Chhattisgarh: The Same Trap, Again
A day earlier, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh had boasted, "the Maoists would be finished from Chhattisgarh soon".
Prime Mister Narendra Modi condemned the attack as 'brutal' and 'inhuman', while Union Home Minister (UHM) Rajnath Singh termed it 'cowardly'. Facing the first such major blow to the SFs in anti-Maoist operations under the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government at the Centre, UHM Singh issued a suo moto statement regarding the incident in both houses of the Parliament on December 3, declaring, "It is our firm commitment to provide every possible assistance to the Security Forces and we will continue the operations till this problem is fully eradicated." The UHM's statement gave details of the operation under which the present debacle occurred:
The State Police and the Central Armed Police Forces have been conducting operations in the LWE affected States to effectively tackle the problem of Left Wing Extremism. On the basis of intelligence inputs about the movement of CPI(Maoist) cadres, CRPF launched a multi phased massive operation on 16.11.2014 in the Chintagufa area of Sukma District, Chhattisgarh.
2. In this operation, 2253 CRPF personnel and 224 State police personnel (a total of 2477 security forces personnel) participated. During the first and second phase of this operation on 17.11.2014 and 21.11.2014, there had been several encounters between security forces and Maoists. On the basis of information received from various sources which include intelligence and media sources, there have been reports of killings of 12 Maoists on 21.11.2014. However, this is yet to be confirmed. During this multi phase operation, a few security forces personnel were injured who had been treated.
3. The third phase of this operation was started on 27.11.2014. After combing operations in this densely forested area, when the troops of 223 Bn and 206 CoBRA Bn were returning to their camps, they were ambushed by Maoists near village Kasalpar. This incident occurred at 10.30 AM on 01.12.2014. The troops retaliated and responded to the Maoists' attack bravely. This encounter lasted for around 3 hours. In this encounter, 14 CRPF personnel of 223 Bn. have been martyred and 14 others were injured. As soon as this encounter started, other parties of CRPF which were present nearby rushed for reinforcement.
4. The injured security forces personnel were brought to the base camp at Chintagufa and they were then sent to Jagdalpur and Raipur for further treatment. In this incident, the Maoists managed to take away the weapons and ammunitions of the deceased jawans.
UHM Singh had referred to the encounter that took place during the second phase of the combing operation on November 21, where the unconfirmed killing of 12 Maoists (the CRPF IG in Bastar claimed the number to be 15) occurred. The incident had also resulted in confirmed injuries to five CRPF personnel initially, while another two troopers, including an IAF gunner, were injured when the Maoists fired on the helicopter that was sent to evacuate the injured. The chopper was damaged, but managed to evacuate the injured troopers.
The December 1 ambush came as surprise to many, as it occurred at a time when the frequency of Maoist attacks was gradually diminishing and Maoist surrenders, especially in the heartland Bastar Division, were mounting rapidly. The Maoists had issued more than one communication admitting losses suffered, both in terms of cadres and weapons, as well as increasing desertions among cadres and sympathisers. Nevertheless, there have long been apprehensions that the Maoists were planning 'something big', to restore the sagging morale of cadres.
It was the SFs who served up a golden opportunity to the Maoists, repeating past mistakes in pursuit of a misconceived 'strategy' of 'area domination'. The plot was somewhat similar to the devastating incident suffered by CRPF troops at Chintalnad in Dantewada District on April 6, 2010. A unit had moved out on an area 'domination exercise', and was ambushed on their way back to camp. 75 CRPF troopers and one Policeman of the Chhattisgarh Police were slaughtered by the Maoists.
As the dust settles, reports indicate several things that went wrong on December 1. Firstly, the group that was ambushed had been isolated from the main contingent. Secondly, the troopers were tired after the protracted operation. Thirdly, the team had 'deviated' from its planned route. According to CRPF sources, the "deviation from the planned route" took place because seven CRPF men were suffering from malaria: "The jawans were showing signs of cerebral malaria. We had asked for a chopper to evacuate them on November 30, but the chopper refused to land citing lack of space, leaving us with no option but to carry the sick personnel, which slowed down our movement." Fourthly, the IAF choppers refused to evacuate the injured immediate aftermath of the ambush as ".... there was no clarity on whether the landing area at the encounter site in the jungle had been sanitized." CRPF claims timely evacuation could have saved at least three lives. Fifthly, there were allegations that surveillance drones withdrew midway through the operation, disregarding SF requests. Further, some reports also suggest that a Maoist 'mole' led the SFs into the trap. As usual, there are also reports claiming that the SFs violated standard operating procedures (SOPs) by following the same route over 10 days.
There have also been claims by the CRPF that the Maoists used villagers as human shields, as a result of which SFs could not retaliate properly. This remains to be confirmed by investigators, but certainly appears strange, in view of the claim that the Maoists ambushed the CRPF unit. There is no precedent of an ambush carried out by the Maoists with human shields in tow.
An enquiry has been ordered into what went wrong leading to the huge loss.
Incidentally, newspapers on December 1 reported an outbreak of malaria across Bastar. Besides SF personnel, a huge number of villagers had also been hit. The lack of medical facilities in the area was exposed, with over 50 personnel of the State Police and CRPF lying on the floor for treatment at the Maharani Hospital at Jagdalpur. Bastar Inspector General of Police (IG) S.R.P. Kalluri noted, "Our operations have been affected. We have asked the State Government to immediately take note of the situation and ensure medicare for Policemen."
Disgracefully, the uniforms of the troopers who had been killed found their way into a garbage dump outside the Ambedkar Hospital in Raipur, where the post-mortem was conducted, displaying extraordinary negligence and a collapse, both of the CRPF and Police leadership, as well as minimal norms of hospital administration. Once again, an enquiry has been ordered to fix responsibility for the lapses leading to the dumping of the personal effects of the dead troopers.
The attack establishes that, despite the continuous desertions and surrenders, the core of Maoist strike capabilities remain intact in the Bastar Division. The surrender of Chamballa Ravinder aka Arjun, who rose through the ranks and became the commander of the first company raised by Maoists in Abujhmaad, and was later elevated to the rank of commander of the 'Abujhmaad battalion', the second Maoist Battalion in Bastar, suggested, of course, that all was not well with the Maoists. Nevertheless, as in the past, the rebels have demonstrated a residual strength sufficient to exploit SF blunders.
There are no visible gains from the 'multi phased massive operation' initiated by the SFs on November 16, 2014, in the Chintagufa area, but the Maoists have achieved some definite advantages, beyond the demonstrative impact of the damage inflicted on the CRPF troops. By firing at helicopters on several occasions, including the latest incident on November 21, they generated sufficient doubt in the minds of the IAF to fly evacuation operations. Further, they successfully slowed down 'enemy forces' (SFs) by planting IEDs, and, eventually, inflicted heavy casualties on the SFs. The CRPF had already issued a ban on the use of Mine Proof Vehicles (MPVs), describing them as 'coffins on wheels'.
Crucially, the December 1 incident is evidence of persistent failures of strategy on the part of the SFs and their planners. Despite claims, the 'multi-phased operation' was based, at best, on 'general intelligence' regarding the presence of Maoists in the targeted area, and not on any specific intelligence. The Force was, consequently, wandering about a vast forest area for two weeks, simply hoping to smoke out the Maoists in an 'area domination' approach that has demonstratively and repeatedly failed in the past, particularly given the inadequacy of Forces available to effectively dominate the thousands of kilometres of dense jungle in the Bastar Division. Unsurprisingly, though belatedly, UHM Rajnath Singh has now announced, that the CPMFs should "desist from expansive area-domination exercises" in Maoist areas, and to focus on specific intelligence based targeted operations.
The strategic vulnerabilities of the SFs are also a direct consequence of the perversity of States' approach to the Maoist problem. In a candid interview, the outgoing Director General of the CRPF, Dilip Trivedi, observed, on November 27, 2014, "For some States, continuing Naxal violence is beneficial. It helps them get central funds. And then it's not their men who die but those from outside the State (central force personnel)." It remains the case that, despite the training of over 22,000 Chhattisgarh Police personnel at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare College at Kanker, the overwhelming proportion of the anti-Maoist fighting continues to be done by Central Forces, whose total deployment in Chhattisgarh amounts to some 31 Battalions, with each battalion yielding approximately 400 personnel on the ground - that is, roughly 12,400 Central Paramilitary Force (CPMF) personnel. Sources said the DG was hinting at Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha revealed media reports. Trivedi observed, further, "The easier way of fighting IEDs (improvised explosive devices) is to ensure Maoists do not get explosives easily. But the Government is not serious about regulation of explosives' sale. State Governments have to stop explosives from reaching Maoists." In essence, Trivedi was underling the lack of a genuine effort to solve a problem on the part of the State Governments. Under the preceding United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government in Delhi, the Centre's role in tackling the Maoists had been over-emphasised on the grounds that this was a 'national problem', transcending State boundaries, and could, consequently, be resolved only at a 'national' level. The affected States had eagerly seized upon this logic, stridently demanding greater financial benefits to tackle 'developmental deficits' and more and more CPMF deployment, and abdicating all responsibility for the management of 'law and order' or 'security' in the State. It is significant that, of the 2,477 personnel involved in the 'multi phased massive operation' of initiated on November 16, 2014, just 224 belonged to the State Police. The cumulative consequences of this approach had already been demonstrated in the massacre at Chintalnad in April 2010, but no lessons appeared to have been learned.
Since it assumed power at the Centre with a strong majority, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has made some appropriate noises regarding Left Wing Extremism (LWE). The Union Ministry of Home Affairs' (UMHA's) draft policy states:
The LWE (Left Wing Extremism) affected States will take the lead in the counter-insurgency campaign with support from the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs). The CAPFs have the responsibility of holding the counter-insurgency grid together, operating seamlessly across state borders in coordination with the State police forces. The CAPF personnel deployed in LWE affected areas would be given incentives on par with the maximum prevailing levels - those available in Jammu and Kashmir. In the worst left-wing extremism affected areas, security interventions will be followed by development interventions; in moderately affected areas, both the interventions will go hand in hand and in less affected areas, development interventions will take precedence.
In the wake of the December 1 debacle, UHM Rajnath Singh has now declared that the States must take the lead in anti-Maoist operations. A senior UMHA official reportedly stated: "The State (Chhattisgarh) was told that the experience of previous counter-insurgency campaigns in India in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura shows that State Police should take the lead in the campaign with support from Central Forces... This also forms the main part of the new national policy against Maoists that has been framed by the Home Ministry. The Policy is now set to be laid before the Cabinet Committee on Security for approval."
The counter-insurgency experience of Punjab, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh has long been before the nation, and cannot have escaped the attention of the Governments of Chhattisgarh and other Maoist afflicted States, or of regimes at the Centre. If the lessons of this experience have been consistently ignored, the reasons can only lie in the perverse politics that former CRPF DG Trivedi hinted at. It remains to be seen whether the new dispensation at Delhi can overcome this pattern of politics, to capitalize effectively on the visible weakening of the Maoist organisation and cadres, or will the persistence of political and strategic folly once again create the spaces for another Maoist revival.
(The view expressed is of the write and not IBNS)