As the crow flies, hardly 5km separate Kasalpar and Pidmel in the southern Sukma, Chhattisgarh. More importantly, they both lie south of bombed and beaten State Highway 5, the Dornapal-Jagargonda road which is also the de-facto border south of which lies the ‘liberated’ territory, the very heart of India’s Maoist insurgency. It is a placement which anyone familiar with the region will tell you is outright deadly. What led 45-year-old ‘Fighter’ Rao, Sub Inspector Shankar Rao, a part of Special Task Force (STF), to lead an assault to Pidmel and invariably to the STF’s most miserable moment on Saturday morning is something most are not able to understand.
After all, Shankar Rao was well aware that barely four months ago, a 900-odd strong Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) party which included the specialist CoBRA commandos could not do much when challenged in Kasalpar. That party paid the price with the loss of fourteen of its men, their arms and of course, morale.
Back then, not openly though, the Chhattisgarh Police which did not want that operation, castigated the CRPF for attempting ‘Rambo-style’ operations. Today, it is unable to come to terms with what hit its STF which has had a much better track record than most in Bastar.
Rao perhaps had inkling.
On Friday night, the sub inspector had called the Personal Assistant to STF’s Deputy Inspector General (DIG) J Sharma. In the brief conversation told the PA, “Is baar aar paar ki ladhai hogi” (this will be a do or die kind of a battle) before hanging up. He was advised to wait. He also had a word with the local Sub Divisional Police Officer who told him to share his information and plan with the Superintendent of Police (SP) Sukma. He tried but poor communication links ensured he couldn’t.
Barely four days old at their location of Pollampalli, the STF bosses wanted to reinforce teams, add manpower before operations could be launched. Friday evening was not a time to hit. It was the time to familiarise and wait.
Based on information that was passed to Rao, he decided, he could wait any longer. That night, the 48 fellow members of the STF whom he commanded, he exhorted them to move. Despite the men from the local police being stationed along with the STF in Pollampalli, he did not ask them to join.
Following the tactics, the team marched and marvellously covered 18km in the thick of the night before making it to Karigundam. This was discovered with a degree of awe when those who survived were spoken to and their Global Positioning System (GPS) sets examined. “Only someone like Shankar Rao could have achieved the stealth, swiftness and stamina required to do what he did,” said Bastar Inspector General of Police, SRP Kalluri.
At 7:30am, the ‘tac’ headquarters of the STF got an ‘all ok’ signal from Shankar Rao’s team. This meant that while they had not scored, they were not hurt either.
Unknown to Rao and his superiors, the Maoists were tailing them all along.
Another message that the ‘tac’ headquarters received at 10:59am told them something had happened.
A senior officer said, “They had stopped for food near Pidmel. While they were consuming the dry ration, the Maoist enticed them by bringing before them two civilians and a uniformed cadre who had a weapon. This made Rao order his men to chase with Rao leading them all.”
Having negated the principle of commander always being in the middle of a party it was hardly a surprise that in the first shot that the Maoists fired after the STF entered the ambush, Shankar Rao was fatally hit.
Losing the commander can instil panic. Men from the STF, trained for situations like this one, emerged victorious albeit headless. The men picked up Rao’s body and were pulling out when they were attacked again. This time, they lost three more men. Picking up their bodies too, the now-45-member team began moving. Again, they were attacked. This time too they lost three men. Panic had begun setting in. To flee successfully was now the goal. They dropped all the seven bodies and fled.
“Had it been the police or the CRPF, the Maoists would have wiped out the entire party of 49. The entire ambush was 3km long. The STF men pulled out and in doing so ensured that of the seven dead bodies, the Maoists could only snatch weapons from three,” said a source.
As a result of this result, there is caution in the air. As such the Maoists are amidst, what they term Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) – a period coinciding with summer months when Maoists unleash violence and bleed the security forces.
Under Kalluri, police has chosen to consolidate their presence in the periphery rather than enter the core area directly. “There was no need to operate this way and that too here. Even STF on being deployed in such areas would atleast move with two parties,” said an officer. “He knew what he was getting into. Don’t think of him as an irresponsible officer or a drunkard who took himself and his men down under influence,” said an officer who described Rao as a cautious teetotaller.
Perhaps Rao’s undoing lies among heaps of praises his actions would always earn him. “These officers who tell him all kinds of things and rightly so however one must remember that there is a thin line of difference between being brave and being foolhardy,” said a source.