Tag Archives: Maoists

REPORTING IN MAOIST-AFFECTED AREAS: A journalist’s identity is his biggest security

Frankly, I’ve lost count of it.

Of the number of times I’ve travelled safely on a road that may have been mined; trekked without being disturbed by Maoist fighters only a shouting distance away; reported uninterrupted from a hamlet where ‘dada log’ (as Maoist fighters are referred to by the locals) are present and watching; or calmly left a site and later heard gunshots there.

I’ve even reported from a site where dead bodies of security personnel were stuffed with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that mercifully did not go off.

In these scenarios, I believe, my identity as a journalist was known to all involved.

There is also another scenario in which you could lose your life, often in a case of mistaken identity.

There is one truth that stands taller than most when reporting from inside India’s Maoist heartland – you better be lucky, always.

And yet, there are rules one must respect.

At least I did and ensured my team followed them too.

What I will now say may sound ironic, especially in the light of killings witnessed yesterday in Bastar’s Dantewada district. However, I firmly believe a journalist’s identity, by default his integrity and impartiality, is still his biggest security.

I’ve been asked — why don’t you take security cover along when you travel in these areas?

My answer has always been — because I don’t need one.

Seldom has my work in these areas been disrupted or even as much as threatened. I am referring here to interference by villagers, the administration or the Maoists. If and when I did face a roadblock, I would deal with it as an independent entity.

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Mukram village in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma region is notorious for its poll boycotts. Maoists don’t simply visit the village, they live here a security source had told me.

Of course, being a faceless and, thus, a less accountable entity, I’ve maintained my distance with the Maoists as against the other two.

What does this mean when it comes to the nuts and bolts?

Well, it means being and acting thoroughly independent, the way it was supposed to be.

Whether concerning accommodation or arranging a vehicle, I’ve seen colleagues seeking assistance, sometimes even favours, from their contacts in the police or in the administration.

Like it or not, you are being watched. And those watching you won’t need to justify before concluding that you too are a party to the conflict.

Following work-related interactions, I’ve not hesitated in walking out from the relative security and comfort of a paramilitary camp and sleeping in a hut belonging to a local contact in a nearby village.

In my early days of covering the Maoist conflict, following persuasion from a friendly police officer, I did travel with him in his vehicle between two camps in West Bengal’s Lalgarh.

I was lucky that day.

Some of the other things I’ve learnt over the years include never moving around in a white coloured-car (lest it is mistaken for a government vehicle), pasting enough A4-sized papers with ‘PRESS’ written over them on your vehicle, walking with your mike and camera clearly visible and not falling for adventurism.

I cannot end this piece without addressing the elephant in the room — the responsibility of media organisations.

If you are a journalist, when was the last time you were taught about how to conduct yourself in a conflict zone? Before you were asked to take the first flight into a story, did you or anyone else make an assessment made of the risks involved? Did you find out or were you briefed about measures to take in case anyone got hurt?

If you are an editor, did you prefer an amazing story or an interview over the safety and security of your crew? Did you pull your reporter up for not going into harm’s way and getting you ‘exclusive’ visuals?

Many may, understandably so, turn defensive upon reading this. However, when else will we prioritise the safety of our journalists if not now!

I’ve worked with many editors whose sense of responsibility and sensitivity when it comes to the safety of their crew is anything but encouraging.

For those trapped in this cycle of violence, the ruthlessness of the Maoist insurgency is an unfortunate way of life. As a journalist, study it, respect it.

For those who look at it merely as a piece of ‘prime time news’ and an opportunity for comical debates, keep your distance.

ALSO READ: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/elections/chhattisgarh/story/20140505-chintalnar-chhattisgarh-lok-sabha-polls-2014-802497-1999-11-30

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BOOK REVIEW: On tackling Maoist question, an effort to provide answers

How should India grow? Does ‘growth’ have the same meaning for everyone whether in the cities or resource-rich hinterland? Do growth and displacement of natives compulsorily go hand in hand? For India to grow what is needed more – preserving tribal way of life of its natives or exploiting the resource-rich lands they inhabit? What if their grievances create hurdles in the path of growth? 

Author Rohit Prasad in ‘Blood Red River’ has chosen the troubled landscape of Bastar in southern Chhattisgarh to understand how the Indian state is answering these questions.

Located in the heart of the country, the state of Chhattisgarh means many things depending on which side one is looking at. A politically and financially stable state, a state with perhaps the richest resources both in terms of mineral and bio-diversity in the country, a state with nearly 44 per cent of its territory covered by forests, a state which has over 30 per cent of its population coming from a vibrant variety of tribes or a state locked in a brutal embrace with a rebellion which refuses to ebb even after fifty years of its emergence.

The rebels, members of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist), seek to violently overthrow parliamentary democracy which they believe is a sham. The response of the government hinges on quelling the rebellion with its armed might and addressing the needs of the masses by the means of development.

The armed struggle is visible and chronicled. In comparison, the politics of development, supposed to exemplify in myriad ways the healing touch of an absent state, remains hard to track, harder to grasp. Touted as ‘a journey into the heart of India’s development conflict’, the book stands out for its focus.

Divided into sections segregated by short chapters within, the book is a sincere attempt at providing the reader with the understanding of a topic which can hardly be termed easy. A largely smooth and uninterrupted flow does emerge as the author switches between anecdotes, damning data dug from a multitude of reports, the annals of history, regulations governing the relationship between tribes and their home, the forest, the vibrant hope of a promising economy, the industrial lure of exploiting a resource-rich territory, instances of flawed ‘development’ and a society eclipsed by the shadow of the conflict which has consumed over 12000 lives. On offer are solid glimpses into the unholy nexus that exists on the ground between the government, the insurgents and the private sector which works to perpetuate the conflict at the expense of the locals.   

Interestingly, as the author, a business school professor based out of Gurugram, admits, he’d initially set out to analyse a different subject before stumbling upon something ‘far more complex’ and ‘fundamental’ which led him to write this book.

Rohit Prasad’s ground reporting from the affected region ensures the reader is exposed to the colour, the festivals, the customs as also the difficult path tribes find themselves treading and how there is corrosion of that timeless society underway as a result. Aptly captured case studies make the reader aware of the lost lives of faultless, promising youngsters in the region.   

On the flip side, there are times when the narrative shifts from story-telling to either philosophy or sweeping generalisations. Then there are outlandish claims like where the author says the US Army special forces supported Indian armed police in 2009 offensive against the Maoists! There are also times when objective analysis turns subjective. However, the biggest drawback that book suffers from is the lack of a direct Maoist voice. Scrutinising their ‘developmental works’ in their ‘janatana sarkar’ (local government in areas they term liberated) and their model would have added to the book’s effort by making two sides of the divide clear and visible to the reader.

To conclude, ‘Blood Red River’ is an introduction into a less dimension in the debate over development. Few understand that it is also essential.

16 months into the job, NSA Ajit Doval takes first ground lessons in Maoist-hit Bastar

Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on October 2, 2016
Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on October 2, 2016

It is a visit about which very few knew and was to be kept under wraps. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval spent  the whole of Thursday in the region worst affected by the Maoist insurgents, Chhattisgarh’s Bastar. This was his first visit to this region since the time he took charge of India’s national security last year. His visit comes at a time when the divergence between the state and the centre has widened over the aspect of how to take the anti-Maoist fight forward. It also comes at a time when the monsoon has nearly retreated and anti-Maoist operations in full flow are set to commence.

Sources informed this correspondent that Doval flew in from New Delhi to Chhattisgarh.  Subsequently, he boarded  a helicopter and undertook an aerial tour of Sukma district in Chhattisgarh. The southern part of Sukma is a region the Maoists label as ‘liberated zone’ or a region where they, not the government machinery, run the show. After he concluded his aerial sortie, he held a review meeting with authorities on the ground which included the top brass of the state police, state government and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).He returned to New Delhi before the end of the day. “This was a visit where the NSA was keen to absorb and understand all the stake holders. He gave us all a patient hearing,” said a source.

While the official line was to keep a low profile, sharp differences have emerged over the conduct of these operations. The state administration, branded ‘non-starter’ and ‘non-serious’ many times over by the officials at the centre felt they were not being understood fully, whereas those at the centre believe otherwise. A classic example of this was the ill-fated CRPF-driven operation, ‘Operation SS (South Sukma) 14’ conducted last December which led to the loss of lives of several CRPF personnel. This operation, conducted by about 700 CRPF men saw a much smaller force of the Maoists successfully thwart it and cause casualties. That the local police was not fully convinced and thus did not participate fully only helped the Maoists. State police on its part, despite the raging insurgency, has failed to even recruit itself in numbers already authorised. There is about 10 per cent shortfall in its total strength at present.

“It is a surprise that someone as important as the NSA has found time only now. It, in a way, tells you of the priority that the government has. Nevertheless, now that he has gone we hope he has learnt the right lessons and his role will help the man on the ground perform his duty better,” said a source.

Saturday’s Sukma ambush & the undoing of ‘Fighter Rao’

A snap of State Highway 5 in Sukma district
A snap of State Highway 5 in Sukma district

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.

45-year-old STF Sub Inspector Shankar Rao
45-year-old STF Sub Inspector Shankar Rao

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.

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/sukma-massacre-the-undoing-of-fighter-rao/1/429933.html

BEING HUMAN: CRPF to involve juniors in planning, wants to know about the living conditions of its men too

Article appeared in MAIL TODAY on December 5
Article appeared in MAIL TODAY on December 5
This is how CRPF men source drinking water in a camp in Bastar
This is how CRPF men source drinking water in a camp in Bastar

Smarting from the deadly encounter in Sukma and the controversy over uniforms of their dead being dumped in a bin following post-mortem, senior officials of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) have begun damage control. Indications are that not only are operational aspects being reviewed but also efforts are being made at assessing the living conditions of their men who serve the force and the nation in inhospitable jungles of Bastar, something that seldom done and pursued.

When asked, the acting Director General RC Tayal chose his words carefully, “We have to hit the Maoists hard, there is not going to be any slowing down. But instead of continuing the traditional area domination kind of operations we will now need to look at specific, swift and pin point operations.”  His words hold significance given the criticism about conducting a 15-day long operation in Sukma and the fatigue it created for the men. Though the inquiry is on, many from the CRPF are quietly upset over an operation which was “too long, without a goal and ill-planed so much so that despite so much preparation the CRPF could not ensure a single helipad was secured for IAF choppers to evacuate”, in the words of an officer. It was also learnt that operations need to not only be better planned but also need the active involvement of the junior leadership at that stage.

Sources say the senior leadership went into an overdrive in the region on Thursday. Unit deployed in far flung areas were asked to immediately forward details of their living conditions, number of toilets in their camps, number of malaria cases, number of personnel, ration issues if any, leaves utilized or not and requirements. Many unit commanders were taken aback. “For years what has not mattered is suddenly important,” said an officer. When asked what could be the cause, “May be someone has reported about the pathetic conditions in which we are forced to live.”

From inadequate, filthy toilets to lack of communication facilities to improper potable water supply, camps have often come up with scant regard to the living condition they provide. The district police, as an end user of the CRPF, is responsible for the plight of the camps. Operational requirements have often ensured that camps are created without even security or communication links. For example, following the massacre of the Congress party leaders in Darbha region of Sukma in May 2013, a camp was opened near the ambush site within a month. “There was neither barricading nor communication links since satellite phones too aren’t really reliable in this region. So our bosses agree in creating sitting ducks out of us in a known Maoist stronghold,” said a source. Very often the on paper ‘facilities’ of a camp can be very different from the reality. “On paper, we have ten toilets for 120 men. In reality, only five are made and work on, the other five are yet to even take off,” mentioned another source.

Explained a source, “Our decision makers are IPS officers who come on deputation as IGs, ADGs and DGs. Hardly any IPS officer in his career has operated in a hard core area at the fighting level so they seldom understand our problems.”

Multiple committees are in the process of reviewing the force’s functioning. The MHA is keen to make the CRPF the frontline force to counter the Maoists and thereby attempting to review the functioning and revamp, if need be.

#NAMO IN #BASTAR: Here is how he is being secured in one of the most volatile regions of our country

Security forces throw a massive cordon in Bastar’s Kondagaon

Modi to address aam sabha at 3pm

Guj Police team arrived last night and took charge

State govt has ferried Special Task Force (STF), CRPF’s CoBRA to venue

Adjoining districts have launched ops to clear their areas to push Maoists further away

Sources claim ‘it is a near 5-tier security ring’ which will secure Modi

Venue will have access controlled by local police

Kondagaon, the venue of the aam sabha, is located between two parliamentary seats i.e Bastar & Kanker

Sources claim there will be additional 3000 troops in the vicinity of the venue dominating areas in radius of 1, 3 & 5km

Police is preparing ‘for the worse’, sources say. Worry is just not contained to Maoists but also emanating from terror operatives

Why an accidental camp-bust in Jharkhand has our security set up rattled. My report.

Article as appeared in MAIL TODAY edition of January 10, 2014
Article as appeared in MAIL TODAY edition of January 10, 2014

It is a discovery which has shaken the security forces operating in the Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-affected areas of central India. Indications are that the insurgents may no longer remain confined to the rural regions, launching attacks using outdated modes.

A camp belonging to the splinter group of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) in Jharkhand’s Simdega district which was busted in the last week of December 2013, has revealed the presence of remote control and timer-based Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), a first of sorts. “It was a camp of the PLFI, which we see as a splinter group of the Maoists which was busted and what was revealed is indeed something new. They have utilized these devices recently in the district and around and it is a worrying trend.” He went on the state how the PLFI has utilized these devices for pursuing criminal ends and not to target security forces. “But with the discovery of such a capability, we can not rule out anything,” said Asim Minz, Superintendent of Police, Simdega, which lies the south eastern region of the state in proximity to West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.

The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) which, in an inter-state operation, stumbled upon this manufacturing unit has termed this discovery a success.

“This unit had the capability of manufacturing close to three hundred weapons. It also had lathe machines and generators which had been stolen from a BSNL tower. Additionally, we recovered close to 70-kg of explosive from there,” said Director General (DG) CRPF Dilip Trivedi.

Former Home Secretary RK Singh, reacting to this discovery, stated, “This was being anticipated. The insurgents have been attempting at upgrading their weaponry. What these remote-controlled and timer devices do is that they take away the need for deploying an individual, which has been their practice. It is a big challenge before our agencies to bust this enhancement especially the links that these insurgents have with underground groups in north eastern states.”

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