Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lalgarh operation: First hand report

20 Jun 2009, 1750 hrs IST, Tamal Sengupta, ET Bureau

PINDRAKHALI: Maoists drew first blood, triggering a landmine blast at Pirakata market around 8.30 pm on Friday evening in which the Domkal
sub-divisional police officer’s (SDPO) jeep was blown off and three police personnel got critically injured. Throughout the day, Maoists and their sympathisers kept the huge security presence in the area guessing about what their next move might be. So successful were they in their plans, that security personnel remained camped at Bhimpur throughout the day with Lalgarh lying just about 10 kms ahead.

Around 10 pm, Maoists blasted a culvert at Pindrakhali, between Pirakata and Bhimpur and the very spot where Team ET along with about 30 media personnel got stranded in a cross-fire earlier in the afternoon. At 10.30 pm, the Maoists were reported to have opened fire with some medium artillery weapons on Lalgarh police station, where a number of policemen have been kept under seige for a few weeks now.

This is supposed to be a crack army type operation. And yet, it was inexplicable why security forces under the command of Praveen Kumar, DIG Midnapore Range, and Manoj Varma, SP, West Midnapore remained glued to Bhimpur, giving Maoists some vital time to recoup. No information was passed on to media, but it was pretty clear that the security field command wasn’t too sure about engaging trained Maoist guerillas with sophisticated weaponry in the 6 kms of dense forest, known locally as Jhikita jungles, that lay between Bhimpur and Lalgarh.

What was even more ironical was the fact that after progressing to Bhimpur from Pirakata on Thursday at a rapid pace, the security forces did not quite think of keeping the stretch they had already traversed, properly sanitised. This turned out to be a monumental blunder, because Maoists and their sympathisers re-grouped at the security forces’ rear and threatened to cut off the line of retreat. It was a very clever move on part of the Maoists, but it perhaps should have been anticipated nonetheless.

What happened therefore was pretty alarming even for the media. Since the road from Pirakata to Bhimpur lay unattended, resistance groups found ample time to dig up the stretch at various points and plant landmines. Hearing about this, a section of forces from Bhimpur rushed back just after noon towards Pirakata to assess the damage, followed by media.

At Pirakhuli and Pindrakhali, they met with a hail of bullets from resistance groups, who lay low among the grass on either side of the road or among the line of trees just beyond, sniping at the security personnel who were on the main road and therefore quite easy targets. The security forces fired back, but largely at an unseen enemy which had the advantage of knowing the terrain so well that they could afford to stay largely out of sight and yet do the damage.

As bullets flew thick and fast, the media team got trapped and were chased by a section of the state police, which suddenly got belligerent and started targetting anyone with a camera. Team ET, along with others of the media, were forced by security forces around 3 pm to sit huddled on the open fields close to Kuldiha Primary School at Pindrakali, some 6 kms from Pirakata.

Taking shelter in the school building was ruled out too since there was no knowing when the next bullet might fly that way. After nearly three tense hours at Pindrakhali, security forces finally evacuated stranded mediamen beyond Pirakata on the way to Midnapore town. No sooner did the media team leave, than the Maoists triggered off the landmine blast.

From wherever he is now, Koteswar Rao alias Kishanji, must be chuckling away to glory. On Thursday, he had the cheek to appear before television camera, careful that his back was turned towards it ; he gave interviews over telephone to whichever media requested it; he threw an open challenge to the advancing security forces, who seemed intent on nabbing him come hell or high water.

He was believed to be at Boropelia beyond Lalgarh till about 1.30 pm on Friday, but had slipped out of the security dragnet comfortably afterwards. Even the state administration at Writers Buildings confessed as much.

Obviously, there is a masterplan and it is assumed that the security forces at Bhimpur are waiting for further reinforcements to arrive before moving in for the kill. Apparently, Operation Lalgarh is being worked out on a pincer plan. Security forces are supposedly moving in from Sarenga, Dahijuri, Jhargram, Gowaltor and along the Midnapore Town-Pirakata-Bhimpur trunk route. The entire area is teeming with security men, although the inexplicable delay at Bhimpur may have given the Maoists some vital time to recoup.

However, a number of things stand out pretty clear. First, the fact that if this huge security bandobast is to nab hardcore Maoists only, then the plan is flawed. The real threat comes from thousands of Maoist sympathisers among ordinary villagers in the Lalgarh area, who have successfully distracted security forces enough on Friday to keep them engaged in several places at the same time.

Many of the dwellings on both sides of the approach to Bhimpur are shut and padlocked from outside. The immediate impression is that the houses are deserted. Even security forces who have tried to storm some of these houses have found nobody inside. The villagers, however, are all there in the vicinity. They materialise out of the blue and disappear into the foliage just as suddenly without leaving a trace. Shooting villagers is a risk that security forces aren’t taking, because that will lead to an even bigger problem. Neither can they afford to ignore them, because that’s where the biggest threat lies.

On Thursday, when Operation Lalgarh had started, security forces had a fairly easy passage upto Bhimpur. It’s here that the prospect of entering the Jhikita jungle stretch daunted them on Friday. While they deliberated on their next forward move, Maoists and their sympathisers created enough noise at the rear to keep them engaged. What has happened therefore, is that security forces at Bhimpur may have now started feeling a bit insecure. The "enemy" is both out at the front and at the back and it includes thousands of ordinary village folk who cannot be killed perhaps for fear of triggering human rights subsequently.

Till the time of going to press, the guns were still booming and security personnel were kept very busy indeed. Reinforcements would be rushed on Saturday morning and it remains to be seen how Day 3 of Operation Lalgarh turns out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Prejudiced coverage, sponsored by BJP and its clones.