April 3, 2021. It was that time of the year when the foliage was dry and sparse, and there was no rain or slush to hamper the movement of guerrillas in their favourite playground—the killing fields of Chhattisgarh. The sun was directly overhead but the ultras were not chasing shadows under trees. Armed with grenades, rocket launchers, light-machine guns, rifles and country-made pistols, more than 300 men and women of the banned CPI (Maoist) surrounded 450 security personnel in the open fields in Tarem near the Sukma-Bijapur border. They killed 22 securitymen and took one hostage.
The terror script has not changed since the massacre of 76 CRPF personnel near Chintalnar village in Dantewada on April 6, 2010. That attack almost wiped out the entire battalion of CRPF.
In subsequent years, the dance of death has continued in Bijapur, Darbha Valley, Dantewada, Sukma and Bastar, where battalion number one of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) has claimed more than 100 lives in the last decade.
On April 5, Union Home Minister Amit Shah flew down to the Basaguda camp of the CRPF, to find out what went wrong. The problems are one too many and the buck does not stop with just one person, one department or one government.
When security personnel are inducted in counter-insurgency forces like the CRPF’s CoBRA commando unit or the state police’s Special Task Force (STF) or District Reserve Guard (DRG) battalions, they undergo a basic compulsory training for at least three months and are then deployed on the field. While there is no dearth of commando training centres today, holding regular courses and updating the syllabus and trends to learn new skills and tactics for intelligence gathering and strategical planning of operations still remain a far cry.
“Every CoBRA battalion is as good as a training school. But apart from physical training for operations, it is important to update the syllabus with different case studies,” said K. Durga Prasad, ex-chief of the Greyhounds unit in Andhra Pradesh which wiped out Naxals from the state. “Each incident teaches where we went wrong, what we missed out. Revisiting those operations will make the learning curve steep and more effective.”
There was a time when the DRG, a locally raised force, was given special training by the CRPF’s CoBRA commandos. “The local boys in DRG already have knowledge of the terrain, language and a special bond with the region,” said a CRPF official. “Had the practice of training with CoBRA continued, it would have helped the forces.”
The latest operation in Bijapur has also raised questions of coordination among forces. “When multiple forces work together, it is imperative that they train together, because when the chips are down during an operation, it is the muscle memory that works,” said Prasad. He said another important skill for commandos is to learn the local dialect, which is lacking these days.
The failed experiment with Salwa Judum—the local militia trained to counter Naxal violence in Chhattisgarh—led to drying up of information channels in Naxal strongholds after the Supreme Court banned it in 2011. The security forces had to go back to the old method of running sources amid Naxal groups and sympathisers. With no road and mobile connectivity in these areas, the dependence on human intelligence has only increased.
A glaring example is the use of intermediaries to free Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, the CoBRA Commando now in Naxal custody. Sources said no direct contact was made between security forces and Maoists for three days and only back-channel talks were being done. On April 6, the CPI (Maoist) finally confirmed that Manhas was in their custody. “All efforts are on to free him whether it is through armed operation or efforts by civil society members,” said Kuldiep Singh, director general, CRPF.
“We can deploy as much technology and drones, but we need sources who can go inside the Maoist camps, come out and give us information,” said K. Srinivasan, former inspector general of intelligence, CRPF. The downside of the method, he said, is that it takes 24 to 36 hours for the source to reach any place where there is either a road or a mobile signal to share the intelligence gained.
The latest attack in Bijapur was an intelligence-based operation. Srinivasan said the men on the ground need to be careful of traps and pressures from sources to launch operations. “They should be able to analyse the intelligence they are receiving,” he said. “The human intelligence can be synchronised with technology by drone mapping of those areas.”
In the Naxal-dominated areas of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and even West Bengal, the inaccessible areas have reduced over years. This has been possible through road construction, setting up of schools and providing medical aid, borewells and even solar lamps. A government official in Andhra Pradesh said the facilities provided by the state have changed the perception of the governments in tribal areas.
The Bijapur encounter, however, spelt the need to speed up development activities and involve the local population. Senior IPS officer Prakash Singh said funds have been pumped in by the Union home ministry to left-wing extremism-affected districts over the years. “The Central and state governments need to ensure these funds are only used for building infrastructure,” said an MHA official. “Regular audits, action taken reports and utilisation certificates need to be maintained.” For now, the Maoist threat aside, the battle against bureaucratic red tapism and lack of political will continues.