With the announcement of elections in Himachal Pradesh by the Election Commission recently, the election campaign has intensified in the state. All political parties are keeping an eye on the voters. But in the meantime, everyone's eyes were on the first voter of the country—Shyam Saran Negi.
Last week, the Election Commission laid out a red carpet for Mr Negi when he cast his postal ballot ahead of the 12 November elections. It was the first time Mr Negi had not attended a polling booth, opting to post his ballot instead, due to ill health. A few days later, he breathed his last.
An Epitome of Perseverance and Hope
Mr Negi had been voting in general as well as state elections since 1951. According to official records, he was born on 1 July 1917 in Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh and later, worked as a government school teacher in the village.
The late centenarian's spirit to vote remained intact till his last breath. He in fact, encouraged citizens to vote and choose candidates who have a good track record in public service. According to him, voting was very important for the progress of the country and the state.
I had the good fortune of meeting Shyam Saran ji just a few days before he passed away. His home was a good 20 minutes uphill walk from the main centre of Kalpa village. The view of the majestic Kinner Kailash range from his house was simply jaw-dropping. Built in 1922, the house was a typical Himachali one—with the interiors being carved out of wood which gave a glimpse of the intricate artisanship of the pre-independence days.
It was pretty evident from the outset that the centenarian had a lot of self-respect inspite of his advanced age and failing health. Despite my request to hold his hand for support, he preferred walking on his own, albeit with a stick and a smile on his face which belied decades of perseverance and hardship. He was a bit hesitant to talk at the begin of our conversation. However, eventually he came into his own, pulling out anecdotes, one after another from his vast repertoire of life experiences and stories.
When our chit-chat meandered towards his long life, the secret of his longevity was quite simple—Eating food which consists of whole grains, organic vegetables from his farm and walking long distances daily,both of which were a must for him.
From the Horse’s Mouth
He vividly remembered how he became India's first voter. According to him, "India's first election was held in February 1952, but the voting for tribal areas in Himachal Pradesh was held 5 months in advance in October, 1951. As heavy snowfall renders these parts inaccessible during harsh winter months, the elections were preponed in Kinnaur.”
He also recalled that he had come to vote very early on the election day as he had to go for his election duty being a government employee. Only later did he come to know that he was India's first citizen to cast his vote and exercise his franchise.
How the Himachali Hamlet Transformed in Masterji’s Eyes
The whole Kalpa village knew Mr Negi very well. The people living here and the surrounding villages respected him very much and lovingly called him 'Masterji'. According to Master ji, “Education for the girl child and cleanliness have been two areas where Kalpa has seen enormous progress in the last few years. In days of the yore, girls were not encouraged to go to school as they were expected to look after household chores. Not anymore.”
Community toilets have been built even in the interiors of Kalpa which has dramatically changed the life of the villagers.
When I started writing this column, I wanted to celebrate Mr Negi’s life. I could never imagine that he will pass away before I finished my ode. So, I ended up changing my tribute to him a bit. Life is such.
The words of the great man still ring in my ears clearly:
“The country has got its independence from slavery after a lot of struggles and we should treat every election as a religious festival so that citizens cast their vote religiously, as it is sacrosanct that good people are elected to serve the nation.”
As we mourn the death of a noble soul and a great patriot, we all are eternally grateful for his service to the nation and endeavour to educate citizens on the importance of perseverance and simplicity.
(Siddhartha Sen is an experienced Brand Consultant, avid nature lover and travel enthusiast. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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