The air in the jungles of Dantewada district must have been thick with the foreboding of doom, but the jawans of CRPF’s Alpha company were perhaps too tired to notice. Setting up camp in a shaded clearing about six km from their base camp in Chintalnar, all these men of the 62nd Battalion would have been craving for was a few hours of sleep. As they slept, however, two companies of 220 men of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) crept up, surrounded the virtually unguarded camp and assumed positions on the dominating features around. At around 5.25 am on April 6, the 34th hour of an ongoing area domination exercise undertaken unilaterally by the CRPF, they fired the first shots.
In the next 30 minutes, the battle became a turkey shoot as the Maoists killed the startled CRPF men at will, showering them with a merciless hail of bullets. As some CRPF personnel managed to radio back for help, a fresh team of Bravo company set out for Chintalnar. Unfortunately for them, the Maoists had anticipated the arrival of reinforcements as well. Not only had the PLGA cadres laid IEDs and pressure mines along the road that would lead to the Alpha company camp, they had also set up machine guns at tactically sound positions.
So, as the bullet-proof vehicle sent from the CRPF base camp wended its way through the route considered safe by security forces, it came across a typical ambush tactic—a tree trunk blocking the way. As the special police officers (SPOs) jumped out to clear it, the Bravo company commander decided to take the other route, perhaps forgetting in his nervous haste that it was prone to Maoist-laid mines. Within minutes, the vehicle drove over a powerful pressure mine and was blown to smithereens.
By the time the first reinforcements could arrive at the Alpha company’s makeshift camp, 76 men, including deputy commandant Satyavan Singh, assistant commandant B.L. Meena and the lone representative of the Chhattisgarh police, head constable R. Siyaram Dhruv, lay dead. The attack, which had begun with intensive fire from all sides, progressed to PLGA men lobbing grenades at the CRPF jawans. Several petrochemical bombs too were lobbed into their midst, burning several CRPF personnel alive. Those who survived probably pretended they were dead even as the Maoist attackers quickly gathered the weapons of the fallen CRPF men and melted away into the jungle.
For a nation at war with itself, the April 6 attack was in many ways the tipping point in the battle between the Indian state and the CPI (Maoists) for the tribal heartland. It does come as a loss of face to Union home minister P. Chidambaram’s offensive—Operation Green Hunt—which began across six states last year. But more than inflicting a tragic loss of men and material—the Maoists picked up six light machine-guns, several two-inch mortars with high explosive (HE) ammunition, over 70 AK-47s and INdian Small Arms System (INSAS) rifles and a few pistols, grenades and ammunition—they displayed a hitherto-unseen lethality. Questions on the overall strategy must naturally follow. But for the moment, confounding security officials are the contradicting statements and circumstances that have surfaced around the attack. Among the several disturbing questions that have arisen on the precise circumstances leading up to the attack are:
- Was this a CRPF “operation” as is being claimed by many officials? An area domination exercise, counter-insurgency experts say, is not an operation as the nation is being led to believe. It is a routine exercise undertaken by security forces to keep up the pressure against insurgents. Operations, on the other hand, are conducted on specific intelligence inputs where the presence of insurgents is known to the security forces. So why is Alpha company’s foray into the jungle now being described as an “operation”?
- Was this a “joint operation” involving both the CRPF and the state police? The home minister says so but facts on the ground clearly indicate otherwise. Only one representative of the state police was included in the exercise, a mandatory requirement for any CRPF exercise since they are a central paramilitary force and have no investigative powers, nor local intelligence. The Alpha company set out with only head constable Siyaram Dhruv of the state police and basically walked around in the jungles for two days before being gunned down. A joint operation would have meant careful planning by the CRPF and state police, a joint force and a clear objective instead of a fishing expedition such as this one.
- Why didn’t the Maoists lose any of their cadre in the return fire? Simply because the CRPF men were caught completely unawares. They had camped in the open, laid out their camping sheets, indicating that most of them were asleep when they were attacked. Standard procedure also demands that a few men stand guard while the others rest. In this case, were the guards too sleeping after the long trek through the forest? Thirdly, the classic response to an ambush demands that the men under attack disperse to minimise casualties before mounting a counter-assault. Instead, the CRPF men were all bunched together. The PLGA cadres also had adequate time to pick up the weapons of the fallen men without being challenged, let alone being attacked in a counter-offensive.
- Did the CRPF’s newly inducted DIG (operations) of Dantewada, Nalin Parbhat, overestimate the capability of his men and underestimate that of the Maoists? Parbhat, who hails from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, came on deputation to the CRPF with a terrific reputation of being an operationally sound officer in the Maoist-affected districts of Karimnagar and Warangal. In launching this exercise, however, Parbhat probably failed to appreciate that the CRPF was not as effective as the Andhra police or their Greyhounds.
- Did Parbhat ignore intelligence warnings? He probably did. Parbhat came to Dantewada just six days prior to the launch of the area domination exercise. Earlier intelligence inputs generated by the state’s Multi-Agency Centre (a joint intelligence outfit of the Intelligence Bureau, the state police, and CRPF and BSF intelligence) had sent in several reports stating that PLGA cadres had been sighted in the area. In fact, an April 4 input from the IB had said that security forces could possibly be ambushed between Chintalnar and Chintagufa. Incidentally, Chintalnar is also the unofficial capital of the region designated by the Maoists as Dandakaranya. Intelligence also indicated that Ganeshanna and Ramanna, two top PLGA officials, were in the region planning a major attack. All this information was ignored by the Alpha company as it set out from its base on Sunday evening.
While a systematic effort is under way to brush these issues under the carpet, the uncomfortable fact is that the CRPF is perhaps just not ready to take on a major offensive against the Maoists. Last year, it was hit nearly 68 times by the Maoists while the state police rarely saw an attack on their positions. Worse, it took CRPF director-general Vikram Srivastava two days to land at the site of the attack and visit his troops at the base camp. While morale has plunged new depths, the overall CRPF leadership seems to be still missing from ground zero.
Death blow Bodies of slain paramilitary personnel in Dantewada
This attack, however, could be the turning point in the offensive against the Maoists. Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan told Outlook that the offensive will continue. “We will continue to build our troop levels and plan our operations better.” While CRPF DG Srivastava declined to comment on the incident, he expressed his grief at the death of his men in Tuesday’s attack.
That won’t deflect basic questions on the CRPF, though. Its preparedness is limited by a defensive mindset and its standard operating procedures dictate that its troops won’t operate beyond eight km of their base camps. The men are also unfamiliar with the terrain since they are largely drawn from the states of UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Bihar and are unfamiliar with jungle warfare. The troops do undergo a refresher course before being deployed in the state, but it has clearly proved to be inadequate in the light of Tuesday’s gruesome strike.
Arrow-struck A CRPF jawan recovers at Jagdalpur hospital
As for the two PLGA companies which attacked the personnel, intelligence reports indicate they dispersed with their captured weapons and have returned to the forests of Malkangiri district in Orissa. As per procedure, all captured weapons must be submitted to the central committee before being reassigned to their cadres. A smaller group is believed to have fled towards the dense forests of Abujmarh bordering Maharashtra.
Will the attack become the harbinger of more bloodshed, as the state renews its pledge to wipe out what PM Manmohan Singh termed the gravest security threat to India? A systematic escalation of violence seems inevitable—but without tactical soundness or the desire to keep the tribals away from the crossfire, it may achieve nothing. A one-man inquiry committee headed by former DGP E.N. Rammohan has been set up. But the biggest challenge in not letting this become an unending cycle of violence will be to match deployment with efforts to wean the adivasi away. High rhetoric will not suffice.