Embedded in Lalgarh Minor mission accomplished, big test lies ahead

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By SUJAN DUTTA in Lalgarh
  • Published 21.06.09
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Lalgarh, June 20: Alpha Company of the CRPF’s 50th battalion is the advance party on the road to Lalgarh this morning through a forest where the security forces feared a Maoist behind every tree. None of the Maoists showed up in the Jhitka forest and the security forces linked up with their own in Lalgarh police station in the afternoon in a little achievement.

It is not the “fall of Lalgarh”. It is a meeting of cops with cops.

But from now, the security forces will be embedded in Lalgarh in hostile terrain.

The Maoists attacked elsewhere, at Kadashol in Goaltore, north of here, and forced the police back along another road before reinforcements came in and they took cover. By evening, trees were also felled to block the road that the forces had taken to Lalgarh in the morning and afternoon — the road that cuts through the Jhitka.

“The Maoists may have some surprises but we will have more surprises,” promised Praveen Kumar, the deputy inspector-general (Midnapore range) after the march to Lalgarh from Bhimpur.

The march to Lalgarh by the security forces this morning and afternoon has opened an axis along which more troops and replenishments can come in. But the axis is yet to be secured.

Not much more can be said of the achievement militarily. Few road-opening parties — a standard procedure to maintain a security corridor in insurgency areas — were in sight, even at the place where a firefight broke out yesterday.

The march took the men of the CRPF and the state armed police through a forest on an undulating stretch of between four and five km of thick foliage, mostly sal trees. The police were anticipating a possible Maoist attack on this road. There was none.

The march is slow and tiring because fear weighs down everyone. It is also peak summer and the humidity dehydrates at least one trooper who dies of heatstroke even as he is being driven back to camp towards Bhimpur, the staging post.

So fearful and so suspicious of any movement is the advance party that the entire column of CRPF and state armed police, complete with a car carrying a magistrate — in case orders have to be given to open fire — have to be stopped at least twice for half and hour in the sweltering heat because two cyclists are riding in the opposite direction.

One of them, Sanatan, a villager from Bhalukhola, who is frisked thoroughly — everyone takes cover as the bag he is carrying is upended — says about 4km before Lalgarh that “it is peaceful, don’t worry”. He cycles away chewing betel.

The CRPF advance party is battle-hardened. These men of the 50th battalion have served in Assam, in the North Cachar Hills. It is almost as if Lalgarh is joining the list of institutionalised insurgencies in India.

A payloader is upfront, followed by a mine-protected vehicle. It is an Indian version of the South African-origin Cassipir, designed to carry 12 soldiers. In Chhattisgarh last year, such a vehicle was carrying 27 soldiers. A blast blew it away and 24 soldiers were killed.

Snapshot

The vehicle, with a V-shaped undercarriage to deflect the impact of a landmine, is capable of withstanding the impact of about 8-10kg of conventional explosives. In Chhattisgarh, Maoist militia have become smarter. They pack improvised explosive devices with up to 20 kilos of ammo.

This column is marching through treacherous terrain without adequate mine-detecting gear. It’s not just the machines. Army officers insist that trained dogs are the best at sniffing out IEDs. Like a Maoist behind every tree, the Jhitka forest is also suspected to conceal a landmine behind each speck of red gravel. In the event none is found or none explodes.

Two kilometres before Lalgarh, the forest goes into a depression. So far the sal trees provided shade. But now, there is none. The trees are mostly shoulder high. And the cloud cover is gone. It is a cruel sun. So long the march was either uphill or over a dominating height.

Now it’s a walk into a “bowl”. The foliage is still dark green. The march slows because the officer orders it. A walk into a lowland means that vision will be obstructed.

He calls his jawans who are marching off the road. They assemble at a culvert. Some of them have leaves stuck to their collars and shirts and caps for camouflage. They are asked to fan out farther. But this is a short stretch. They sight a tower up front over another clump of sal trees. It has dish antennae. That is the Lalgarh police station.

The officer runs ahead and orders everyone to take halt and take position as the first built-up area is sighted. It is the Lalgarh forest office. The CRPF is to take the periphery. The Bengal armed police are to march on ahead to the Lalgarh police station, taking the right at the Y junction.

As the CRPF fans out around the outskirts of Lalgarh town, Bengal police move on, past the two-storeyed Dinabandhu Nibash, turn right where a board indicates the direction to Bank of India’s Kantapahari branch. Kantapahari, then, must be where the Maoists are. The Lalgarh police station is much before that. Cops meet cops.