| Gunmen on patrol near Tekhali bridge
Battle Zone Maheshpur: a border village between Nandigram and Khejuri
Time: 10 pm
Man and dog sleep in the open fields, when they can. This isn’t one of those nights. Nor is it a place where sleep is possible in sleeping hours. This is borderland, and this Saturday night is kept awake by the sound and flash of firing and bomb blasts at a distance of about 2 km. That’s the other side of the border, Khejuri, controlled by the CPM.
“Eta aamader jaigah. Eta harale shob shesh hoye jaabe (This is our land. If we lose this, all is lost),” Commander Ashok Mandal tells his soldiers, a group of about 150 who have gathered in this field for a strategy meeting.
Maheshpur is the point of entry on the road leading to Nandigram town. Which means the CPM has to win Maheshpur if it wants a clear route from Khejuri to the town.
In the light of a full moon, the meeting continues. “Aamader kachhe onek astro aachhe. Aamra aaro order korechhi. Ota niye kono shomoshya hobe na. Aapnara kaaj kore jaan (We have arms, we have ordering more. Don’t worry about it. You do your work),” Mondal, a thin fortyish man in a blue shirt and trousers says, as though to offer courage in the face of attack from the other side.
Some 300 metres away from the meeting ground, a second group of 17 men armed with rifles, revolvers and countrymade guns replies to the firing and bombs, the intent behind which is not to cause direct physical harm but terror. A daily ritual of the Harmad (from the Spanish Armada) Brigade — as the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee supporters call their CPM rivals — to break the mind.
The children on this side of the border know they’re safe. Unafraid, the bunch of five between the age of 10 and 13 plays one of those games where the running around is more important than the game. The adults are meeting. Some others are firing.
Some men cry out: “We hear the Harmad Brigade is trying to enter Satengabari (under Trinamul Congress control). Fire in that direction (they tell the warriors).”
Some fetch bombs and ammo from a storehouse, a shack really, next to a bigger one that passes for a kitchen where meals are cooked for the soldiers who have been camping here for three months or more.
News passes back and forth on the mobile. Strange that the security forces haven’t suggested blocking mobile signals here, as in Kashmir once where it was banned and in much of the Northeast.
Commander Mondal doesn’t carry any weapons, he totes three-four mobiles instead.
This night, he performs before his general, Abu Sufian, the CPM-turned-Trinamul leader who heads the military operation on behalf of the Pratirodh Committee.
The powerful Sufian —there’s something about the middle-aged man that is unnerving — runs an orphanage with money from West Asia.
People from several neighbouring villages have gathered for the meeting, which he conducts to prepare for the retaliation that must be coming for the attack by the Pratirodh Committee on Friday.
“This is a very important meeting as we are going to chalk out plans for the course of action. It’s a time of crisis we have to overcome,” Sufian says before pointing towards Mondal to address the gathering.
“The time has come to pay them back. It’s a do or die situation for all of us. We have to fight till our last breath.”
“Vande Mataram,” roars the crowd.
Amid the gunshots and blasts, they listen to him quietly, a crowd of men in trousers or lungi with the elderly turned out in dhoti and vest.
“How long shall we live like this' How long will these gun battles continue' Who will guarantee our safety'” one of them cuts into the speech. He and his wife and two daugh- ters have left their home to spend the night in the open field along with other villagers, fearing attack.
A perturbed Mondal asks his name.
“Ashok Mali from Parulbari,” the man replies.
For a moment there is silence, then the sharp bark of a gunshot fired by one of the committee’s soldiers. Two elderly men sitting next to Mali whisper in his ear in the night air suddenly grown taut.
“This is not the time to ask: ‘Am I safe'’ We have to raise ourselves above personal concerns and think about Nandigram,” Sufian steps in.
At a distance, a 10-member armed group is sitting on a bench on the road leading to Khejuri. A Trinamul flag flutters atop a bamboo pole next to them. The moonlight-washed road is deserted with only the logs placed across to form a blockade visible.
Four youths, rifles hanging from their shoulders and black cloth tied around their forehead, patrol on two motorcycles in anticipation of the counterattack.
“This has become the pattern (the attacks and the replies) and that’s why we are more cautious. We are ready for the worst,” says one of the armed guards, puffing at a cigarette. Everyone carries a mobile phone and a torch. Eight motorcycles are parked by the side of the road, war-ready.
In the field, the meeting is breaking up. It’s 1.30 am and the crowd rises, grabbing each other’s both hands and hugging. An armed man walks briskly in and shouts: “The Harmad Brigade is trying to enter Sonachura (a Pratirodh Committee stronghold where 14 people died on March 14).”
Mobiles begin to cackle. One person speaks into his phone: “Don’t give ground. We’ll be there soon. Ask everyone to stay, we will hold a meeting.”
Ten committee leaders ride away on five motorcycles into the night escorted by six armed men on three other bikes.
Back in the field, the people are preparing to catch some sleep. “We leave our homes at night and spend sleepless nights in the field,” says Rani Das.
The firing and the blasts continue but the intensity has dropped. There’s a hint of light now, it’s 3.30. The men and the women still talk — the kind of tired mumble before the tongue can move no more — as their children sleep.
And the dogs circle the ground beneath and bed down.