Saturday, April 10, 2010

The buck starts and stops with a Jawan

Bastar, Chhattisgarh:

If he was not injured last month, Aman Singh says he could well be among the martyrs in the Chintalnar attack.

Recuperating from a bullet wound in his leg at a Jagdalpur hospital, the CRPF trooper wonders if the two previous encounters at the same spot were a training drill for the rebels ahead of the April 6 attack that wiped out his entire company.

“They ambushed us on March 1,” Singh recounts. They struck again on March 10, in which he suffered bullet injury. “On both the occasions the rebel fighters were not in big numbers.” In the third assault, Maoists struck in big formation when the CRPF Company – divided in five sections – was returning after a long search operation to Chintalnar camp, which serves as a launch pad for the forces to carry out area domination exercise in the heartland of Dantewada.

Caught in the plains with thin tree cover amid two small hillocks about 500 metres off the kuccha road to Chintalnar from Chintagupha, the CRPF jawans could not break the Maoist cordon from any side, even as they faced a rain of bullets fired from temporary bunkers tucked atop the hillocks. The only way left open was a pathway toward the road to Chintalnar, but it was blocked with pressure mines that, injured jawans say, blew off as they tried to run for a cover.

The attack that claimed 76 security personnel has a stamp of precision planning of several months. The paramilitary forces knew they were watched; the rebels avoided major confrontation with the troopers for three months – a deliberate lull that, as a police officer in Dantewada put it, was disturbingly misleading.

The outlawed ambushed the security men twice in the same area, but not with big intensity or strength. A small error in calculations and the troopers walked into the trap third time following a false alarm pertaining to the movement of a large number of Maoists in the vicinity. The rebels had merely thrown the bait.

“The troopers failed to read a multi-layered ambush point,” Chhattisgarh DGP Vishwa Ranjan said in Jagdalpur on Thursday, even as he vowed to hit back in the heart of the Maoists. Scanning the ambush points is one of the major aims of the ongoing operations in both south Bastar and north Bastar regions.

While this was not the first and won’t be the last incident in a protracted fight to regain control over the 40,000 square km territory of the size of Kerala, the major multi-state anti-Maoist operations are being reviewed after Chintalnar in the face of challenges.

“We’ll intensify the area domination exercise, carry out more surgical strikes and launch more complex formation operations,” Ranjan says. “It’s going to be a long haul,” he says, sounding resolute in cracking the backbone of rebels.

Green hunt and joint ops

After he took over in 2008, Ranjan changed the training modules, raised new forces and gave state-of-the-art equipment to his men, even as the Raman Singh-government launched operation Green Hunt in Bastar after a series of setbacks.

Serving and retired army personnel trained and reoriented the troops in guerilla warfare strategies and special operations, like Andhra’s Grey Hounds force.

The idea of the new strategy in south Bastar, a strategic stronghold of Maoists, is to search, study, hit and come back. “Surprise is the best element; don’t follow the routine,” is what he says he has told his men after a series of earlier setbacks.

Ranjan says the state police operation’s objectives are four-pronged: Large scale removal of land mines; identifying ambush points where troops were frequently attacked; intelligence-based operations to dismantle the camps where Maoists train new recruits; and hold Jan-Jagran or public awareness drives to reach out to the villagers. The strategy saw a nearly 80 percent drop in police casualties in 2009 and a steep rise in the arrest of a lot of Maoist cadres and leaders.

The Centre-sponsored multi-state joint operations are in the peripheral areas of Bastar, while Green Hunt operations are in the areas like Chintalnar, the tribal hinterland of Dantewada-Bijapur, bordering Andhra, Orissa and Maharashtra.

The seven-phase central offensive launched in November 2009 on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border has now spread almost in seven states. OA-1 involves moving along a north-south axis from Kanker and Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh, and on an east-west axis from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra along the periphery of Abujh Marh. Aim is to squeeze the naxal territory and their area of domination, Ranjan says.

The joint operations in north Bastar aims to pack small areas with large-scale deployment to clear those areas of Maoists and create a secure environment for the administration to start development process.

The new ploy, Ranjan says, aims at keeping the Maoists on the move, rarely give them time to settle down in one area. It expects the forces to penetrate deeper in big formations. “We are living off the bases now for two to three days on the trot,” Sanjay Sharma, DSP (Operations), Dantewada, says. This was never the case earlier. The special police forces would patrol areas in isolation; now they say they do it in coordination with both, the troops from other districts and the newly deployed paramilitary forces, hunting for top rebel cadres.

Ground Challenges:

Ground challenges are massive though: One it’s a territory of 40,000 square km, which includes Abujh Marh, an uncharted territory considered to be a Maoist rest zone where the police and administration never venture. Two, forces face local hostility that stems from years of oppression and poverty. And three, difficulty in transporting supplies.

The current deployments are in accordance with the state police strategy and in places that are beyond the administrative and police control.

Ranjan says it’s mandatory for every trooper to get training at the Kanker-based counter-terrorism and jungle warfare school to increase endurance before being deployed. Serving junior commandant officers of the army train all personnel.

The adoption of the army’s platoon and company level tactics was initially slow but has made some difference, Ranjan says. But experts say all these strategies grossly undermine the Maoists’ tactics and intent, as the April 6 attack showed, and the odds faced by security forces, particularly paramilitary not used to local conditions.

“Weapons are not the problem,” a CRPF deputy commandant in Dantewada says. “We face shortages of medicines and ration in our base camps; we are yet to fix how to treat our men who fall sick in the camps from malaria or diarrhea; we get no doctors here.”

Chintalnar camp, like many other base camps tucked inside the forests in the densely forested Bastar region faces water scarcity and ration shortages. In the scorching summer in the forests, scarcity of food and water means half the battle lost, he says.

For all the television strategists sitting in New Delhi and Raipur, says a senior officer in Dantewada after the Chintalnar attack with sarcasm, ground realities are beyond any comprehension. A CRPF deputy commandant on ground zero echoes that. “Give us medicines, water and food,” he says. “We have enough weaponry.”

The Maoists and their highly spirited local militia groups know these weaknesses of the security forces. They hammer at those at their will.

A CRPF Jawan explains: “They mine the forests to restrict our movement; they poison the water bodies so that we do not get to drink water.” That, in turn restricts, their living off the bases in the unfamiliar forest territory for longer periods, he says.

On top of all this, with no medical aid anywhere in Bastar, the troopers are shifted first to Jagdalpur and then to Raipur in case of emergencies.

The latest attack also bared the big hole in intelligence gathering, without which the infantry can’t fight a faceless guerilla. The police considered the silence in Bastar as a retreat by the rebel commanders. That construct proved wrong. The Maoists were very much holding the ground, waiting and studying to surprise the forces to turn their own ploy on its heat. And they did it with lethal precision in their chosen area.

In the aftermath of Chintalnar, an angry force is hunting for Maoists vowing revenge, but the faces of all those who executed the assault remain elusive.

“Now the forces will pick local villagers and beat them, and Maoists will later exploit that as an anti-people oppression; it’s the same old story,” says a Jagdalpur-based reporter with years of experience in covering the naxal-insurgency.

No dialogue with locals

Central and state troopers say identifying naxalites in villages is a major operational challenge, particularly when the charges of fake encounters and SPOs killing innocent villagers fly against them even more vociferously. The line they tread is thin. Chances of mistaking an innocent impoverished tribal for a naxalite or sympathizer are high, as some cases pending before the Supreme Court point out. Several human rights organizations have brought to light the rising cases of individual killings what they call “genocide,” a charge both the state police and central paramilitary forces deny.

With the accounts of recently arrested and surrendered Maoist cadres all over the country, the security agencies have pieced together sketches of senior Maoist leaders for the ground-level forces with the help of professional artists.

The forces are relying heavily on ex-Maoists and SPOs to crack the Sangam and Jan Militia members, PLGA’s two external cordons that protect the core groups and their movement in the tribal hamlets and villages scattered over a vast expanse.

“Unless we break their militia network, we won’t get the quality kills,” Dantewada SP, Amresh Mishra, said. “So far,” he says, “we could not lay our hands on top leaders.”

In fact, police officials admit that the Maoist information network is far superior to that of the forces and it stems from the trust that the tribal villagers have in them.

That’s where the role of local politicians and administration is important. Across Bastar the Raman Singh-government seems to have handed over every single responsibility to the police. Even the routine dialogue between the administration-polity and the locals has been long broken, says a former legislator from Konta, who’s a tribal himself.

After the latest incident, top police and paramilitary officials went to the spot for an inspection and meeting with demoralized personnel, but not a single political leader from across the state even attempted to reach there. Police officials say they haven’t seen any administration or political effort to open a dialogue with villagers.

No one is asking what’s happening to the villagers in and around that area. Twelve families have left Chintalnar in last one year, according to one of the villagers. “I am also thinking of leaving,” he says. “There is no point in living here in constant fear.”

The state says winning regaining control is a top priority. Control over what -- land or an impoverished people? Will only the gun-trotting troops hunting for elusive Maoist cadres who are killing them with an audacious frequency be able to do that alone? One doubts. In Chintalnar, the security personnel from far away states did not seem to have any rapport with local villagers, a key to get intelligence through trust-building.

The state has little room for error and any silly mistake would only distance itself from the impoverished tribals, who are frankly not on their side in this vexed battle.

A strong political and bureaucratic will is a precursor to conflict resolution. Idea of India can’t be left only to the forces to defend.

1 comment:

ELI Discussion Group #1 said...

I just read your posts on your blog. Thank you for reporting on what's happening there. My 5 year old son and I are traveling to Chikhaldara in June to shoot a Marathi film. We are white Americans. Are we in any danger from Maoist activity in the area? Please respond ASAP. Thanks you very much.