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On the front line,on the back foot

Silda may have been waiting to happen. At 27 camps,an overworked,underequipped Eastern Frontier Rifles has been sent in to battle Bengal’s growing Maoist menace....

Written by Madhuparna Das | Efr Headquarters (salua,west Bengal) | Published: February 19, 2010 12:17 am

As the bodies of its men killed in the Maoist attack at Silda in West Midnapore reached here,anger ran high at the Headquarters of the Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) in Kharagpur. It was the lowest point for the force that was once considered among the finest in the state,set up under the Special EFR Act during British times and drawing the best fighters from among the Gorkhas,Lepchas and Bhutias (all hill tribes). Now as West Bengal turns to it to contain its expanding Maoist problem,a combat force that is battling government apathy and neglect,and struggling to attract new recruits,is sending in overworked men to take on a highly motivated enemy.

Inspector General of Armed Police Vivek Sahay,who commands the EFR,admits the force is at its lowest point. “It has lost its fighting spirit and its combat worthiness.” he says. “The irony of the situation is that the Silda EFR camp was to be shifted to a better location in the next 15 days.”

While the brutality of the attack on the camp may have drawn national attention — as the Maoists intended — it wasn’t the first on the unit that comes under the West Bengal Police. Many EFR personnel have lost their lives in attacks,with anger boiling over at the force headquarters in Salua as well as among personnel.

However,there have been few changes on the ground to provide the EFR men better protection,or to give them a break from constant combat duty. Hariprasad Subba,son of Madhukar Subba who died in the Silda attack,told The Indian Express that his father had been trying to get leave and visit them. “But his seniors did not allow him to go. For the past few days,he had been calling us over the phone repeatedly and said he wanted to see us. He was missing us.”

The Silda camp was being run in complete violation of all safety precautions,set up in the middle of a marketplace basically to provide protection to the nearby CPM office.

IG Sahay admits that there were intelligence inputs about the camp being a Maoist target and that inspections by senior officials had shown that it wasn’t well fortified. Even the condition that such camps have a mandatory sanitised zone of 150-200 metres wasn’t met. It was because of these factors that the SP of West Midnapore and the Sub-Divisional Police Officer,Jhargram,had concluded that the camp be shifted. However,before they could move,the Maoists attacked.

In-charge of the Silda camp,Subedar Hasta Bahadur Rai survived as he was not present when the Maoists struck. He says even their local sources had been talking of an attack. “I had visited the Belpahari police station a number of times and informed them about the threat. But look at the tragedy… how our men were killed.”

Four four years,admits Sahay,no new recruitments have been made,despite the government being approached many times. The prolonged delay is reflected in the rising average age of EFR personnel,certainly not the ideal situation for a combat force. The majority of EFR personnel posted at Silda,for example,were 35-plus.

Official sources admit there is “tremendous stress” on the existing personnel. Because of large vacancies it is difficult to have a proper “roll out roster”,says an EFR top official. The roster,he explains,is basically a schedule that allows rest to a force on deployment and enables injection of fresh blood in camps. However,in case of the EFR,this has virtually come to a total standstill.

There is another fallout of this. Normally,when a platoon (comprising 70 personnel) is called back to the headquarters after field duty,they are put through fresh training. With EFR units deployed in combat areas for weeks and months on end,there is no time for such training.

The Silda shock may prompt some changes now. IG,Armed Police,Vivek Sahay says several EFR camps will be dismantled in the next couple of weeks and the security set-up of the rest reinforced. “I’ve recommended to the government to wind up vulnerable EFR camps in Maoist-affected areas,” he says.

But such government promises sound hollow at the Salua residential quarters,where coffins bearing the slain personnel arrived on Wednesday. Nineteen-year-old Sujit Thapa,a relative of one of those who died at Silda,was among those who took part in the demonstration against state ministers who came to offer condolences. “One after the other our people are being butchered,” he told The Indian Express. “And there is no redressal. Look at the residential complex of the EFR personnel… close to a forest and having no security,not even a boundary wall. We demand that the Chief Minister come here and assure us.”

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