Left wing extremism: Spotting the Red Flags: High Degree of Alertness Needed to Combat Maoists
A detailed probe by the CRPF, Chhattisgarh Police and NIA will shed light on the lapses, which will help in drawing lessons from the April 3 incident.
The ambush on the combined forces of the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action — popularised by its acronym Cobra— the Bastariya Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the District Reserve Guards (DRG) and the Special Task Force (STF) of the Chhattisgarh Police on April 2 in the forests adjoining Jonaguda village on Bijapur-Sukma border claimed 22 lives of the security forces while 31 others were wounded and one Cobra commando is reported missing. Though this is a setback for the security forces, no one can deny the fact that these personnel put up a gallant fight during the four-hour-long gun battle, inflicting heavy casualties on the Maoist extremists, presently conjectured to be around 20 with possibilities of the figure rising. The body of a slain Maoist woman was recovered by the security forces. It is common knowledge among the security forces operating in the Left Wing Extremism-affected areas that the Maoists usually carry the bodies of their dead and injured comrades immediately after the operations. The figures of Maoist casualties will spill out when they pay homage to their dead associates in their missives to their comrades.
Almost every year, when the perception goes around that the Maoist menace has been contained to a large degree and the situation is well under control, the extremists are known to carry out such massive attacks resulting in heavy casualties of security personnel drawing countrywide attention. On March 21 last year, 17 personnel of the DRG and STF were martyred in a five-hour-long encounter with Maoists in the Minpa forests of Sukma district. Such attacks between March and June are launched by Maoists as part of their Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) when leaves dry up, providing clear all-round visibility in the jungles.
In all these encounters, the much-wanted Maoist area commander of battalion no.1 Madvi Hidma, who carries a reward of Rs 40 lakh, is reported to have played a pivotal role by planning and leading the attacks. It was to apprehend this Maoist leader that the massive operation comprising over 1,700 personnel of security forces was launched. According to intelligence agencies, Philippines-trained Hidma was active in the area.
Though the intelligence input was spot on, what may not have been presaged is the fact that he had over 300 Maoists with him, out to take on the security forces. When the Maoists plan an attack on security forces, they do so in hordes of hundreds with a view to overawe and overpower the security forces by surrounding and suddenly firing at them from all directions. The spot for an attack is of their choosing where they can prevent the force personnel from escaping their dragnet while they themselves remain concealed in vantage points.
It was attacks of this kind that prompted the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government to fortify their police stations in such a manner that they remained well-protected while inflicting heavy casualties on the People’s War Group, as the Maoists were then known. Along with the CRPF and the Greyhounds (a specialised outfit of Andhra Pradesh Police), the state police were able to subdue the Maoists though they are known to indulge in sporadic incidents occasionally.
The CRPF has been using drones and the Belgian Malinois dogs for operations in the area. The use of drones could have alerted the security forces of the Maoists converging at the spot of the incident and prevented their falling into the trap. That the Maoists had ample time after the attack is evident from the fact that they not only carried away the weapons of the deceased personnel but even stripped them of their shoes and equipment. The inaccessibility of the spot of the incident coupled with the possibility of the reinforcements being ambushed delayed evacuation of casualties, though Heron drones were brought into action to carry out surveillance about the presence of Maoists in the area.
While intelligence inputs of the police and the security forces are often reliable, the Maoists too have a wide intelligence network spread across the states where they have a presence. They have their moles in every village who pass on information to the Maoists. Any villager suspected of being a police informer is eliminated. The terror unleashed by them forces the villagers to abide by their diktats. Drawn between the Devil and the deep sea, the villagers chose to extend all support to the Maoists as their action can be lethal while the security forces may only beat them up or arrest them if suspected of helping the Maoists.
There are lessons to be learnt from the incident of April 3. Drones should have been extensively used to ascertain the presence and strength of Maoists in the area. Since personnel are prone to throw caution to the wind while returning to their bases, commanders need to ensure that all precautions are taken till they reach the base. On finding that the villages had been vacated by the villagers, suspicions should have been aroused and the forces alerted. But in their haste to return, they failed to notice this glaring signal.
A detailed inquiry and investigation by the CRPF, Chhattisgarh Police and NIA will shed light on the lapses, which will help in drawing lessons from the incident.
Though it would be too premature to conclude that Maoist terror will fade away in the near future, the security forces need to guard against their spreading their tentacles in other states. During the past few years, the Maoists have been attempting to get a firm foothold in Wayanad district of Kerala from where they plan to branch out to other districts. The Thunderbolt commandos of the Kerala Police have had some encounters with Maoists in Wayanad in recent months.
(The author retired as inspector general of police, CRPF. Views expressed are personal.)