Bandwan (Purulia), Oct. 25: A green 1.5-tonne police van raced ahead of two jeeps into the forest towards the Midnapore border. The mission of the 25 personnel in them was to break up a meeting of suspected extremists with villagers and arrest the outsiders.
It was around 4 pm on October 11. Suddenly there was a loud explosion. The blast lifted the van off the ground and tore apart its engine and front axle. The driver and two constables were injured.
Sitting beside the driver, the officer-in-charge of Bandwan police station, Nilmadhab Das, was shaken. He sensed trouble and even as he got out, his service revolver was drawn. But before he could set his feet on the ground, a volley of fire targeted him from behind the trees.
Das was hit twice on his left chest below the armpit. He still managed to fire a few rounds into the trees before collapsing. The constables in the rear of the van, too, opened fire, but they could not see their targets. Two more constables were hit before the second and third vehicles reached the spot and the personnel in them retaliated.
“About 40 rounds were fired,” said DIG (Midnapore range) Sadhan Mandal. The exchange stopped within 20 minutes as the assailants melted into the dense forest. At least two of them were injured, one seriously, claimed the police on their return to Bandwan, about an hour’s drive from the site. Das died before he could reach a hospital.
A fortnight after the attack, a shocked state administration has reinforced the complement of police personnel in the region. Being the first of its kind in Bengal, the ambush has put the police forces on their toes, with an officer as high in rank as an inspector-general — IG (western range) Gautam Chakraborty — leading the combing operations.
Armed with sophisticated automatic weapons, groups of policemen, including RAF and EFR personnel, now go from village to village in search of individuals who could lead them to the culprits. So far, 18 persons have been arrested, seven of whom are out on bail. Forty others have been detained for two to three days for questioning.
Caught between the extremists and the pro-active police, the residents of the villages around the forests are resentful.
“The whole episode has brought us trouble and worry” complained Moyna Murmu. Her husband Kalipada was taken away by the police from Gurpana village the day after the incident. “He is innocent, why don’t they release him. Who will sell the babui grass ropes and the kendu leaves' Where will we get the money to buy food'”
The situation is the same in Dulukdih and Lotojharna, 5 km beyond the ambush site. “The men folk have all gone. They have either been picked up or have fled fearing the police,” said Manjari Singh Sardar of Dulukdih. “There is no security at night, no work, no sale of ropes and leaves and no trekker service to take the sick to hospital. It is better to die than to live like this,” she said, echoing the feelings of at least 500 other villagers.