

Had ever been to Banej? They are posted to Gir, and were only assigned to Banej for the two-day voting duty

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej It’s nice that it gets set up, says Solanki, and he is happy to be part of it.

Did they cast a vote this election? Neither would disclose

Rupala Chimanlal | Booth-level officer

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Rupala Chimanlal outside the Banej polling booth.

Name: Rupala Chimanlal

Role in the election: Maintaining the voter list (of one) for Banej, keeping the voter informed of balloting rights, election dates, poll location

Profession Primary school teacher

Home base Gir Gadhdha, Gujarat (23 km south of Banej)

Had ever been to Banej? Several times for election roll upkeep

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej: As the only person in the team to be involved with the Banej voting booth beyond this election, he is honored to be a part of making democracy happen, all the way into the jungle. “It takes so many people: the polling officers, the security force,” he says, “it doesn’t matter if it’s one vote, or a thousand.”

Did he cast a vote this election? Yes, on April 12, via post

Anil Solanki | Forest patrol officer

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Anil Solanki, forest patrol officer at Banej

Responsibilities Logistical and security support

Home base: Banej

Had ever been to Banej? He is stationed here

Thoughts about the polling booth in Banej: He disagrees with the voter’s choice of party, but thinks in a democracy it’s good that the booth is set up. “It shows the importance of one vote,” he says.

Did he cast a vote this election? Yes, via post ballot, but doesn’t remember the day

A pop-up booth in the jungle

With the exception of the female police officer, the forest patrol officer, and the female booth officer, everyone else left Una around 11:30am on April 22 carrying all the equipment necessary to set up a polling station, including:

  • one electronic voting machine
  • one battery pack
  • one control unit
  • several registers
  • a stamp with the booth number to seal the envelopes containing the ballots and other documents
  • indelible ink to mark the voter’s finger
  • instruction posters explaining how to vote and the acceptable IDs to do so
Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
The booth’s seal; indelible ink; the voting roll of Banej (with one voter)

Everything was set up by 5pm—complete with garlands and posters. It is required, Prajapati said, that the booth be ready by sunset, for safety reasons. While the police officers guarded the polling booth, its staff was set to spend the remainder of the day chatting in the shade—the temperature was still well above 100°F (39 C) late into the afternoon. Dinner was kindly provided by guru’s maid (a woman registered to vote in Bombay, who therefore does not belong to Banej’s roll). She also took care of lunch on voting day. The night’s sleep was in the forest patrol building, with some risk of snake visits.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
All is ready.

Polling officer Patel didn’t join her colleagues until early the next day. The team didn’t feel comfortable having a woman sleeping in a shared accommodation.

The voting day

Early on the morning of April 23, with Patel in the house, a few flowers spread out in traditional swastika shapes outside the booth’s threshold, another game of waiting began.

Darshandas likes to vote in the mid-morning, around 10am, and the staff knows it. Yet the booth has to stay open the whole day, just as if it were serving a long line of voters in the middle of a busy city. “As per the election commission rules,” Kumar says, “we have to stay here 7am to 6pm.”

Photo courtesy of Gujarat EC
Guru Baharatdas Darshandas arrives at the voting booth.

The very existence of the poll in Banej is like an “Incredible India” advertisement for democracy. Stories about Darshandas, a staple in the local press, have also been published in large international outlets. Darshandas has grown used to the attention. He walks in with his sunglasses and poses for the many cameras, conducting TV interviews and dishing out confident, articulate answers about the importance of every single vote.

The election results of each voting booth are publicly available in India, so his vote will not exactly be secret, nor is  Darshandas private about his political leaning. “Modi sarkar,” (Modi government), he replies when asked who he supports. “[He] is a good man who does work for others, not himself,” he adds, his robe matching the saffron color favored by the nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Re-enacting the closing of the polls, in advance.

The day prior to the vote, a media team captured several scenes, including one re-enacting the closing of the booth and the departure of its sealed machine. This took place before Darshandas had cast his vote.

Then, on the day of the election, all efforts were made to capture the actual vote in an authentic matter, which required several takes. Journalists directed Darshandas through several different shots. He complained that the multiple takes might send him to the hospital with exhaustion.

Annalisa Merelli for Quartz
Guru Baharatdas Darshandas rests in between takes; the drone-shot finale.

Finally, he got impatient, and demanded to go home. One media troop offered their air-conditioned car to drive him the few hundred meters to the temple. Darshandas got in it and left. The rest of the team followed, too, ready to take some shots in the temple.

And then, not long after 11am, the crowd was gone.

The heat was about to reach its peak, the presiding officer and the first polling officers had already sealed most of the documents, and a light meal of chapati and sabzi (flat bread and vegetables) was to be served.

The polling team sat in the shade looking to kill about seven more hours. No more potential Banej voters remained. But if they did, they would have found the booth open until 6pm—just as would voters across India on their own polling days.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.

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