Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Central Reserve Police Mess / RAHUL PANDITA

For 15 days, since November 15, more than 2,000 troops from six battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had been venturing out to conduct SADO — Search and Destroy Operation(s) — in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. The troops, roughly divided into ten groups, would traverse villages that are considered Maoist strongholds: Polampalli, Kankerlanka, Puswada, Jaggawaram, Korapad, Kanrajgubbal, Rangaiguda, Degalmetta, Ramaram, Pidmel, and Chintagufa. Since they had no intelligence inputs, the troops were asked to engage Maoists if they ever came in contact.
There is a very little possibility of such chance encounters unless the Maoists themselves want to engage the CRPF. In their strongholds, the Maoists have no dearth of human intelligence through their sympathisers. In fact, several arrested Maoists have revealed to the security agencies how their squads had passed less than 100 metres away from CRPF troops without being detected. The CRPF has, in the last few months, tried desperately to win over the local population in these areas through civic action programmes. Their men distribute items like transistors, cycles, and saris among the people. But in Maoist strongholds such as in Sukma, many adivasis do not accept them. On Independence Day this year, some of these items were handed over forcibly to adivasis in several villages. But, according to a CRPF officer, many of them threw away these items at the periphery of the village and ran away. “The people here are angry because they see their near and dear ones dying of malaria, or diarrhoea, or complications during pregnancy,” explained the officer. “The government has not diagnosed the problem and is behaving rather like a quack,” he said.
Gorillas, not Guerrillas
The operation that ultimately led to the death of 14 CRPF personnel on December 1 was to end a day before, but was at the last hour extended by one day. On the night of November 30, about 800 troops were asked by their commanders to “take harbour” on a hillock named Hill 406, south of Kasalpada village. The villagers knew about the presence of such large number of troops. By the evening, says a soldier who was present there, the gathering had turned into a mela (fair). The troops lit a fire and chatted loudly in groups. “Had the Maoists attacked during the night, there would have been mayhem,” the soldier said.
At 6.30 the next morning, about 200 troops among this group were asked to move towards Kasalpada village and stay put on the outskirts of the village. It is the heart of Maoist territory, and the troops halted in an open field. “We are told that we need to fight the guerrillas (Maoists) like guerrillas,” said a CRPF officer, “but by the time they halted outside Kasalpada, our troops had turned into gorillas.” The basic requirements of guerrilla warfare, said the officer, are: surprise, mobility, small-team formations, quick action, closely-knit group, specific task, training and motivation, and effective command. But none of these was met, he said. The Maoists were closely watching the troop movement, so there was no surprise. There was restricted mobility — the troops only went as far as a few miles every day. The troops were from six different battalions and were not acting on any specific input. Several of them had already contracted malaria and longed to go on leave.
Just before 9 a.m., the commandant of the CRPF’s 223 Battalion, Sanad Kamal, who was also the acting commander of the group, received a radio message from the CRPF’s Inspector-General (Operations) in Chhattisgarh, H.S. Sidhu. He asked Kamal to join him for a meeting at a spot, 400 metres away. Before he left with nine men, reveal eyewitnesses, his juniors asked him if they could secure Kasalpada. But Kamal just asked them to wait.
After he was gone for an hour, the deputy commandant of the 223 Battalion, B.S. Verma, sent a message to Kamal on the radio, asking him if they could leave the area. “No, just hold ground,” he was told. In the meantime, the troops had broken into small groups. Some took out utensils and began to prepare Maggi noodles under a tree. Some smoked in another corner. A few veered closer towards the village.
Shock and awe
The Maoists, numbering 50-60, attacked the group at 10.30 a.m. Oblivious to the CRPF troops, the Maoists had positioned their snipers on top of large tamarind trees. They led the attack with such accuracy that two officers and several others among the 223 BN died very early on. The rest of the troops, without any command or control, began firing indiscriminately in all directions, leading to complete chaos. As a result, the CoBRA commandos, who took position on one side, could not even pinpoint locations from where Maoists were firing. The CRPF troops fired about 7,000 rounds of bullets in response to a few hundred fired by the Maoists.
“They (Maoists) were so agile,” recounts an injured soldier, “I saw one of them taking off his chappals, climbing on a tree, fire a few shots, get down stealthily and then immediately change location.” They shot with precision while the CRPF troops exhausted all their ammunition. Later, some of them just stood in daze, almost ready to surrender to the Maoists if they had come closer, said a CoBRA commando.
The attack lasted for an hour after which the Maoists looted whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. The CoBRA troops recovered 6 bodies of soldiers beneath a tree. The Maoists had lured them one by one, showing them a glimpse of themselves, and as they took aim, the Maoist snipers hit them with precision. “Also, I won’t be surprised if some CRPF men died of bullets fired by their own colleagues,” said the CoBRA commando.
The IG finally arrived at 2.30 p.m., four hours after the attack had begun. The commando recalls that he just came, shouted “ Bharat Mata ki jai ,” and then told his men: “ Jo hua so hua .”
Then began the long walk back to the camp. The troops took away string cots from villagers to carry the injured and the dead. It took them seven hours to walk a distance of seven kilometres through the dense jungle. “We were so scared that the Maoists might attack again,” said a CRPF soldier.
They reached the camp at 9.30 p.m. Two injured soldiers could not make it. They died on the way.
The other injured personnel are now being treated at the civil hospital in Jagdalpur. More than 70 other CRPF personnel, suffering from malaria, are also admitted there. But the hospital is in a very bad shape. Succumbing to media pressure, the hospital authorities removed civilian patients from their beds, offering them to the soldiers. “It is like living in a latrine, if you ask me,” said a CRPF soldier undergoing treatment there.
“One thing I tell you,” he said, “it is better to be a Maoist in Chhattisgarh than be a CRPF jawan .”

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