All 14 of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troops killed in the Maoist ambush on December 1 died on the scrubby, hill-ringed battleground, deep in the forests of Sukma district, at the southern tip of Chhattisgarh. The last to die was constable Deepak Kumar. The Maoists had struck between 10 and 11 am. It was 9:30 pm when Deepak died. For more than 10 hours, the 22-year-old lay there, helplessly wounded and heavily bleeding.
“Had a chopper arrived on time, he could have been saved,” says a CRPF commandant. An IAF chopper requisitioned by the CRPF did arrive for evacuation of the wounded—but only the next afternoon and at the Chintagufa camp, some 10 km from the ambush spot. But no one in the CRPF is surprised that the young trooper from faraway Samba district in Jammu & Kashmir, only two years in uniform and serving in the dangerous red corridor, could not be saved. As one CRPF officer put it, even in an emergency, getting a relief chopper could take at least eight hours.
Special director-general R.C. Tayal, who holds temporary charge as chief of the CRPF after the recent retirement of D-G Dilip Trivedi, calls the Sukma ambush “only a small setback” and says the CRPF would fight back valiantly. But it’s an anodyne that means little.
Thousands of troops in the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs)—paramilitaries like the CRPF, under the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA)—lose their lives every year to government apathy. “The CAPFs are extremely capacity-deficient. There’s a high level of bureaucratic control,” says Anand Prakash Maheshwari, CRPF inspector-general, Northern Sector. Troops end up fighting with one hand tied; in the red corridor this translates into heavy death tolls.
Recent Maoist ambushes have taken place in the same region where 75 CRPF personnel were killed in April 2010, in the deadliest ever attack by the rebels. Last fortnight’s ambush was this year’s deadliest. Little seems to have changed, other than the carving out of a new Sukma district. Successive governments have done little to help the troops, leave alone bringing about socio-economic changes that might prevent the adivasis of the region from joining the rebels. And the CRPF keeps losing troops, in Maoist strongholds and other zones of internal conflict, where 85 per cent of CRPF troops are deployed. The BJP-led government at the Centre, loud on security talk, didn’t care to even ensure that the D-G CRPF’s post did not fall vacant when Trivedi retired.
Morale is low among CAPF troops to begin with, for they feel they perform more or less the same combat duties as the armed forces (under the defence ministry) whose personnel are paid and treated better. It’s not the risk involved or the hard work that’s bothering them. What they are livid about is the treatment they are subject to, step-brotherly, and at worst, derisive.
At a CRPF battalion in Delhi, several constables, hawaldars and officers are crowded into dank and claustrophobic prefab huts. Tightly packed in two rows along a long, narrow room are 30 beds, with rusty iron trunks and travel bags stashed under them. Uniforms, towels hang on cords stretched across the hut. The mood is sombre. “Only a few days ago another jawan’s body was brought to our headquarters. He had committed suicide, shooting himself with his AK-47,” says a constable. Another says, “They leave us with no option. He had the nerve to kill himself. We don’t yet.”
According to MHA records, one trooper from the CRPF, the Border Security Force (BSF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) or Central Industrial Security Force (CISF)—all CAPFs—commits suicide every three days. In 2011-14, there have been 400 suicides from these forces, about 1 million-strong. The attrition rate is high too: 3,000 personnel, that is three trained battalions, every year. A commandant attributes this to poor equipment of the troops, unpredictability of postings, and general apathy on part of the government. CISF personnel are slightly better off: most postings are in cities or towns, at PSU plants, defence research establishments, and at airports, railway stations, metro stations and the like.
Dilip Trivedi, the recently retired DG of the CRPF, says, “For the common man, the army is the saviour, guarding the borders. In fact, it’s the ITBP, BSF and SSB who are the first line of defence. They take the first bullet. The army is usually stationed many kilometres behind. The army remains the second line of defence so that small border skirmishes do not escalate into war. The army has been preparing itself for a war it hasn’t fought in 42 years. CAPFs, on the other hand, fight battles daily.” But in pay and allowance, living conditions, the CAPFs are not treated on par with the defence forces.
In the border regions at least, the CAPFs are not alone; the army is quite often drawn into combat. But in the red corridor of 265 districts, there is no army deployment. It’s just the CRPF, with support from state police. One big complaint is that even after a region is cleared of Maoist rebels, the Centre and state fail to re-establish state institutions to assert control. It’s the same story in Jamui in Bihar, Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, Saranda in Jharkhand and Dantewada in Chhattisgarh.
The roster of duties is broad: troops may be drawn from any of the CAPFs for election duty, for rescue and relief, and other emergency work. What hurts worst is that, even in death in the line of duty, the CAPFs get second-class treatment. During rescue-ops after the floods in Kedarnath last year, five IAF and 15 ITBP personnel lost their lives in a plane crash. The IAF personnel were given gallantry awards and accorded martyr status. The ITBP men got the due pension, and a far smaller compensation.
CAPF personnel keep comparing themselves with those in the defence forces, especially those in the army, with whom they often share work on the borders, and find themselves worse off in pay, perks, privileges.
Suicides, fratricides, resignations in the CAPFs are often attributed to familial strife. Senior officers admit to the severe dearth of facilities needed to work in exacting and stressful circumstances away from homes. “The government has done nothing to accommodate their families,” says Maheshwari. “Concern for their families causes maximum anxiety to jawans. Simply providing counselling, yoga or recreation is grossly inadequate.” Barracks are meant as an operational necessity, not for long-term living. But more than 75 per cent of CAPFs live in barracks, only some 25 per cent of troops have been able to get quarters. There’s no house rent allowance either. In contrast, the government houses 60 per cent of army personnel.
Another issue is recruitment to the posts of assistant commandants and commandants, conducted by the UPSC. “Recruitment focuses too much on academics,” says Trivedi. “Often, it’s IAS-rejects who take these posts. This is a serious issue. We find they lack the frame of mind needed to lead troops. This is detrimental to morale.”
Post-retirement employment opportunities, skill development, reimbursement for medical treatment—in all these, CAPF troops feel they are not treated fairly. On top of that, chances of promotion are going down as internal security needs catalyse large-scale recruitment. Several constables have remained at that rank for more than 20 years. Representations to the MHA have fallen on deaf ears. The most recent appeal, in the last week of September, has been to the 7th Pay Commission.
Asked if the discontent in the force could lead to a rebellion, a commandant laughs and says, “Mera kaatil hi mera munsif hai, kya mere haq mein faisla dega! (My murderer is my judge. How will he favour me in his judgement?)” But he adds, “We are a disciplined force and cannot rebel. But, fact is, at every level, the authority of higher-ups is being challenged like never before. The forces are becoming insensitive. If this persists, it will pose immense threat to the public they are meant to protect.”