By Ajit Kumar Singh for SATP
Just six days after Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram held a meeting in the West Bengal capital, Kolkata, with the officials of the four eastern States of Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal – the States worst afflicted by the Maoist insurgency – to intensify inter-State operations against the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist), the Maoists launched their most devastating attack in West Bengal, in terms of scale and casualties, since 1967, the year of the Naxalbari uprising in the State’s North.
According to reports, over 100 armed CPI-Maoist cadres attacked the paramilitary Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) camp at Sildha, just 30 kilometres from Midnapore town, in the West Midnapore District, on February 15, killing 24 EFR personnel. One civilian who was injured in the cross fire died later. Another seven troopers were also injured. About 25 personnel who went missing after the attack returned after spending the night hidden in the forest. At least 40 firearms were looted by the Maoists from the camp’s armoury. At the time of the attack, there were 35 EFR and 16 State Armed Police (SAP) personnel in the camp.
Though initial reports suggested that there were no casualties among the Maoists, State Director General of Police (DGP) Bhupinder Singh claimed, on February 19, that Susen Mahato, a close confidant of CPI-Maoist politburo member Koteswar Rao alias Kishan, died from serious injuries sustained in the attack. “Three to five Maoist attackers, including Susen, were killed in the encounter as per information available with us,” the DGP added. Reports indicate that, though Madan Mahato, who leads a squad in the Belpahari-Banspahari belt and Kundan Pahan who operates along the Bengal-Jharkhand border, were present during the Sildha attack, it was Jagari Baskey, who usually operates along the borders with Jharkhand and Orissa, who led the charge under Kishan’s supervision. Two Maoist squads – Dalma and Ayodhya – were deployed for the attack. According to intelligence sources, the two squads – part of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) force – assembled at a training camp in Belpahari days prior to the attack. The squads had slipped into West Bengal two days prior to the attack.
The Sildha assault was a well-planned and well-coordinated attack by the rebels, who came in a fleet pickup trucks, white Ambassadors (the symbol of Indian officialdom), vans and motorcycles. As a large group of Maoists descended on the camp in the afternoon, they triggered several explosions and then started shooting, using AK-47s. While this first wave of attackers diverted the attention of the Security Force (SF) personnel towards the main entrance, a second wave was launched from all sides. Rebels breached and climbed over the boundary wall, and the camp was quickly overrun after a brief initial resistance by the EFR personnel collapsed. The Maoists tried to cover their tracks, burning a number of their vehicles, before escaping. The Maoists also planted landmines on the entire stretch of the approach roads to the camp, to prevent any reinforcements from reaching Sildha. There was, consequently, no help for the injured and traumatized survivors till 7.30pm (IST), hours after the attackers had left. Police reinforcements reaching the site discovered the bodies of their colleagues, some in civilian clothes, burnt cots, charred utensils and personal effects, besides some weapons destroyed in the fire. The Maoists had also planted landmines in the Narayanpurchak area close to Sildha, in a bid to check any pursuit by SFs. At around 8.30pm, some 40 armed Maoists launched another attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp at Dharampur in the nearby Lalgarh area, engaging the CRPF personnel in an exchange of fire.
The Sildha incident suggests that the SFs in West Bengal have learnt little from past mistakes. There have been at least two large-scale Maoist strikes on EFR personnel in West Midnapore over the past years. In October 2004, six Policemen were blown up in an explosion in the Bankishole forest of Lalgarh. Four Policemen were killed in an attack at the market in Jamboni in November 2009. After the November strike, State Armed Police inspector-general Anil Kumar, who heads the Force, had accused his own men of not following the “basic rules of a combat zone”, stating “They were too relaxed. Had they been alert, they could have… retaliated.” Earlier, on October 20, 2009, the Maoists had raided Sankrail Police Station in West Midnapore District and shot dead two Police officers and kidnapped the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of the Police Station. A total of five attacks on Police post have taken place in the District over the past six months, and 32 SF personnel have been killed, several others injured, and a significant number of arms looted, during these attacks. On the flip side, there have been just three crackdowns on Maoist hideouts, and three suspected cadres killed. 190 alleged Maoists have, however, been arrested — though 23 of them were released on October 22, 2009 to secure the freedom of the abducted Sankrail Police Station Officer-in-Charge, Atindranath Dutta.
Kishan, who is heading Maoist operations in the area, remains at large. An unnamed senior Police official has stated that, on at least two occasions, raiding parties with specific information on Kishan’s whereabouts have been called off at the last minute, and there is a general perception that the political resolve to counter the Maoists in West Bengal is still missing. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s preoccupations may, moreover, not allow sufficient attention to be focused on details of law and order management. The CM also holds the Home (internal security) portfolio.
The lack of preparedness was equally in evidence at Sildha. As the armed Maoists barged into the camp, over 50 jawans were either “whiling away their time in the camp or busy in the kitchen, cooking”. This may have part of the established routine in the camp, but their weapons were not in reach, and there was, reports suggest, only one trooper on sentry duty. Neglect of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), poor training and absence of commanding officers in dangerous areas, were all amply in evidence at Sildha. The incident report indicates that arms were neither secured nor immediately accessible to the troopers. As the Maoists attacked, the camp commander, a sub-inspector, was absent.
This happened despite sufficient intelligence on such an attack, including a threat by the Maoist-backed Peoples Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) leader Asit Mahato. On February 14, Mahato had warned, “there will be an assault within 24 hours as the Police made a terrible mistake by raiding my house at Bhulageria and attacking my ailing mother”. Earlier, on January 30, State Home Secretary Ardhendu Sen had demonstrated extraordinary complacence, declaring, “Only Lalgarh is of concern at the moment. Other than Lalgarh, nothing is of concern.” This was certainly bizarre under the circumstances, since his own Police, by this time, was conceding that all but one of 18 Districts in the State was infected with some Maoist activity.
There were, moreover, specific intelligence inputs preceding the Sildha attack. Since November 16, 2009, Home Secretary Sen and the DGP had received at least six intelligence reports about the possibility of a “major attack” on the Sildha camp and nearby areas. The last of these was sent on February 13, warning against a “possible attack in the areas around Sildha, Belpahari and Binpur.” Another report explicitly mentioned Maoist leader Jagari Baskey’s visit to Sildha College, to mobilize support among students. The other four reports were sent on November 23, December 27, December 29 and January 14, 2010. Unfortunately, all these inputs were ignored, and the DGP stated, “It was not expected that such an attack would take place in a built-up area like Sildha.” According to new intelligence flows, a 300-400 strong Maoist attack force, fleeing a crackdown in Chhattisgarh, has sneaked into West Bengal and is preparing to launch more brutal attacks than the one in Sildha.
The lapses preceding Sildha are even more surprising, not just because the State Police failed to anticipate the incident despite continuous intelligence warning, but also because it occurred in West Midnapore, a District generally conceded to be a Maoist stronghold, where at least 266 persons have been killed in Naxalite violence since 2002. More alarmingly, 155 persons have been killed in the District just since June 24, 2009. In a daring attack on February 10, Maoist cadres opened fire on a helicopter carrying the DGP while he was conducting an aerial survey of Lalgarh and other Maoist-controlled areas.
Admitting that there was “some lack of alertness”, Chief Minister Bhattacharjee admitted that SF personnel had become “sitting ducks”. Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai reinforced this perception, declaring, “I think the Maoists have basically selected what I would call a soft target. Because the West Bengal Police are possibly the least prepared for tackling such menace as the Maoists… I think they do need far more training. I think the preliminary indications are that there have been quite some considerable security lapses and negligence on the part of those who are manning the camp. That is why they have lost this much manpower, as also weapons.”
Meanwhile, there are clear indications of a Maoist determination to further escalate the conflict. Koteswar Rao has, for instance, threatened that an armed movement would be launched in capital Kolkata before the 2011 Legislative Assembly elections. Claiming responsibility for the Sildha attack, he warned, “If the State Governments and the Centre do not stop this killing spree (a reference to centrally coordinated Operations in the four worst affected States), we are going to carry on like this. Steer clear of the jungles of Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Jharkhand.” He described the Sildha attack as a part of the Maoists’ “Operation Peace Hunt”, an answer to Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s “Operation Green Hunt” (“Green Hunt” is, in fact, an operation launched by the Chhattisgarh Police, and not a central initiative). He reiterated that the Maoists were open to dialogue with the Centre and the State Governments, but only if the Joint Forces suspended operations, following which, “we will also stop violence within 24 hours.”
While some of the Maoist-affected States are beginning to get their act together, West Bengal seems to lack both the necessary political will and a professional Police Force to face as determined a foe as the reorganised Maoists. Despite months of intense combing operations by more than 4,000 troops in Lalgarh and its adjacent areas, for instance, it is now evident that these operations are nowhere near their objectives.
The State Government has, however, now announced the raising of a Special Battalion of 939 Police personnel to tackle Maoists in the three western districts – West Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia. A Special Combat Force of 3,500 personnel would also be raised by the Government. An amount of INR 250 million has been sanctioned for the Force. The State Government has urged for the Centre to deploy an additional six companies of Central Para Military Forces (CPMFs) to beef up the present strength of 17 CPMF companies, mostly of the Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force, already deployed in the area.
It remains to be seen whether these projected enhancements will help contain the Maoist menace in the State. There is little doubt that Maoist activities have been directly facilitated by the attitude of the State Government in the past. Despite the resurgence of the Maoists since 2004, for instance, the Left Front Government in West Bengal has refused to proscribe the CPI-Maoist party.
Continuing failures, at this point of time, can only lead the State into dire consequences. Chief Minister Bhattacharjee has long maintained that his Government was inclined to wage an “administrative and political” campaign against the Maoists, and that merely banning them would not “isolate them from the masses”. There has been persistent reluctance to use force despite a rising tide of Maoist violence. Sildha may, however, see the beginnings of a change of attitude, with the Chief Minister asserting that the operation of Joint Forces would continue and that the Maoists would be dealt with “sternly”. Given the conditions of the West Bengal Police establishment, however, it remains to be seen how effectively this determination can translate into action on the ground.
Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management, which publishes the “South Asia Intelligence Review” of the South Asia Terrorism Portal. This article is reprinted with permission.
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