Lalgarh, June 24: Thousands in uniform are camping in a 170sqkm area of West Midnapore, waiting for orders to march into the core areas of Lalgarh, where armed Maoists are believed to be holed up.
On the face of it, the rebels’ firepower should be no match for the combined force of central and state personnel. But freeing the zone of the guerrillas is easier said than done.
The Telegraph spoke to several key security officials involved in Operation Lalgarh to identify the challenges ahead for the forces.
If the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government decides to launch an assault on the Maoists, the most challenging task will be spotting the enemy. So far, the forces don’t have any clue about the number of battle-ready Maoists and their whereabouts.
Where is the enemy?
“It is not as if two sides are ready in a battlefield waiting to fight. The Maoists won’t engage in a face-to-face battle…. We don’t know where they are holed up and so we have to zero in on them to launch an assault,” said a senior officer.
But finding out the armed Maoists on an alien terrain will be a tall order as the intelligence network has collapsed in the past few months. According to a senior West Midnapore police officer, the district intelligence branch and the Intelligence Bureau lost all their contacts in the area after the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities and the Maoists started running a parallel administration in the region.
“A lot of Maoists have sneaked in from Jharkhand and other regions and have got mingled with the villagers. It is very difficult to identify them,” said a senior officer.
That is why the cops did not release a single male member from among the 200-odd protesting villagers arrested from Goaltore last week.
Till last month, the estimate on the number of armed Maoists in the region ranged from 90 to 120. But the police do not know how many local people they have trained in the past few months or how many Maoists may have sneaked in since the trouble escalated.
The police have learnt that the Maoists possess Kalash- nikov guns, rocket launchers and “a lot of ammunition” but the information is neither specific nor credible.
When the forces were moved into the troubled zone, they were given an impression that the Maoists would have to be annihilated.
But less than a week into the operation, the mandate is changing, leaving the force in a state of confusion.
“The chief secretary (Asok Mohan Chakrabarti) visited the area today and he told us to win over the local people. We still don’t know how we can win people’s confidence while doing area domination,” said a CRPF officer.
Waking up from its slumber, the state administration is trying to finalise a number of development projects for the region and Chakrabarti today stressed the need to cut off the Maoists by ensuring development.
“How can we do something (isolate the Maoists) that the government has failed to do in several years?” the officer asked.
As the decision to launch the assault will be taken at Writers’ Buildings, the officers of the central forces at ground zero do not have a clue on when the operation will start. So the footsoldiers are loitering around in Lalgarh or Goaltore towns not knowing what is expected of them.
Not just the confusion over the mission’s objective and timing, lack of co-ordination among the various central and state agencies — CRPF, BSF, EFR, Specially Trained Armed Company (Straco), RAF, Cobra and state police — involved in the operation has also started cropping up.
Although Midnapore range DIG Praveen Kumar is leading the operation, the agencies are yet to draw up a concerted approach on how to go about the mission.
The men in command are planning to encircle the Maoist core area and launch an assault along the stretches between Lalgarh and Ramgarh, Ramgarh and Goaltore, and Goaltore and Pirakata.
But forces are handicapped by the lack of enough minesweepers. They now have only two of them but an officer involved in the mission said the forces needed at least five to seven minesweepers to launch a multi-pronged assault on the core area.
“The Maoists have perfected the art of laying mines. There is little doubt that they have laid mines along the routes we will be taking. But we don’t have enough minesweepers,” said the officer.
The other constraint for the forces is little knowledge about the terrain, which the Maoists and their collaborators know like the back of their hands.
The planning of the operation is based on a map available with the Lalgarh police, but senior CRPF officers said that map was not handy.
“We are trying to get in touch with policemen who have experience of working in the area and trying to fill the gaps in terms of information on the terrain,” said a senior state police officer.
Heat and hunger
The extreme weather — temperatures ranging between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius and humidity beyond the 90-per cent mark — in the region has made the job manifold tougher for the forces.
Cramped camps and poor arrangements for food and drinking water are further complicating the problem.
“We should be provided with proper facilities to keep ourselves battle-ready. If conditions like this prevail, we will run out of steam even before launching the operation,” said a CRPF jawan.