On this day, a year ago, Maoist insurgents carried out what remains their most high profile attack ever killing 27, including the then Chhattisgarh Congress President Nand Kumar Patel, his son and controversial tribal leader Mahendra Karma as well as looting 22 weapons in the Jeeram Ghati region of the Bastar district. In response, centre tasked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) with investigating the case.
A year later, barring six arrests and two surrenders, of men admittedly at a ‘junior level’, not much has moved. Questions pertaining to conspiracy behind the killings, masterminds involved and the much-talked about political involvement remain unanswered.
India Today has learnt that in a move as rare as the event itself, on March 25, Home Secretary sought a detailed review of the NIA investigation. Details of this top-level review, which was attended by representatives of the Ministry of Home Affairs, NIA, Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Chhattisgarh Police, as accessed, paint a damning picture of the systemic failure that first allowed the attack to take place and today prevents it from being solved.
The NIA investigation, the gathering was informed had revealed an elaborate design drawn up to execute the attack.
“We now know that for about ten days prior to the attack, locally unknown men and women were seen in the Darbha area, working in the fields or assisting the locals. In some cases when locals asked them, these men and women shut them up,” said a source.
A training camp had been established in the 20km corridor between Darbha in Bastar and Tongpal in Sukma. Even though the road connectivity is good, there is hardly any police presence all along the 20km route. Not even mobile phone towers exist here.
The implication of that would be the presence of a large number of most heavily armed fighters of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Not surprisingly, this was neither reported by any local to the police nor did the police have the intelligence gathering mechanism to detect such an influx. It was in this situation that Maoists were informed about the movement of the Congress convoy. “It was like a God-sent opportunity for them,” the source said.
Apart from involving about 200 men from the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC) of the CPI (Maoist), a mobile command and control post was set up at the ambush site where ‘Vinod’ who heads the Darbha Division Committee, was seen by eyewitnesses, taking orders from an unknown senior on his communication set. “He kept himself out of the action and let the cadre have a go at the Congressmen as he coordinated with someone very senior,” said a source. Also involved in executing the attack were members of the jan militia, a lightly armed component consisting of locals.
Apart from using the local Darbha Division Committee, the Maoists brought on ground its military-equivalent Central Regional Company – 2, said to be consisting of its best and most heavily armed cadre as well as some additional platoons.
The NIA claimed it had positively identified over 100 Maoists who were on ground, during the attack and completed physical verification of half of them. The agency also claimed to have photographs of these accused, a rarity, and got Non Bailable Warrants (NBWs) issued against 26 of the accused from the local court.
Defending the agency, a senior officer said, “Right now, the NIA has about 40 names of those jan militia members who were involved in the attack and can be picked up. But they are mere pawns and by arresting them, you will generate noise but achieve nothing.” The effort, it was informed, was to take the harder route, get to the bottom and reach the big fish, many of whom were insurgents belonging to neighbouring states like Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami, it was informed, was visibly upset over the contrast between the large number of accused identified by the NIA and the negligible arrests that have occurred. Goswami even put his displeasure on paper citing ‘poor progress in arresting the absconding accused.’ The main cause behind this is the lack of data available with the state police and the IB on Maoist insurgents despite Chhattisgarh being an affected state for over a decade.
The state government came in for further criticism for not providing the manpower it had promised to the NIA. “These officers, after a year of the incident are not being released by the local administration, how does one go about explaining this?,” asked a senior officer. The state police, represented by its Additional Director General (ADG) Intelligence, Mukesh Gupta, promised to clean up its tracks.
Frustration was also expressed over the difficulty in getting numbers to execute an operation to nab those accused. “It isn’t a simple case of picking up someone. The information on a prized accused is difficult to come. When it does, it takes us so long to organize that by the time we do so, the information becomes irrelevant. Basic policing in Chhattisgarh remains an elusive task because the presence on ground is so thin, it helps the Maoists maintain high morale,” said a source.
Chhattisgarh, which has faced an assembly election (November 2013) followed by the general election, has been grappling with manpower shortage. A senior state police officer said, “Yes there are deficiencies. Elections mean we have to put every man available on security duty. Now that these elections are done with, we hope to provide NIA with all they want.” It was also informed that the state police, grappling with an ageing force, had begun fresh recruitment and training for officers to join at the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) rank. “We have approached the Indian Army too, seeking its retired officers to oversee our training and if possible, man some of our positions,” said an officer.
The Road Ahead
The hour-long meeting ended with the formation of an independent Joint Task Force, headed by the NIA comprising the state police, IB and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which will look at executing the arrest of all accused. It was also decided to give teeth to this force by attaching units from the police’s Special Task Force (STF) and CRPF’s CoBRA commando teams so that it can develop intelligence and chalk out its own operations. The case concerning the March 11 attack in Sukma, where 15 security force personnel and a civilian were killed, will also be handled by the task force.
Despite these steps announced, those aware of the matter are not promising an early end.
“Surrender of Maoist cadre and killing them were the only two ways for the state to hit back at the insurgents. Till date, the idea of investigating a case has rarely been given a chance. In a way, this case is a representation of all that will need to be done towards making criminal justice exist in these areas,” said a senior officer. As a case in point, the investigation into 2010 Tadmetla ambush which saw the killing of 75 CRPF men and 01 state policeman is heading nowhere. Recently, all those arrested by the local police were acquitted by the court for the want of evidence.
For the NIA, which was in the dark over the first six months, MHA officials believe, last 4-5 months have been ‘good’. It was said that the six arrests in this case, even though executed by the local police, were done on information received by the NIA.
How much have things improved on ground can be gauged by the fact the despite the Jheeram attack, Maoists successfully executed two largescale attacks on March 11 and April 12 along the same road by laying an elaborate ambush and detonating a landmine respectively.