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Fear and assault force stalk gardens

Birpara (Jalpaiguri), Dec. 16: Etowari Oraon of Lankapara tea estate was busy cleaning utensils on Sunday night while her husband Mangru Oraon was puffing away at a bidi, when she saw the powerful headlights and heard the roar of engines. The army trucks were making their way towards the India-Bhutan border, less than 2 km from the estate.

“I could not understand what was happening. I went inside and informed my husband. We came out as did other residents of our garden. We learnt from our village head that they were army personnel going to Bhutan,” Etowari said.

Since then, the residents of Lankapara are living in fear. “Last night, we heard gunshots being fired on the Bhutan side and scurried back home. We found the army personnel patrolling in our garden this morning. Some people, who work in the Penden Cement Factory at Gomtu, were sent back by the army. The border has been sealed,” she said.

Children heading to school were wary but curious as they looked in awe at the jawans. “What is this uncle' I have seen this in films,” seven-year-old Kamal Lama, a student of Birpara Mahabir Hindi High School, asked a constable, pointing to his assault rifle, as the securityman went through the boy’s schoolbag at Makrapara More.

Like Etowari, the residents of areas like Makrapara, Puargaon, Mitrangaon and Simanibusty in the Birpara-Madarihat belt, near Bhutan, are in fear. With most gardens lying closed because of the pruning season, the workers are worried that the flare-up would hit the odd-job market that they depend on during this season. “We sensed trouble the moment the army entered our area. The Panbari camp has been dismantled by the army and there are chances that the militants might sneak into the bordering villages,” said Ritu Karki, a resident of Puargaon.

This is what the residents are fearing. Though the army claims to have sealed off the border, the people say the militants, who know the terrain very well, will find some way to sneak in. “If the KLO militants try to sneak into India through our area, there are chances that we might face gunfire there. While patrolling in Totopara this morning, the army personnel warned some of the local labourers not to enter Bhutan,” said Rakesh Lama, a resident of Mitrangaon.

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