Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd)
The Maoists struck another deadly blow to security forces on April 3, 2021, in Tekulguda, Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh, killing 23 as initially reported. The number has already gone up to 24 killed and 31 wounded. The number of weapons lost has not been revealed but according to a high-ranking security expert quoted in media, are enough to start insurgency in a small state like Tripura.
A veteran-scholar wrote on social media, “40 CRPF personnel killed in Pulwama two years ago and 22 killed now, not counting casualties in twos and threes on regular intervals. CRPF has lost about 75 personnel in a year’s time…All operations are launched with proper planning which in this case appears missing, like planning was missing when 2,000 CRPF personnel moving to Srinagar were ambushed in Pulwama. Calling fatalities Martyrs or paying few lakhs to families is no substitute to lives lost. I don’t think anyone was held accountable for Pulwama and I wonder if anyone will be held accountable for these casualties.” Notably, no officer accompanied the CRPF convoy ambushed in Pulwama – same as has been happening in anti-Maoist operations. No officer was killed at Tekulguda on March 3.
The 2,000-strong security forces counter-Maoist operation comprised CRPF troops and its Bastariya Battalion, CoBRA commandos, District Reserve Guards (DRG) and Special Task Force (STF) of Chhattisgarh. As per police sources, it was launched on specific inputs of the presence of Maoist leader Hidma carrying a reward of Rs 25 lakh and other Maoist cadres, according to police sources. Authenticity of the ‘specific inputs’ and whether this was a trap is not known but the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh and DG CRPF have ruled out intelligence failure.
An IG of CRPF is located in Raipur, capital of Chhattisgarh, while 32 CRPF battalions are deployed in the Bastar region. Bijapur has seven CRPF battalion headquarters while all their companies are located 50 to 100 kilometers away. Why are battalion headquarters not co-located with one of the company headquarters? If the operation was launched to get Hidma, why was the Commandant of concerned CRPF units not leading these columns? Ironically, neither the DG CRPF nor the Raipur-based IG CRPF will question this.
In the instant case, the security forces went towards Tekulguda through a village without securing it and moving along tracks without securing the heights on both sides. The village should have been skirted or at least secured. Not securing the heights is an invitation for ambushes which the CRPF has suffered umpteen times. The easier option of trudging along beaten tracks is adopted for comfort, more so because of lack of leadership. Because of this, movement is in bunched up groups, even during breaks, and counter ambush drills are hardly followed – no coordination by officers on the ground. On top of this, the fatal mistake made was to return through the same route without securing the heights and the village.
Media has quoted a top counter-insurgency expert stating, “SOP’s are clear that they must walk on the hillock and not on the low grounds..when a village comes on way, it should be explored as … there is huge risks of Maoist presence inside….The map of the location from Tekalguda to Terram stretch of eight kilometers, clearly shows there are several hillocks on either sides but very often the easier way is chosen by walking on tracks due to lack of leadership. The commandants of the battalions are found sitting at headquarters …. they should be leading the troops in the forests. … it seems the jawans were resting in groups and came under sudden attack by the Maoists.”
Among various Maoist attacks over the years: 76 CRPF personnel were killed in Dantewada during 2010; a 110-strong CRPF column at Bheji (Sukma) was attacked in March 2017 killing 11 and injuring five, and; on April 24, 2017, a 99-strong CRPF column was ambushed killing 24 CRPF personnel and injuring seven. Has anything changed since then? Doesn’t appear so! The DG CRPF now says that the Maoists could have been tipped off by villagers. That should be more than expected but returning the same route through the same village is invitation to get troops butchered.
In May 2017, then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh chairing a high-level meeting had stressed the need to revamp the intelligence apparatus. Acknowledging that Maoists had killed 2,700 security forces over past 20 years, he spoke of the need for smart leadership, aggressive strategy, motivation and training, actionable intelligence, dashboard-based KPIs (key performance indicators) and KRAs (key result areas), harnessing technology, and action-plan for each theatre and denial of financing to terrorists.
He also stressed the importance of good leadership for the security forces, especially the need for unified coordination and command. These are all good semantics but where today are the leadership, revamped intelligence and execution on ground? Singh had also called upon the CAPF to infiltrate the Maoists organisation. But Hidma (55) behind the March 3 ambush and having conducted 27 attacks since 2004 including the 2010 Dantewada strike that killed 76 CRPF personnel and the 2013 massacre that almost wiped out the Chhattisgarh Congress leadership is still a free man.
In 2010, then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram said that the Maoist insurgency will be finished in next two-three years. Now Union Home Minister Amit Shah says, “The country will never forget their valour and sacrifice. The whole country stands with the bereaved families. We are determined to conclude the fight against this Naxalite unrest”. Shah has also said that the Centre and State will jointly fight the Maoists. There are indications of a major counter-Maoists action likely to be executed within a month. In all probability it would be on lines of Operation ‘Green Hunt’; the all-out offensive by the Centre and five states launched against the Maoists in November 2009. But the results in such operations are hardly commensurate with the quantum of forces deployed despite the media hype.
Major counter-Maoist operations generally boil down to one-time sweeps through the 92,200 square kilometer Dandakaranya Forest, which includes the Abujhmar Hills in the west and Eastern Ghats in the east, including regions of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha states. The Bhandara, Gondia and Gadchiroli districts of Maharashtra are part of the Dandakaranya. Little has been done over decades to extend the civil administration and police cover inside the Dandakaranya region which has over two dozen villages and Maoist strongholds. Maoists have excellent surveillance system and can easily evade the CAPF sweeps which they know will be temporary.
The southern half of Bastar is a hotbed of Maoist movement as the insurgents can use this corridor to move in and out of Maharashtra, Telangana and Odisha. For major attacks, Maoists mobilise cadres from other regions, who cross over to participate in the attack and later escape into their own territory where they wait out for any pursuit. It is time for us to acknowledge that an operation to catch or terminate Hidma should have been planned by the DG CRPF under direct supervision of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), not by the DG Police Chhattisgarh. The practice of MHA washing its hands off beyond dishing out CAPF battalions and companies to the states must cease.
Already calls to deploy the Army in the Maoist belt are being heard again – perhaps there is a belief that the Army is largely unemployed. There are also suggestions that a special internal security force be raised for the red corridor comprising Army veterans. We fail to remember that the concept of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) had envisaged RR battalions to be manned by Army veterans, to give infantry some relief. But no veteran wanted to join RR having spent many years in counter-insurgency areas while in service. The result was that RR units ended up being manned by serving army personnel on deputation, taxing the infantry more.
The CRPF is considered the primary CI force in the country. Their leadership needs a total revamp with the IPS officers completely weaned out, who holding most senior level appointments have also adversely affected junior CRPF officers through their culture of sitting back and not leading their troops. In aftermath of the Tekulguda massacre, one of the injured jawan said, “When we were moving towards Tekulguda, we sensed something wasn’t right as the village and the surrounding areas had no population. The houses were empty. It was strange. There was an eerie silence. We contacted senior commanders over walkie-talkie and were ordered to keep moving.” This demonstrates how unconcerned the so-called ‘senior commanders’ sitting in comfortable surroundings are – not imposing caution whatsoever.
There should not be any shortcut from enforcing standing orders for battalion and company commanders of the CAPF to lead their troops in all counter-Maoists operations, in addition to reviewing their training. This will automatically result in adherence to laid down SOPs. Not many know that Chhattisgarh generally has a presence of 65 battalions worth of an assortment of CAPF and armed police forces, which is hiked to some 135 battalions during elections. The MHA needs to examine streamlining this mixed bag and its associated problems.
What about the tall claims of ‘technology’, technical intelligence and aerial capability that we could not locate 400 Maoists? And above all what about HUMINT which is so essential in such operations? Has the MHA got too much on its hands? Also, since the Union Home Minister and the MHA have become deeply involved in periodic state elections, isn’t it time we have a Ministry of Internal Security primarily focused on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism? Maoists are no ragtag force and certainly not on the wane as periodic half-truths want us to believe. They are well organised, have foreign and indigenous backing, and have snatched so many weapons from the CAPF over the years that China-Pakistan can take a break from arming them. We need to take them seriously unless we want the insurgency to continue for political reasons.
The author is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda