Lalgarh, West Bengal: Maoist guerrillas backing the tribal population of Lalgarh in its agitation against the state administration are beating a hasty retreat as security forces brace for the final crackdown. Maoist leader Koteshwar Rao, who has been on the run for the past 30 years and leads the guerrilla operations of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), has left Lalgarh, said an aide, who refused to be identified.
Caught in crossfire: A family affected by violence in Lalgarh. The unrest in Lalgarh started in November after the police allegedly beat up tribals on suspicion that they were offering shelter to Maoist guerrillas. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
“Sharp ideological differences between him (Rao) and the tribal leaders came to the fore in the last couple of days,” Rao’s aide added. “So, he has left Lalgarh, and is going to be replaced by someone from Jharkhand or Orissa. His departure doesn’t mean we are giving up the fight.”
Rao, however, had told Mint on Saturday that he would lead his guerrillas in Lalgarh till the end, and that they were prepared for a “protracted war”. Though he claimed the locals supported him, it seems ties have weakened since the state government sent in security forces to rid Lalgarh of the guerrillas.
The unrest in Lalgarh started in November after the police allegedly beat up tribals on suspicion that they were offering shelter to Maoist guerrillas who tried to blow up a convoy of cars carrying West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then Union steel minister Ram Vilas Paswan with a landmine.
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Though they had initially allied with Maoists to drive the administration out of Lalgarh, tribal leaders do not want to be seen any longer spearheading the agitation at the behest of the banned political outfit.
“I wouldn’t be able to confirm whether he (Koteshwar Rao) has left Lalgarh,” said Gour Chakraborty, spokesperson for the Communist Party of India (Maoist), before his arrest by Kolkata police later in the evening. “He leads our guerrilla operations in many other states. So it’s possible that the party had asked him to move from Lalgarh.”
But even if he had left, Maoists aren’t fleeing Lalgarh and their movement would continue under the leadership of someone else, added Chakraborty.
Tribal leader Chhatradhar Mahato denied having had any links with Maoists. “We have always had ideological differences with them...there was no question of allying with Maoists,” he said.
Asked if Rao had left Lalgarh, he said, “I don’t know but it seems most Maoist guerrillas have fled Lalgarh.”
This isn’t the first time Maoist have withdrawn from an agitation when things came to a head. By Rao’s own admission, his party launched the agitation in Singur, where locals protested the acquisition of 1,000 acres of farmland for Tata Motors Ltd’s small car factory, but withdrew its people because it didn’t want to ally with mainstream political parties such as the Trinamool Congress—West Bengal’s main opposition party.
The state administration refused to comment on Rao’s whereabouts, though on Friday, West Bengal’s home secretary Ardhendu Sen had said Rao and other top Maoist leaders had decamped.
“We don’t know about his whereabouts,” said Raj Kanojia, inspector general of police (law and order).
Even with fears of stealth attacks receding, the security forces aren’t taking chances. The 50-odd policemen patrolling Jhitka forest, 15km from Lalgarh, were seen on Tuesday scrambling to board a police vehicle even before darkness had descended. Though the security forces claim that the forest, which till last week was regarded as a hideout of Maoist guerrillas, has been sanitized, they make sure they return to the safety of their outpost before daylight fades.
“This forest is very unsafe after dark… We don’t even have torches, let alone searchlights,” said a policeman, who didn’t disclose his name, as he hurriedly boarded a police jeep.
Because the security forces cool their heels after dark, many areas that had been sanitized have been recaptured by Maoists, say locals, who on Tuesday morning woke up to the noise of a huge explosion. Maoists had tried to blow up a culvert at Chara village, but couldn’t.
Had the culvert collapsed, Lalgarh would have been cut off from Midnapore town, and moving in reinforcements would have become difficult.
As they squared off for the final onslaught, security forces pointed out several deficiencies that were slowing the operation. “We have just one advanced mine detector,” said an officer of the state armed police, speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to the press. “The other explosive-detecting devices that we have aren’t reliable.”
There are at least five roads that lead to the interiors of Lalgarh, but for want of mine detectors, movement of security forces has been restricted to one or two roads at a time, added the police officer.
Asked about these deficiencies, West Midnapore’s superintendent of police Manoj Kumar refused to comment.