At the break of dawn, two air force helicopters lumbered through the sky, dropping what looked like shimmering pieces of confetti. The pilots were flying at a height safe from Maoists’ mortars. On the ground |
The shimmering pieces were leaflets urging villagers to help fight Maoists who are dug in, preparing for their first face-to-face battle with the state (contrary to their favourite hit-and-run guerrilla strikes).
A direct confrontation, however, is still a few hours away. The troops — a mix of West Bengal police, the Central Reserve Police Force and anti-naxalite force COBRA — are moving slowly, very slowly.
“The operation will take considerably more time as security forces are moving cautiously,” said home minister P. Chidambaram in Delhi.
“They are addressing people through loudspeakers and distributing handbills,” he added.
The forces covered just two kilometers on Friday morning. They were in Bhimpur at 9 am — around 17 km from Lalgarh. By the end of the day they were nine km short of their objective.
They came under fire at Bhimpur as they prepared to enter the dense Jhitka forest. The COBRA operatives went in first to sanitise it.
Just as they entered, word came that the Maoists had gone around behind them to cut off their retreat path — by laying landmines. When they fell back to check, they came under heavy fire from villages on the sides.
The gun battle continued for nearly an hour, after which the Maoists retreated. Women of the villages alerted the Maoists of advancing securitymen by high-pitched wailing sounds.
“We are trained to encounter the Maoists front on. But here we have to tackle the villagers,” said a CRPF jawan, “This is new to us.”
It was also new to the 50 journalists tagging the securityforces. They were caught in the crossfire, prevented, they thought, from taking the safe passage offered by the Maoists — through the mined fields.
But there was nothing new here for the Maoists. They seemed to be working to a plan. Koteshwar Rao, the second-in-command in the Maoist hierarchy, had warned on Thursday, “The forces don’t know what they are getting into.”
Seventeen kilometers away, the Lalgarh town, beyond which lies an area called the “liberated zone” by the Maoists, looked deserted. There were few people out on the streets, and shops were all closed.
“We are afraid of a major clash,” said Uttam Soren, a Class XI student, speaking to the HT correspondent from behind the boundary wall of his house. “Why is the government sending military to suppress peasants who want their own governance in their villages.”
Seven kilometers from the town, in Chota Pilia village, the Maoists discussed strategy and future course of action in a hut surrounded by close aides and security personnel.
And just a few meters away, in another hut, villagers huddled around a television set following news stories of their area, and the impending violence.
(With inputs from Tapan Das)