Uniformed Mess

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The Maoist attack on EFR’s camp at Silda has stirred more trouble for the beleaguered West Bengal government. It is the long-neglected EFR that is now threatening to revolt against the state.

‘Little boy’ and ‘fat man’ had rested here for a few nights before devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Now, 65 years later, a probable detonation in West Midnapore district’s Salua, the headquarters of Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR) that lost 24 men to Maoists on 15 February, threatens to rock Bengal. All thanks to a bumbling and apathetic state government that primarily protects the interests of Bengal’s ruling Marxists. From a fine fighting force that won glory during the 1971 war and in counter-insurgency operations in Manipur and Nagaland in the mid-1970s, EFR has been reduced to a mere adjunct of the state police that, as the force’s Special Inspector-General Benoy Chakraborty charged rather dramatically some weeks ago, “misuses and ill-treats” the force.

Years of neglect of the EFR has not only led to a breakdown of morale, but spawned a brewing resentment that threatens to erupt into a full-fledged revolt that can only have disastrous implications for the entire state.

On 19 February, Chakraborty (his head and face covered with a black cloth while addressing reporters) had lambasted the state police administration for not shifting the EFR camp at Silda despite repeated requests, and blamed the West Midnapore SP for the massacre. An enraged Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee ordered Chakraborty’s immediate suspension. But as word of the action leaked out, EFR personnel and their families rallied around the special IG, and warned against any move to remove him. EFR men in civvies, armed with their service weapons, were seen on the streets with their families.

A chastened Bhattacharjee retreated. Earlier, angry families at Salua heckled five ministers, including Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta, who had gone to Silda a day after the attack. That things were on the boil ought to have been evident to anyone with a modicum of intelligence. But the state administration compounded matters by rolling back the compensation package that Dasgupta had announced at Salua. “This is simply unimaginable and defies all logic. When the state government knows of the anger prevailing at Salua, it is suicidal to go back on its earlier promise. Things can only get worse now,” a senior EFR officer told Open on 2 March.

The state government would do well to remember that the EFR and the mutinous Bangladesh Rifles (reorganised as Bangladesh Border Guards now) have a common origin in the Dacca Military Police (DMP) that was raised in 1907. The DMP, whose recruits were primarily Gorkhas, Bodos and Kacharis (Dimasas from Assam), was re-christened as EFR in 1920.

Just before Independence, the West Bengal government demanded that the EFR be shifted out of (then) East Bengal since most its personnel were from areas that would fall within India. The British accepted this and while Muslim officers and men of the force stayed back to form the nucleus of what became the East Pakistan Rifles in 1947, a majority of the officers and men of the EFR shifted to Hijli and then to Salua, which was an Allied Air Force storage base in the Second World War (when the two atom bombs were stored here for two days en route to Japan). The East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) became Bangladesh Rifles after 1971 and the EFR, incidentally, valiantly fought the EPR along the Indo-East Pakistan border in Bengal’s Nadia district during the 1971 war.

In some ways, the EFR and BDR have a shared history of being neglected. “In case of the BDR, the top brass—who were always from the Army—misused, ill-treated and neglected the lower ranks whose pay and privileges were far less than the Bangladesh army’s regular soldiers. In the case of EFR… the state police have always taken us for granted and used us to do their dirty work. No attention has ever been paid to our living conditions, our salaries have remained stagnant for decades and we’re denied many of the privileges that men of the West Bengal Police get,” an incensed JCO-rank officer of the EFR tells Open.

The EFR was earlier commanded by men on deputation from the Indian Army—its first commandant was Major Mohabbat Singh Thapa of the 2/9 Gorkha Rifles. “No police officer who headed the EFR, with the exception of our present special IG, has matched the Army officers who commanded us. That was because they really looked after us, inspired us and deserved our unquestioned loyalty, respect and love,” says a retired assistant commandant of the force. Many senior police officers attest to this and agree with EFR boss Chakraborty’s allegations. “There is no denying that the EFR has been accorded step-motherly treatment. But what do you expect of a highly politicised force like the West Bengal Police whose officers have to bow to the dictates of CPM leaders, more so at the district level? The EFR has suffered because it could not be politicised due to its composition and that’s why it has been used for tasks like providing protection to CPM party offices (as in Silda and a few other places) and even for routine law and order duties, which are clearly not the para-military force’s mandate. Since the CPM has not been able to use the EFR to further its interests, the party-led and party-driven government has neglected it and dished out unfair treatment to it,” says a police officer who retired as IG a few years ago.

The state has also been extremely short-sighted, if not downright stupid, in overlooking the implications of angering a force whose ranks are dominated by Gorkhas. Not surprisingly, the neglect of EFR, its misuse and the anger in its ranks, have been successfully exploited by the Gorkha Janmoukti Morcha (spearheading the demand for a separate ‘Gorkhaland’ state) to showcase the overall neglect of Gorkhas by the West Bengal government. “It is a potentially explosive situation here, and one wrong step could lead to a fierce revolt,” warns a high-ranking EFR officer. Sadly and strangely, the Bengal government seems to be oblivious to this stark reality.

The EFR script could well go the way of the BDR’s. Sheikh Hasina weathered the quake that the BDR mutiny had caused. An already beleaguered Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee won’t.