Imagine a scenario in which an outlawed group announces its intention to carry out an attack, decides a location, gathers its members from different locations, trains for three months, kidnaps residents for logistical tasks, crosses highways with hundreds of its heavily armed troops, neutralises its targets, steals before fleeing and yet not a single government agency gets even a hint till the execution is complete.
That, in a nutshell, is the story behind the sensational Jheeram Ghati attack case, where on May 25, last year, the Maoist insurgents killed 27 people including top Chhattisgarh Congress leaders and policemen.
This, among other details formed the bedrock of the 1500 page chargesheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), last week, in a special NIA court in Bilaspur. While the chargesheet is directed at nine accused who are in custody, it speaks about 152 accused personnel who participated in the attack and made away with 9 AK47s, 7 INSAS rifles, 2 Self Loading Rifles (SLRs), four 9mm pistols and 1000 rounds of ammunition, once the killings were completed. The NIA has also initiated proceedings under section 83 of CrPC against 26 accused which includes the top leaders of the CPI Maoist.
While the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) which is the lead paramilitary organisation in the anti-Maoist effort welcomed the move, expert opinion advised caution.
Said Dilip Trivedi, Director General, CRPF, “This is the first step towards re-establishing the rule of law. It is a very significant development. Till date investigations were hardly done.”
Dr. Ajai Sahni of the Institute of Conflict Management said, “The NIA’s record has not been exemplary. This is not to say that it is a failure but such investigations are very difficult to carry out unless the Maoists themselves cease to exist or are captured or simply surrender. While one is yet to see what the NIA has as evidence but if it is largely based on confessions, as has been the case till date, then I am afraid, it will end up going the way the previous cases have i.e leading to acquittal of all the accused.”
Explained a Home Ministry source, “It was the first time the NIA was launched into this. On beginning the probe we realised how poorly the local police and administration were faring. Far from having database on the local Maoist cadres, the local administration did not even have names of its own people who had joined the Maoists. There is a vacuum in which we had to operate.”
As per the chargesheet, while the initial plan, during the Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) of the Maoists, was to attack a security outpost in the Minpa region of Sukma district, in a congregation in Bijapur’s Pidia village between February 16 – 25, 2013, the South Regional Unified Command of the Communist Party of India (CPI) Maoist decided to shift the location to the Darbha region – located mid-way between Jagdalpur and Sukma.
This was a decision taken in presence of the senior Maoist commander Devji.
Subsequently, different armed formations were asked to march towards Darbha which included Military Company No. 2, Platoon No. 24 and 26, Darbha division committee and the deadliest among them all, the Central Regional Command (CRC) – 2. In the meanwhile, several meetings were conducted with villagers primarily to enlist their support in logistical tasks which included cooking and lugging 25 bags of rice, each weighing 50 kg across villages. The tempo only increased as the time passed. In the first week of May, important formations inched closer to Darbha as more meetings were held with the villagers.
Meanwhile, the Congress Party went public with the announcement of its fourth phase of the Parivartan Yatra which was planned between May 23 and 29 in the Bastar region which spans across seven districts.
The NIA chargesheet then reveals that the Maoists got information about the presence of Mahendra Karma in the ‘yatra’, a factor, NIA believes galvanised the Maoists.
Subsequently, a specific proposal was made and sought for clearance, which did come.
A command post was set up in Darbha and the lone National Highway (NH) 221/31 which connects Bastar to Sukma district was surveyed by the Maoists. The chargesheet then mentions how the formations of the Maoists armed with AK47s, Light Machine Guns (LMGs) and INSAS crossed it in the intervening night of May 22 and 23. The entire stretch where the ambush was to be laid was surveyed and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were planted and a temporary training camp was set up. Days prior to May 25 when the ambush was executed, Maoist cadre took positions and began monitoring the road. Multiple teams were formed which included an ‘assault group, stop group, signal group and blast squad.’
So well oiled was the mechanism that was erected that the actual attackers, even as they took positions and readied for the d-day, were served food at the very spot of the attack.
The Congress convoy consisting of 20 cars left Jagdalpur at 1000hrs for Sukma using the NH31, where the Maoists were lying in wait. From Sukma, they left for Keshlur, a village 15km before Jagdalpur at 1530hrs, thus using the same route to return.
Before reaching the spot of ambush, the convoy made a brief halt at Kukanar village.
“A truck (CG17H0415) was ahead of the convoy. Thus two Bolero cars overtook the truck. While the first car, in which Congress leader Awdhesh Gautam was seated, drove ahead, the Maoist opened the attack with a blast under the culvert (number 43/10) when the second car was atop. The blast was so powerful, it blew the Bolero to smithereens, killing all onboard,” said an official aware of the investigation. Another car, which was coming to greet the convoy from Keshlur, was shot at. Fortunately, the driver executed a quick u-turn.
The blast beneath the culvert ensured that the truck’s tyres were deflated and it blocked the road. The Maoists then took centrestage and ensured a complete cut off of the convoy. Villagers were also assembled at the site to hack trees which were used to cut off the highway.
At 1630hrs, firing began.
Among the first to surrender was the then state Congress president Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh Patel, Konta MLA Kawasi Lakma and accomplice D Sildar.
Vinod, who the NIA identifies as the Maoist Commander in-charge, took these people 100m inside the forest, away from the road. The chargesheet then adds that Vinod spoke to Lakma in the local Gondi language and asked him to identify those who were with him, implying they were unaware of the Patels. After a while, Nand Kumar Patel and his son were asked to sit down with their hands tied.
Firing which had subsided began.
“Maoists kept asking for the former opposition and controversial tribal leader Mahendra Karma and he stepped out of his car along with his two accomplices. The Maoists stopped firing,” said a source.
His hands were immediately tied, he was asked to lie down and following a brief conversation, two shots were fired on his back. Giving further details of what the NIA terms ‘macabre dance of death’, it was revealed that Karma was hacked using an axe.
All this while, the Patels and Lakma were kept isolated.
Having accomplished their mission, the cadres searched all the vehicles and looted all that they could. The NIA further stated that they deformed bodies and killed many who were seriously wounded.
They came back to the spot where the Patels were.
Deva, another Maoist commander then shot Nand Kumar and his son and let Lakma off unharmed, as per the chargesheet. A short de-briefing session was conducted before they all fled towards Sukma and Katekalyan.
Forensic investigation later revealed that the Maoists had used ammonium nitrate, PETN and amatol towards triggering IED explosions.
The NIA chargesheet refers to the following accused in the case.
PRAMILA MODIYAM @ JYOTI
Came to Jheeram valley from Pidia along with other cadres of Military Coy No-2 and 2nd Central Regional Command and participated in the act by attacking, killing and looting weapons from the injured.
Member of the Darbha Division Committee. Participated in logistics like collecting rice. Took part in the attack and also known to have extorted money towards raising funds for CPI (Maoist).
Is a resident of an adjoining village. Arranged rice and other logistics from Koleng, Kandanar and delivered to Jheeram valley.
Participated in the attack with firearms and snatched weapons of victim police personnel. Explosive material recovered from him matched what was recovered from the incident spot. Also helped in transporting logistics meant for the attack.
Member of Darbha Division Commmittee. Provided logistical help.
Participated in the attack. Looted weapons of victim police personnel
Section Commander of the military wing PLGA of the CPI (Maoist). Came to Jheeram valley from Pidia. The FSL reports, his confession and corroboration from other witnesses proves that explosives seized from him were those left over from the attack
Arranged rice and other logistics from Koleng and other villages to deliver it to Jheeram. Also, participated in the attack. Bharmar gun recovered from him matched with the cartiridges used at the scene of attack.
Confession recorded u/s 164 CrPC proving his presence at the incident scene and involvement in execution of the attack.
What the NIA chargesheet does not answer
Why, despite wanting to initially, did the NIA not make the controversial Congress MLA Kawasi Lakma undergo a lie-detector test?
Why does the NIA not examine Lakma’s role in greater detail despite his controversial role in the episode?
Why does the NIA chargesheet not explicitly clarify how the Maoists got information about Mahendra Karma’s presence in the convoy, following which they decided to target the same?
What was the cause for killing Nand Kumar Patel and his son especially since their target i.e Mahendra Karma had already been executed?
Why, despite having presence in the Bastar region, none of the agencies like the police, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the state’s Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) could even get a whiff of the attack?
Who were the senior leaders who approved and sanctioned the plan to target Karma?
What was the response of the police and CRPF once the attack began?