Tag Archives: Sukma

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.

DSC_1247
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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CRPF SUKMA BLAST: Did not check the road for mines admits Chhattisgarh Police

Does the left hand know what the right is doing? Not always.

In a stunning revelation, it is now emerging that neither the local police nor the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) – both tasked with countering the left-wing Maoist violence in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh – bothered checking the road for mines before allowing troops to ply on it leading to the carnage on March 13 where nine policemen were killed in an mine explosion.

Around noon on Tuesday, in the state’s Sukma district, men from 212 battalion of the CRPF were commuting from the Kistaram camp to the one at Palodi when their Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) was blasted by insurgents using an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

Two more policemen who were in the same vehicle are currently being treated for the injuries they sustained.

While the CRPF maintained that the state police was tasked with clearing the road from all forms of threat on that ill-fated day, the state police said did not have the resources required for that task.

Sundarraj Patilingam, the Chhattisgarh Police Deputy Inspector General (DIG) who looks at the violence-hit region said, “On that day, the state police undertook an area domination exercise (this involves occupying the dominating features along a route to secure a large area) between Kistaram and Palodi. It was a decision taken based on resources available before the officials on ground. In hindsight, we believe a more intensive de-mining and ROP (Road Opening Party is specifically tasked with minutely scanning the road to terminate threats like the IEDs) could have resulted in detection of the IED. Therefore the incident could have been averted”.

He added, “But ideal conditions don’t always exist and senior officials have to visit camps”.

For years now, Maoist rebels have used IEDs planted underneath the road surface to target security personnel. A thorough ROP is thus the only way to counter the threat.

Vehicular movements are generally avoided unless personnel actually conduct an ROP exercise and give the green light.

Warning was ignored 

Barely five hours before the mine blast, the Maoists fired upon personnel from the CRPF’s special unit, CoBRA (208th battalion) ahead of the Kistaram camp at about 7am.

“We’d hardly covered three kilometres on our way to Palodi, nearly 250 Maoist insurgents attacked us. We hit them back and they retreated,” said a policeman who was aware of the fight.

As a result of this, a pre-planned visit to the Kistaram and other camps by the Sukma Superintendent of Police and senior CRPF officer was cancelled.

Nevertheless, at around 9am, the SP, Abhishek Meena, landed in a helicopter at Kistaram, unaccompanied by the senior CRPF officer.

“Our 208 CoBRA had warned about the presence of large number of Maoists with sophisticated arms in the area. The Sukma Superintendent of Police (SP) went ahead with his pre-planned visit after assessing the situation. Our Commanding Officer sent the MPVs one of which got caught in the IED blast”, said the Director General of CRPF, RR Bhatnagar.

Asked if the SP Sukma should have paid heed to the caution advised by his force, Bhatnagar said, “There is no point in conducting these post mortems. We have to look ahead”.

When contacted, the Sukma SP Meena declined to comment.

ALSO READ – MY DEEP DIVE INTO MAOIST INSURGENCY AND WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2018:

https://jugalthepurohit.wordpress.com/2018/01/06/maoist-menace-fewer-attacks-fewer-maoist-casualties-but-more-security-men-killed-this-and-more-that-the-govt-wont-tell-you/

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

WEEK AFTER SUKMA AMBUSH: Jawans who fought Maoists tell me, ‘700 of us couldn’t take on 100 Maoists, feeling appalled’

Article as appeared on December 7 in the MAIL TODAY newspaper
Article as appeared on December 7 in the MAIL TODAY newspaper

With a hint of anger in his blood-shot eyes, he revealed, “We were close to seven hundred. They were barely over a hundred. Yet we could neither save our colleagues or their weapons nor could we eliminate the rebels”. Rajat and three of his colleagues (names changed on request) were a part ‘Operation SS 14 (South Sukma)’ from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who faced off with the Maoists on Monday and lost fourteen of their men including two officers. They are presently awaiting their return to their original location.

While Rajat Kumar is a young ‘sipahi’, joined hardly two years ago, his colleagues are not. “Nothing is going to change. I am looking at completing twenty years of service and exiting with pension,” said Mahesh Raj, a constable. For the force that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wants to become the arrow head of India’s anti-Maoist effort, it is a difficult time. Those outside see it as fighting a difficult battle. Those inside have little hope of things improving.

By November 10, officers in various battalions were informed of a major, ‘four phase’ operation to be conducted later in the month. By November 15, personnel were sought from an array of battalions which included 74th, 150th, 201st & 206th CoBRA, team directly under Deputy Inspector General (DIG) CoBRA, team directly under Inspector General (IG) CRPF and 223th battalion. Before November 15, over 600 personnel had gathered at camps like Pollampalli, Kankerlanka and Puswada among others in Sukma.

“Our operations would take two nights and three days. We had nil intelligence. We would search, wander from one location to the other, expose ourselves to the Maoists and return,” said Rajat. It was reliably learnt that the operation has come under question from several quarters within the CRPF. When asked, the acting Director General RC Tayal had earlier commented, “The traditional area domination operations need to now change. We must hit the Maoists and operations need to be pinpoint, specific and swift.” As these operations progressed, on November 21, in its second phase, seven personnel were injured by the Maoists. Later, the third and fourth phases were merged into one and undertaken from November 29 to December 1.

On November 30, five of those who participated in the operations were detected with malaria and required immediate evacuation. However a Border Security Force (BSF) helicopter flew in on that day but did not land, citing unfit conditions. “We covered a hillock and slept there for the night. Next morning, you can say our operation had turned into one where we were only scurrying to detect a suitable landing spot for the helicopter,” said Pankaj Kumar, another constable.

As luck would have it, coordination with the helicopter fleet for such a massive operation was another debacle.

The IAF team at Jagdalpur readied itself to fly but all day the CRPF could not confirm just where to land till it was in the sunset range! “Helipad locations kept changing throughout. At 1610 hours, the fourth location came. And mind you, all along CRPF never uttered a word that there was an ambush. We got curious. Finally, at 1640hrs they asked us to go to evacuate their injured and we couldn’t because it was too late.The state government, despite repeated reminders has failed to install equipment which can allow us to land at night. Had they done that even at their Chintagufa camp, where the troops returned that night, we would have evacuated the injured,” said a MoD official.

Little of this means anything to these men on ground. “Forget malaria cases, even if the IAF/BSF had flown the next day when we asked them to on the day of the ambush, two of out men would have been alive today,” said Pankaj Kumar.

On ground, before all hell broke loose, all the team commanders were called to meet the IG at the ground zero. It was close to 9:30am. As the encounter began with firing from a ridge on to CRPF position near Kasalpad village, instead of fighting the hundred odd Maoists, different units of the CRPF were moving in different directions. “We still don’t know why many things happened the way they did. We did not act as one,” conceded an officer who was a key element of the entire operation.

Frustration written over his face, Rajat said, “We were looking for the Maoists all these days. We were tired but we wanted to finish them off because they had showed up finally. But when firing began we noticed that not all were fighting.” His colleague, Mahesh, quiet till now said, “In J&K, when militants show up, the entire area is cordoned and militants are not allowed to walk away like it happened here.”

The MHA has announced a slew of committees to investigate the lapses and review the CRPF’s functioning apart from the statutory Court of Inquiry (CoI).

An inspector who was watching the conversation flow said, “I have seen the CRPF for over 25 years. Never before has the force taken so many hits. We are being called upon to do the kind of work that militaries do yet we neither have that kind of training nor powers.”

BOX – WEAPONS MAOISTS LOOTED

  • 2000 AK47 rounds
  • 300 rounds INSAS Light Machine Gun
  • 30 Under Barrel Grenade Launchers
  • 10 AK47 rifles
  • 01 Self Loading Rifle
  • 01 INSAS LMG
  • 04 Bullet Proof Jackets
  • 01 GPS Set
  • 01 VHF Manpack set
  • 02 Binocular

SUKMA: PMO spy agency pulled out UAV mid-way, unannounced; Hurt our ops, CRPF to MHA

 

Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on December 3
Article appeared in the MAIL TODAY newspaper on December 3

 

On Monday afternoon, learning about the death of their men was not the only horror facing the top brass of the Central Reserve Police Force(CRPF). Despite their best efforts at convincing, the spy agency National Technological Research Organisation (NTRO) insisted and succeeded in pulling out its surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle(UAV) deployed over Sukma at the time the operation was on.

This ditching, being viewed very seriously as hampering the force when it needed all possible efforts has propelled the CRPF top brass to complain formally to its parent body, the Ministry of Home Affair (MHA). A senior IPS officer posted in the CRPF, confirming the development, said, “We are not going to take this lying down anymore. The MHA has been, in a very strongly worded manner, informed about this. It is now up to them.”

According to information accessed, the operations directorate of the CRPF placed an advanced ‘indent’ (read requisition) for UAV deployment over Sukma from 8am to 5pm for Monday, December 1. It was learnt that this was done keeping in mind the Maoist build up and the operations which were on for a fortnight. From Sukma, the Israeli-made Heron UAV was to fly to Jharkhand to provide an assessment of the Maoist presence since the state was to go for polls on Tuesday. Only then was it to return to its base at the Begumpet airport.

“The UAV arrived over Sukma only by noon. By around 1:30pm, it was gone. The NTRO’s point was that the fuel supply was nearly exhausted and it needed to fly more than 90 minutes to reach Hyderabad,” said a source. What bewildered the CRPF top brass was the sudden change of plan. “Given what was happening, we told NTRO to cancel flying to Jharkhand and maintain presence over Sukma. What we got in return baffled us. If you have been informed of a job as critical as this, how can you just walk away,” a source stated.

The UAV, despite its limited visual penetration of the thick foliage over jungles of Bastar is of immense help to the security forces since it beams live images of the location over which it flies. In a limited way, the UAV also helps forces to track, detect and react to any possible build up of the insurgents.

The NTRO’s UAV is operated by personnel from the Indian Air Force (IAF) who are on deputation to the spy agency. The spy agency is facing a crisis of pilots and observers and one set of pilots and observers can’t work for over four hours and NTRO has barely two set of people at the best of times. As a result of this, the Heron UAV which can actually operate for over 18 hours, effectively is not utilized beyond eight hours at the most. What makes the matters worse is that the NTRO only flies one UAV at a time and that too for a limited duration owing to the manpower crunch. Its pay, mandated by the government rules, also is too meagre for it to be able to attract fresh recruitment. When reached for a comment, Air Vice Marshal Arvind Verma, chief of UAV operations of NTRO heard the entire issue and said, “You should speak to the right authority. I can not comment.” When asked who should be reached, he did not reply.

It is not for the first time that the CRPF and NTRO have had a run in. In the past, former Home Secretary and now BJP MP RK Singh had put it in writing the need to stop relying on NTRO and developing own fleet of UAVs. Apart from that, for years now, the ground forces have pleaded the NTRO to shift out of Hyderabad and operate from Jagdalpur or Bhillai or any other air strip in the vicinity but NTRO has refrained. “Imagine the constraints that the NTRO already faces. In that by insisting on operating out of Hyderabad, you end up wasting considerable flying time in merely reaching over places in Bastar or Jharkhand. You have barely reached and it is time to head back, exactly what happened in the Sukma operation,” explained a source.

While the CRPF reports to the MHA and the police to their respective state goverments, the NTRO comes directly under the National Security Advisor’s secretariat and thus under Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

As ambush began in Sukma, presence of a ‘high-profile target’ gave authorities tense moments. My piece.

From the time between the Maoist ambush on CRPF troopers in Sukma on Monday and the return of the companies to the camp, authorities were unusually coy about letting out the details.

This was done to avoid letting out details of the presence of a “high-profile target” in the rescue party. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) authorities feared the info could have further attracted the insurgents.

It is now emerging that in that hostile territory in Chhattisgarh was present the highest-ranking CRPF officer in the state – Inspector General H.S. Siddhu – an Indian Police Service officer from the Punjab cadre currently on deputation.

The IG’s presence was neither mentioned officially nor acknowledged till the two CRPF parties returned to the camp.

It was only close to 9.30 pm that twin parties from 206 and 223 CRPF battalions could make their way into the Chintagufa camp located 5 km from the ambush site along with the Inspector General.

“Our companies were to return from two different locations in the same general area. The party that came under attack was not the one being led by the IG. However, on hearing about the attack, he led the troopers and others to reinforce those facing fire,” a CRPF officer, not wanting to be named, told IndiaToday.in.

Devoid of any air support, since none of the Indian Air Force (IAF) choppers could take off to help the troopers caught in Maoist fire, it fell upon the ground troops to bail out their colleagues.

“The company led by the IG and Deputy Commandant (Ops) managed to help their colleagues. They had to pick up the dead and the wounded as they were pulling out,” said another officer, not wanting to be named.

Moving out of the killing zone was not enough.

The entire region, a known stronghold of Maoists, was a minefield.

Even though the firing, which started at 11 am, subsided by afternoon, “we kept our fingers crossed” till the teams made it to the camp, said an insider.

During afternoon and evening, there were many tense moments as security forces would often lose connectivity with forces constantly on the move.

There is virtually no mobile coverage in that region owing to continuing reluctance of both private and state operators to install communication towers.

Also, this was not the first time that Siddhu, known to take part in and lead operations, was present at the site of a major ambush.

Even on November 21, in the same area when the troops came under fire, he was present and chose to go in again.

That day, seven troopers, including Siddhu’s gunman Rupak Rawat, were injured; an IAF rescue chopper was fired at and even IG had a close shave.

Siddhu, since the last two years, has initiated a morale-boosting move – by raising the Tricolour in Tadmetla on August 15.

Tadmetla holds a special significance for the CRPF since this was the location where in April 2010, 76 personnel were killed in a Maoist ambush.

However, Siddhu’s style of functioning has also been criticised.

“While it’s good and helps the forces, beyond a point, one must realise that your presence can become a liability for the men who will remain concerned about your safety,” a senior CRPF officer said, not wanting to be named.

RE-POSTING: Opinion Piece – The #CRPF has bottomed out, time to clean-up

But for my dad and these men, the risks they took, the wounds they suffered..they did that for their buddies.. They may have fought for their country but they died for their friends.. for the man in front, for the man beside them 

Flags of our fathers (2006)

My cameraperson Prem Mishra kept asking me this question as our flight touched the tarmac of airport at Raipur and we began work. We were there because just a few hours ago, the Maoists had ambushed and killed 11 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel, four police personnel and one civilian.

“How did they kill so many despite more than half of the personnel in the operation emerging relatively unscathed?” he asked. For a reporter, establishing facts come before analysis, I said.

The thought never left me though. It was something which nobody ever denied.

Finally, on Friday, CRPF suspended 17 men for ‘inaction/lack of satisfactory counter action’ in that incident in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district on March 11. The police also suspended its representative who was a part of that team. Though some say their only fault is that they emerged alive from a deadly ambush, officially atleast, these men now stand accused of fleeing, leaving behind their colleagues on the battlefield.

When that happens to a force it knows it can’t sink any further.

Having seen this force since the last five years, this saddens but does not surprise me.

Imagine a force in which senior officers do not wear the uniform right, imagine a force which does not feel proud of its unique identity, imagine a force in which it is not mandatory for the man on top to have experience of the toughest duty the force performs, imagine a force where the juniors complain against their seniors because they feel unheard, imagine a force which gives up on a rich tradition of annual change-over of battalions to save a few crore rupees of the government. The CRPF is such a force.

Why this is not changing can be explained by the fact that those in power are blissfully unaware of the rot that has set in. Why most don’t care is because the Maoists who kill the CRPF men do so in the jungles, away from our malls and metro trains, unlike terrorists.  But can there be any doubt about the need for the Maoists to be stopped when their goal is to capture Delhi’s Red Fort?

The CRPF is equipped for it. What it needs is leadership and awareness among those who control it.