By Jaideep Hardikar
A bullet in his leg saved Aman Singh from the fate that befell 76 of his colleagues. The CRPF trooper is recuperating in a Jagdalpur hospital, after being injured in a previous encounter at the same spot in Chintalnar where Maoists nearly wiped out his entire company this week.
On hindsight, Aman Singh thinks that two encounters last month were a training drill for the rebels ahead of the audacious April 6 attack. “They ambushed us on March 1,” Singh recounts. “Then they struck again on March 10, in which I suffered a bullet injury.”
On both those occasions, the rebels were small in number and there was nothing more than a minor skirmish. But in the third assault, the rebels struck in a big formation when the CRPF company was returning after a long and fruitless search operation to their Chintalnar camp, which serves as a launch pad for the forces to carry out area domination exercises in Dantewada.
Caught in the plains with thin tree cover amid two small hillocks about 500 metres off the 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 from temporary bunkers atop the hillocks. The only way out was a path toward the main road, but when the jawans made a dash for it, they ran into pressure mines that had been placed there.
Lull before the attack
This kind of a precision attack needs months of planning. In fact, during an earlier visit to the Chintalnar base camp, the CRPF jawans had told this correspondent that they knew they were being watched. For three months, the rebels had avoided any major confrontation even when the troopers penetrated deep into Maoist territory. This lull in the fighting, a police officer in Dantewada now says, was a precursor to the ambush on April 6.
While this won’t be the last incident in a protracted fight to regain control over a 40,000 sq km territory, more than the size of Kerala, the anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh, as well as elsewhere in the country, are being reviewed after Chintalnar. “It’s going to be a long haul,” DGP Vishwa Ranjan had told The Mag just last month.
But the latest attack has brought to the fore several chinks in the joint operations dubbed Operation Green Hunt, in which the paramilitary forces are expected to work with the district police and tribal youths recruited as special police officers (SPOs).
Fighting heavy odds
The lack of intelligence is palpable. In interviews with The Mag last month, the police had said they believed the Maoist focus had shifted to Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Malkangiri in Orissa, where they had struck last month, killing 12 jawans. But it turns out the rebels were planning a big hit on the CRPF in Dantewada, even as the focus of the joint operations was extended to other states.
But Abujh Marh (unknown forest) in central Bastar, with more than 200 villages and hamlets, where the Maoists can melt away and lie in wait, has proved difficult to penetrate. The odds faced by a reserve police force, unfamiliar with local conditions and untrained for jungle warfare, are enormous.
“Weapons are not the only problem,” a CRPF deputy commandant in Dantewada said. “We face shortages of medicines and rations in our base camps; we are yet to figure out 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 food shortages. And in the scorching summer, scarcity of food and water means half the battle is lost.
“Give us medicines, water and food,” said a senior officer in Dantewada, reacting angrily to one of the many television debates. The Maoists and their highly motivated local militia know these weaknesses of the security forces. They hammer at those at will. “They mine the forests and they poison the water bodies so that we do not get water to drink. That restricts our movement,” explains a CRPF jawan.
The latest attack also bared the big hole in intelligence gathering, without which the CRPF is walking blindly into traps, with no clue even about who they’re fighting.
In the aftermath of Chintalnar, an angry force is hunting for Maoists, vowing revenge. “Now they will pick up villagers and beat them, and the Maoists will exploit that as another example of oppression; it’s the same old story,” says a Jagdalpur-based reporter.
The forces are relying heavily on ex-Maoists and SPOs to crack the Sangam and Jan Militia members, the PLGA’s two external cordons that protect the core groups and their movement in the tribal area.
“Unless we break their militia network, we won’t get anywhere,” says Dantewada SP, Amresh Mishra. “So far we’ve not been able to hit any of their top leaders.”
A senior police officer admits that they are not getting quality intelligence. Even after the Chintalnar attack, no political leader from the state made any attempt to go there and talk to the villagers.
A senior official in Raipur said the administration has not been able to come up with any plan for development. Right across Bastar, the Raman Singh government seems to have handed over every single responsibility to the police. Even the routine dialogue between the administration and the locals has been long broken, says a former legislator from Konta, who’s a tribal himself.
This report was first published in DNA India