Living in a place ‘unfit for humans’, a battalion revolts
Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay , IndianExpress
It was one hunger strike that registered barely a blip. But then the 58 jawans, four assistant sub-inspectors and three cooks of the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) 1 are used to being overlooked. It’s been eight straight years now that the men of West Bengal Police’s armed force have served in Maoist-hit areas. For the past year, this has been in a bareknuckle, half-fallen structure, infested with rats, that goes for a camp here, in one of Bengal’s hottest Naxal zones. For drinking water, they have an uncovered well in the compound; for toilet, the open space around the same.
A CRPF unit asked to stay at the camp had refused, saying “Yahaan pe koi insaan nahin rah sakta hai (No human being can live here).”
It was in the hope of a change in their living conditions that the men revolted. On September 20, when ordered to raid an unknown Maoist hideout, 13 jawans at the camp demanded replenishments for their contingent. The Inspector-in-Charge of Binpur Police Station refused and marked all the 58 jawans at the camp “absent”, threatening further departmental action.
Anger simmering for years, they sat on a hunger strike on September 21. The Commanding Officer of IRB 1, Kalyan Kumar Mullick, was stopped from entering the camp when he came to enquire. Soon, the revolt had spread to all the six camps of IRB 1 located in the Naxal-hit areas of Bankura and West Midnapore, plus to the camps at the headquarters in Durgapur, Suri in Birbhum district, Singur in Hooghly district, Nandigram in East Midnapore and Katwa in Burdwan district.
There are 327 jawans in IRB 1, and out of them 215 are deployed in the Bankura and West Midnapore camps. The jawans demanded that either Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or one of her representatives come for talks.
An alarmed Mamata rushed Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti, DG, Armed Police, who is the head of all the 12 armed police batallions, to Shilda. It was Chakrabarti’s promise of redressal of their grievances that convinced the jawans to withdraw their agitation.
“The DG has submitted a report. We will definitely look into their grievances,” says Kundan Lal Tamta, ADG, Armed Police.
Ironically, the Shilda camp had come up in March 2010, a month after the attack by Maoists on an EFR (Eastern Frontier Rifles) camp about a kilometre away that left 26 dead. So that camp was dismantled and an abandoned government office at the present site was converted into a camp.
If the idea was better safety, the Shilda camp is a mockery. The walls at the back are low enough to provide anyone easy entry. Till the DG’s visit, the walls were also covered with thick bushes providing easy cover.
In the name of recreation, there is one television and one carrom board for the 65 who stay here under constant Naxal threat. They have remained in Maoist areas since 2003, the year the IRB was set up.
“You can see for yourself,” said a jawan, adding that they were sitting ducks for Maoists. “We eat along with rats and lizards. In the past one year we have killed four poisonous snakes that sneaked in. There is frequent loadshedding, and often we cannot start the generator because there is no diesel. We pass the night in darkness. We have set up a sentry duty and a night patrol duty. We asked for some sand to build more bunkers but that was refused.”
Their main demand is a transfer and posting in the district police. “Since our recruitment in 2003 we have been moving from one jungle to another. Men in other armed police units get regular posting after three years, but we do not get it. Why this discrimination? I am 24 now. Shall I have to hunt down dangerous people such as Naxalites in jungles all through my career?” says a jawan.
Such is the pressure, they allege, that at the headquarters at Durgapur, four have committed suicide and 10 have become mentally unstable.
Incidentally, Mullick doesn’t dispute the facts, just the figures. “I can remember two suicides by jawans at the headquarters and one is suffering from insanity. The jawan who is suffering form insanity is still there and has been assigned duties he can perform,” he says, in all seriousness, adding he doesn’t believe the suicides were due to work conditions.