Regained, lost, regained... Forces caught in repeat battles

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  • Published 20.06.09

Malida (West Midnapore), June 19: A light machine gun is mounted on a tripod and the soldier from the Border Security Force takes position behind it as his section of 30 men creeps across the fallow farmland on the road to Lalgarh here this afternoon.

Cries ululate in a chorus across the field. Through the sights of the machine gun, are hundreds of villagers — too numerous and too far away to be counted. The cries rise and fall as the crowd comes closer and then retreats as the soldiers advance.

The battle of Malida will be fought before the road to Lalgarh is taken.

This was the road taken by the security forces last afternoon as they marched, lathi-charged and tear-gassed their way to Bhimpur, about 5km from here. The first barricade — the “human shield” as the government said of the Maoists — was put up here. It was no match for the might of the state forces.

But in 24 hours, Malida has struck back. The road to Bhimpur, where the security forces are setting up a major staging post for the mission, has been cut again. Rocks have been placed on the road. It is three hours since the road was barricaded and the battle started.

On the road this side of the barricade towards Pirakata are two companies of the Border Security Force, inducted from Murshidabad, Alpha Company of the Central Reserve Police Force’s 50th battalion inducted from Sindri, a busload of India Reserve police, three carloads of Calcutta’s Police Rapid Action Force, two busloads of West Bengal Armed Police and about 15 utility vehicles carrying the officers of each of the forces.

They carry Insas rifles, carbines, RPG7 shoulder-firing rockets, light machine guns. They are reinforcements heading to Bhimpur to relieve or to add muscle to the offensive that began yesterday.

They were told the road was clear, that it was secured. This is the route that all supplies and reinforcements, all rolling stock to the Bhimpur staging post will take. Yet, in less than 24 hours, the security forces have lost control over it.

They regained it after sundown. But to secure it, the government will have to press in more forces, conduct road-opening parties, and sanitise the fields to the north and south of the road that runs east to west.

Each of these tasks will take up more troops and more time. The reinforcements — the contingent that was stuck between Pirakata and Malida this afternoon — were not expecting to do battle so soon.

If the battle at Malida today is an indication of the nature of the operations in Lalgarh, Bengal could be staring at a long hard period of insurgency and counter-insurgency missions here.

Central forces run the risk of being converted into armies of occupation for indefinite periods of time if they get bogged down. Bengal already had 11 companies of CRPF in parts of Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore for well over three years. Lalgarh could turn out to be an extension of the militarised zone in Bengal unless dramatic and surprising action gives the offensive a different direction.

Multiple approaches by the security forces — from the Bankura side and also from west of Lalgarh — may open such an opportunity.

But on day two, there is a slowdown and a re-emergence of an opposition in Malida where the security forces thought there was none.

“We were going to our location,” said a BSF trooper — he did not want to be identified. He is not sure if his location will be Bhimpur. “We were in Kharagpur and were told to proceed along this road and the Bengal police is to tell us where we have to set up camp”.

He points to two trucks loaded with BSF paraphernalia — camp cots, bedding rolls, tarpaulin, tents, ammunition boxes. But now he is here, waiting for his section of 30 men drawn from the two companies in this contingent. The companies have drawn troops from at least three battalions — 105, 90 and 191. The section is fanning out now.

Brigadier Ponwar, the director of the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare School in Kanker, Chhattisgarh, that trains state forces in counter-Naxalite operations, says the BSF is “probably the most disciplined of the paramilitary forces”. This is not the BSF’s task.

The troops that are here are supposed to be on guard on the Bangladesh border in Malda-Murshidabad but Bengal is finding new borders being drawn inland.

The BSF men in the fields going after the villagers — there really cannot be that many Maoists though the police gathered on the road here insist they all are — are fanning out now. The villagers are gathered in groups in a clump of trees and bush.

From the road, they can be discerned only because they are in a crowd and then they let out the ululating cries.

The villagers are not within firing range of the BSF troopers. The advance party has gone about 1,000 yards into the field. The villagers are at least 2,500 yards away. “This afternoon some five or six shots rang out,” says the BSF soldier on the road watching, his colleagues along with the rest of the party that is heading towards Bhimpur but is now stalled.

“And then the police leading us (the convoy) came and told us there is a barricade. We would have been in the camp by now,” he says.

Brigadier Ponwar says the security forces should lay such a siege of Lalgarh that no Maoist who is inside can come out and no “undesirable element” can get in.

As of this moment, when the sun is about to set on the second day after the operations in Lalgarh were launched, a contingent of heavily armed police and paramilitary cannot get into Bhimpur. The barricade here means that those in Bhimpur where the staging post is being set up cannot come out till it is cleared.

The BSF advance party creeps about 10 paces and then the men lie down on the field. In the distance the villagers retreat, vanish and suddenly they are there again in sight, several hundred heads bobbing above the brush. A loud explosion breaks the stalemate and the villagers flee.

A friendly BSF soldier on the road sniggers. “That’s a smoke bomb to scare them away,” he says.

There is no tear gas being fired here. Up ahead constables of Bengal police are still trying to clear the road of stones and rocks that were piled up. The road vanishes into a forest turning darker by the minute as the sun sets. The cries ululate again.