Bastar attack: Maoist killing of 22 jawans shows little has changed in over a decade on operations front

Not much has changed in the Maoist-hotbed of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The killing of 22 security personnel in an ambush on 3 April is a chilling throwback to similar attacks over the last many years.

So far in the past 10 years, more than 175 security force personnel have lost their lives to major surprise attacks by the Left-wing ultras.

With the pattern so eerily familiar, it’s worth pondering whether any lesson has been learnt from previous incidents, particularly in the areas of broad strategy and operational tactics on the ground.

The 3 April ambush at Tekulugudam — 12 kilometres from Tarrem camp in Bijapur district in which 22 jawans lost their lives — bears a stark resemblance to the Maoist attack around a year ago, on 21 March, 2020, when a gun battle had taken place inside the forest near Chintagufa in Sukma district, between the security forces and the Maoists. In that incident, 17 jawans were killed.

Similar to the Saturday encounter, the previous one was also a joint operation of CRPF’s elite wing CoBRA, STF (Special Task Force) and DRG (District Reserve Guards).

Both the Maoist attacks were led by the dreaded commander of People Liberation Guerrilla Army’s (PLGA) military Battalion One, Madvi Hidma, who operates out of Sukma and is an astute military strategist.

Both the attacks were a part of Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign (TCOC) of PLGA, the objective of which is to cause maximum damage to security forces.

Right from the initiation of the operations by the security forces to the ambush by the Maoists — everything got repeated, which shows that no lesson has been learnt. It once again exposed the vulnerability of the security forces to Naxal attacks.

Even the April 2017 Maoist ambush at Burkapal in Sukma that led to the massacre of 25 CRPF jawans points to multiple factors that led to the failure of that operation. That was also the case with the April 2019 attack at Dantewada, in which BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi was killed, along with four others.

Why does this keep happening — year after year?

According to experts on Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) and internal security, and the sources in the security forces, there are multiple factors that lead to the failure of anti-Naxal operations and killing of security force personnel.

“Almost every time after a Maoist attack takes place, in which a large number of force personnel get killed, an internal inquiry is set up for introspection. But nothing changes year after year whether it’s with the state police or central forces. The mistakes continue to take place and loopholes are hardly plugged in the next operation,” a senior official in Chhattisgarh Police said on condition of anonymity.

“Multiple factors — from leadership failure to loopholes in the functioning of the security forces — have led to the death of 25 members of CRPF personnel. The most unfortunate part is that despite repeated incidents, no lessons are being learned,” former director general, Border Security Force, and an expert on LWE, Prakash Singh had said after the Sukma Maoist attack in 2017.

Counter-terrorism analyst Anil Kamboj echoed a similar view on the most recent attack. “Poor planning, poor intelligence at ground level, leadership failure, non-adherence to Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), lack of training in guerrilla warfare and not following the basic tactics — all these are giving Maoists an upper hand over security forces. Despite spending lakhs of rupees, having a huge manpower, availability of sophisticated weapons and superior technology, the Maoists are ahead of the forces,” he said.

Weak planning

Analysing the Saturday incident in which 2,000 troops had set out from five camps to a location around 14.5 kilometres from Tarrem camp on Sukma-Bijapur border on 2 April, Kamboj said, “In guerrilla warfare, which is the forte of the Naxals, security personnel in such large numbers are not sent the way it was done on Saturday. It easily attracts the attention and makes the enemy alert. Before the final operation, a small group of say 30 personnel is sent for a recce and after proper sanitisation, action is taken. Why enter as a huge column and get trapped? Not following the basics of tactics, leads to such large-scale casualties.”

“And what about the reinforcement and back up troops? Why were the jawans left behind to get killed? In the past, we dealt with Pakistan-trained militants in Kashmir and successfully eliminated them, which was possible due to fool-proof planning,” recalled Kamboj, who had led operations in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Bastar.

File image of Madvi Hidma available with the police. Photo procured by Debobrat Ghose

Failure to recognise enemy’s strength

With Nambala Keshav Rao alias Basava Raju taking over as general secretary of CPI (Maoist) in 2019, replacing Muppalla Laxmana Rao aka Ganapathy, who reportedly stepped down in 2018 — it became clear that the new leadership would bring more aggression into Maoist operations across Naxal-hit districts in the country, especially in the Maoist-hotbed Bastar.

The ruthless leadership of elusive and shadowy commander of People Liberation Guerrilla Army’s (PLGA) Military Battalion One, Madvi Hidma, who operates out of Sukma and an astute military strategist, has given more teeth to Maoist attacks over the years.

Despite knowing the strength and presence of Hidma, the security forces failed to take adequate measures during the operation.

Intelligence failure

The 3 April incident again proved the intelligence failure on the part of security forces. According to sources on ground, the ambushed group — a part of a 450-strong contingent stepped into the trap laid by the Maoists — which is similar to last year's incident. “When it comes to human intelligence, the Naxals are way ahead of security forces. Almost in every Naxal attack, we find failure in intelligence gathering. They easily dupe the police force,” said Kamboj.

In some of the cases, even the technical intelligence of the police couldn’t be of much use.

Leadership issue

Both Kamboj and Prakash Singh questioned the role of commanders. “First the commanders as well as jawans lack proper training in jungle warfare, which requires special tactics. Second, the senior officials have to lead from front, which is not happening. Every time it’s the jawans who suffer. If senior officers lead the troop, they can take decisions on the spot, unlike jawans who only follow orders from the top. Encounter of dreaded forest brigand Veerappan in 2004 is a case in point. The then chief of Tamil Nadu Police STF, K Vijay Kumar had planned and led the operation himself,” said Kamboj.

Use of sophisticated equipment

Security experts have questioned why the security forces operating in the Liberated Zone on Red Corridor don't use drones with thermal imaging facilities to track down the Maoists, ahead of any operation.

Inconsequential political leadership

Nothing much has changed on the Naxal front, despite the change in governments both at the Centre and in the state in the past decade.

Once it was Congress-led UPA government at the Centre for a decade and the BJP in the state; and now it’s reversed, with the BJP-led NDA at the Centre and the Congress government in Chhattisgarh. The killing of security force jawans continues and so does the blame game.

CPI (Maoist) statement by Karan Pradhan on Scribd

Declaring war against the Maoists, Home Minister Amit Shah said on Monday in Jagdalpur that strong action would be taken against Naxals.

But the question is whether the anti-Naxal operation forces this time will plug the loopholes to counter Maoists?

If not, then the Maoists will continue justifying their attacks and hail killing of security force personnel by them, as they did after 3 April incident by issuing an official statement.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh during his tenure had rightly described Naxalism as India’s greatest internal security challenge. Nothing much has changed after that.

The writer is Editor, Science India and Delhi-based senior journalist, who specialises in Left-Wing Extremism



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