It has been a year to the crisp Monday morning when about a hundred Maoist insurgents took on over 700 men from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and won. They killed twelve jawans, two officers and stole their weapons before walking away.
The first anniversary of the ill-fated ‘Operation South Sukma 14’ fell on December 1 and was forgotten. The national discourse vacillated between ‘intolerance’ to the incessant rainfall over Chennai. Prime Minister Modi tweeted about the Parliament while his Home Minister applauded the Border Security Force (BSF) on its raising day. The CRPF too did not release a note of remembrance.
However, what took place in Chhattisgarh’s disturbed Sukma district is far too important to be forgotten.
Let us begin with a recount.
Starting November 10, troops from five battalions (74th, 150th, 201st, 206th & 223rd) began pouring in for a ‘four-phase’ operation. Most of them lacked awareness about the local conditions. By November 15, the number had crossed 600. For an operation which involved swarming rebel bastions with troops devoid of intelligence and ground experience, the warning came on November 21 when seven men were seriously injured.
It did not induce a re-think.
On November 30, malaria struck before the Maoists could. A helicopter was called in to evacuate those affected but it could not land – the operational planning had simply not catered for a fit landing spot! Unwell and tired, troops slept on a hillock and started the next day searching for a landing spot. Observing them, the sure-footed Maoists fired their first shot in broad day light, at 9:30am.
Chaos ensued. The day ended with a bloodbath.
What survived was a broken force.
I witnessed juniors dishonouring their seniors, leaders lamenting openly about the ‘quality’ of troops and the only point the two sides would only agree upon was how their counterparts in New Delhi had failed them. I left Chhattisgarh wondering whether the force had even the will to hit back.
“No more Rambo-like operations” thundered a disrobed top brass.
Officers leading battalions in the operation were relieved citing failure of command and control. “Not even the Inspector General is off the hook,” the then acting Director General RC Tayal told me. His successor, Prakash Mishra, spoke of the need to ‘not get killed’. Many in Chhattisgarh complained about a slow down. “CRPF doesn’t move out of its camps these days,” is what one commonly heard. Months later, without much ado, the Inspector General of the CRPF was replaced. In came Sadanand Date, a celebrated IPS officer from the Maharashtra, termed as a person ‘with a cool head and no ego’. Attempt was made to mend ties with the state police. As the CRPF waited for a turnaround, it also prepared a fresh pitch by re-organising itself, especially the elite force CoBRA. Meant to strike at the Maoists in their bastions, this force had been emasculated. From having inadequate number of officers to doing odd jobs like helping road contractors, the shine had long worn off. “Today, CoBRA is being deployed the way it should be and activities like road building, support to civic administration etc is being handled by General Duty (GD) battalions,” said a source.
To address the deficit in medical facilities for its injured, the CRPF in one year has established four ‘base hospitals’ in Sukma and Bijapur. Two additional copters have been requisitioned in case the Indian Air Force (IAF) or Border Security Force (BSF) is unable to take off. Facilities for helicopters to operate 24×7, even in remote jungle bases, are being created. Of the 47 mobile towers sanctioned in south Chhattisgarh, 27 are functional. Another long ignored recommendation – limited tenures for personnel in hard areas – is also being taken seriously.
The Home Ministry data is reflecting 2015 as being the year in which civilian casualties have reduced. Those among security forces have dwindled to pre-2014 levels. “Since 2000, the kill ratio has never been as good as it is today. For every jawan of ours killed, we are today killing eight Maoists,” said a source.
Reasons offered for this change are aplenty. Some say the BJP-led NDA at the centre is keen to exploit the local mineral reserves and wants it ‘cleared’, others attribute it to a personal push being exerted by the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who visited Bastar on October 1, a visit which saw 18 Maoists being the month after. Some even say that a reluctant state government today has no option but to cooperate with the centre.
On the other side, the Maoists, smarting from surrenders, arrests and killings, are not being underestimated. “We are only today learning to fight, whereas they have survived for over five decades,” said a CRPF officer. Additionally, the Maoists do not believe in an eye for an eye. When the pressure in a particular region has shot up, they have responded by choosing other avenues, as is evident in the spurt in activities being reported from newer areas of Telangana, Odisha and Jharkhand.
Meanwhile, officially, even the fact finding in the form of Court of Inquiry (CoI) for what happened on December 1 hasn’t been completed.
“Any action, whatsoever, can happen only after that,” smiled an officer.