25 jawans of the CRPF’s 74th battalion were killed by the Maoists in Burkapal on April 24.
12 CRPF troops were killed on March 11 in Bheji.
Rediff.com’s Prasanna D Zore and Uttam Ghosh travelled 650 km — across Sukma (Dornapal, Burkapal, Chintagufa) and Bijapur (Chelpar, Reddy, Gangaloor, Bhopalpatnam) in Chhattisgarh — to find out more about the ground situation 11 days after the Burkapal ambush.
Photographs and graphics: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
The site is about 100 to 200 metres into the forest, away from the road.
The CRPF troops were on the way back to their camp after a road opening exercise along the Dornapal-Chintagufa-Burkapal-Chintalnar-Jagargonda axis.
The blood at the ambush spot is red no more.
Though dried and maroon now, it still bears testimony to the horror that unveiled in the middle of a thickly forested area where left wing extremists — the ‘Maoists’/’Naxals’ — ambushed and killed 25 CRPF jawans post noon on April 24.
The bullets that must have whizzed past that day during the encounter between the two sides are missing. Some met their mark; some must have went astray.
Those that missed their mark made their mark instead on the trees that abound the forest. Standing in the midst of blood-stained earth and rocks, staring at the bullet-riddled trees makes the air around you eerie.
The insects buzz continuously and the sound of dry leaves under your feet add to the eerieness.
Video: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com
The continuous buzz of the insects add to the eeriness. And then there’s the rustle of dry leaves under your feet.
Your eyes wander around in search of Maoists; there are none. Only fear swirls around you.
Just 50 metres inside Dornapal from where you take a right turn on your way from Sukma towards Burkapal, you come across a temporary check post built by the local police.
A few kilometres on the Dornapal-Chintagufa-Burkapal-Chintalnar-Jagargonda road, a 58 kilometre stretch in the ‘liberated zone’, the metalled road gives way to gravel, crushed stones and dust.
There is dense forest on both sides of the road.
Roughly, after every 5 to 7 kilometres, you come across a CRPF camp, from where the jawans launch their area domination and road opening parties (ROPs) to establish the writ of the State and drive the Maoists away from threatening labourers building the roads.
The CRPF conducts such exercises every single day to dominate the area and offer protection to the workers on this stretch so that roads can be built and the government, and its welfare schemes, can touch the lives of Adivasis who live deep in the forests.
The encounter ended in about 45 minutes, resulting in the deaths of 25 jawans.
Video: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com
At around 12.30 pm on April 24, while returning from one such ROP along the stretch, the 74th battalion entered the forest opposite Burkapal hamlet, an Adivasi dwelling with 40, 50 houses, just a kilometre away from their camp.
The Chintagufa camp is located south on the opposite side, about six kilometres away.
Just about 100 to 200 metres into the forest, the Maoists were waiting with automatic weapons for their targets; that is where the CRPF lost 25 of their men.
The CRPF suspects the villagers helped the Maoists during the ambush. The ambush spot is to the left of this photograph.
“Had these jawans gone all the way to the camp they would have been saved,” says Dr Girish Kant Pandey, former head of the department of defence studies, Government Science College, Raipur.
“Naxals usually lay a ‘wait’ and ‘bait’ ambush and their strategy always has been to attack security forces while returning from their ROPs or area domination exercise. They know that the forces are out in the field and they will, without fail, come back along the same route,” he adds.
According to Dr Pandey, the Naxals knew the 74th Battalion would be taking the same route and so laid a ‘wait’ ambush at the spot.
The Naxals, he says, must have studied the CRPF troops’ daily route and knew where the jawans would halt on their way back to the camp.
Anil Kamboj, former inspector general, Border Security Force and counter-terrorism expert, says the jawans must not have followed the standard operating procedures (SOPs) taught to them while returning from such exercises.
“I think the jawans did not follow the SOPs taught to them during training. They must have sat together in a group for lunch instead of spreading out in smaller numbers. Usually, when jawans eat out in enemy territory they do so in small groups with a number of jawans doing sentry duty around them,” he says, explaining the high number of casualties.
“They were caught completely off guard,” adds Kamboj, who has served in India’s major insurgency-hit areas.
Apart from a probable lapse in following SOPs, Kamboj blames poor intelligence gathering, lack of coordination between the state government and central paramilitary forces and poor training and infrastructure as the reasons for such high casualties.
Though the CRPF trains its jawans for ambushes inside a jungle like this, the Maoists know these jungles better than their adversaries.
CRPF personnel who spoke on the condition they would not be identified for this report strongly refuted such claims.
“Our troops know they are operating inside a Maoist ‘liberated zone’. Such baseless allegations arise after every such attack,” says a CRPF officer we met between Dornapal and Chintalnar.
“The Maoists were far greater in number. There were around 500 of them waiting in the woods,” he says, explaining the high number of casualties.
“Our jawans fought bravely and intensely,” says another CRPF officer. “Otherwise, the ambush would not have lasted for more than 45 minutes,” he adds.
Maoist attacks don’t usually last for more than 15 minutes, he say, as the left wing extremists shoot and scoot.
“The fact that this one continued far too long is proof that our jawans took them head on, even if they were caught off guard by such huge numbers, and thwarted their bigger plans,” he says.
According to a CRPF jawan, the Maoists involved in such hit and run ambushes don’t number more than 60 to 100.
“We killed more than 30 Maoists in the Burkapal ambush,” says the first officer.
“It’s just that the Naxals never leave behind their dead so we cannot prove what I am saying. But reports from the jawans who counter-attacked the Naxals indicate we imposed heavy casualties on them.”
As part of the road opening exercise, the jawans fan out in equal numbers inside the jungle on both sides of the roads so that those building the road feel safe.
Up ahead this road is CRPF’s Chintagufa camp. The Burkapal camp is located down the road.
The CRPF, Dr Pandey says, should have known that the Maoists keep a close watch on their movements, and always wait for a chance, when CRPF troops moves out of their camps to conduct their duties.
“The Naxals keep a close watch on every move the CRPF makes in their area. They carefully study the party they want to attack for days together before engaging them in an ambush,” Dr Pandey says.
“They keep a track of where the party stops, rests, the distance they keep between themselves while patrolling,” he adds. “Maoists minutely study such movements and they know for sure that they will not be taken by surprise if they launch a planned attack.”
The Maoists, he explains, never move out in single file but divide themselves in different groups during an ambush.
There are groups who ‘spot’, ‘scout’, ‘recce’, ‘search’, ‘assault’. Each such group has members between 2 to 50 depending on the work they are assigned.
Explaining the large number of CRPF casualties, Dr Pandey says, “The CRPF don’t follow properly what they learn during training.”
CRPF troops, he say, take the same route 50 times while patrolling and so know the route quite well. “They cannot claim they were in some unknown area.”
Echoing Kamboj, Dr Pandey says had the CRPF assigned sentries to watch over the troops while they ate lunch or were resting, the sentries would have alerted the others about the Maoists’ presence.
“During training they are taught not to move around in big groups, but that seems to have not been followed when the ambush happened,” Dr Pandey adds.
“If one group comes under attack by the enemy, then the group after them should be at a distance so as not to come under enemy fire. And this distance is decided by keeping in mind the kind of fire power that the enemy possesses. But they don’t follow these rules,” says Kamboj.
Kamboj, who now teaches at the New Delhi Institute of Management, says whenever a CRPF party is attacked the first thing they must do is try to break the ambush and move away from the line of attack.
“But when caught unawares, instead of breaking the ambush the jawans get into defensive mode and begin firing on the enemy. When you get into this mode you either kill the enemy or get yourself killed.”
Adequate back up, Dr Pandey says, should have quickly reached the ambushed jawans when the two CRPF camps, one at Burkapal, and the other at Chintagufa, were just 1 and 6 kilometres away respectively.
When asked if adequate reinforcements were sent to the jawans of the 74th battalion trapped in the Maoist ambush, CRPF personnel offered different explanations.
One of them said that reinforcements came from Chintalnar (9 km north of Burkapal) and Chintagufa quickly (in about 15 minutes), but could not explain why the Maoists could kill 25 CRPF jawans or why the latter could not inflict a heavy casualty on the Maoists.
Another CRPF personnel adds that the ambushed CRPF party lost their communication sets in the panic that followed the firing and so could not ask for reinforcements.
Yet another CRPF trooper added that communicating their positions to other camps while asking for reinforcements could have given the Maoists the upper hand as some communication sets were already taken away by the Maoists during this attack.
“The Naxals, being in possession of the wireless sets, would have known how many and from which direction the reinforcements were coming and we would then have been sitting ducks,” he said.
Speaking to these differing CRPF voices on why the reinforcements, if they were sent at all, could not save the lives of their brother jawans or led to more casualties on the Maoists’ side, gives one an idea of the chaotic situation that unfolded during the 45 minute ambush (Different media reports soon after the attack on April 24 said the Burkapal ambush lasted for two to three hours. If that were the case, there was no reason why adequate help could not have reached the troops who lost their lives).
Contesting the CRPF’s claims that asking for reinforcements would have put the troops in jeopardy, Dr Pandey explains, “Reinforcements during such times are asked for in coded language learnt by security forces during their training. There is no way the Naxals can understand what the ambushed party is asking for when done in a coded language.”
“Those dishing out such excuses are trying to save their skin.”
Reinforcements from camps located at closer distances could have arrived at the ambush site in 5 to 10 minutes, Dr Pandey says.
Alka Vashisht (name changed on request), who has studied the Maoists, backs Dr Pandey’s argument.
“Reinforcements on motorcycles could reach the spot by firing continuously at the location where they suspect the enemy to be. Such firing would itself have made the Naxals run away with their tails between their legs,” she says.
Citing from information about past skirmishes, Dr Pandey says, “During such times the reinforcement that is closest to the area of attack is of the greatest help, but they don’t usually venture out.”
CRPF reinforcements are taught not to hasten their movement towards the ambush area for fear of getting trapped, says Vashisht.
“They are told that moving quickly could land them in a plot hatched by the Naxals. They have been scared so much that even during such critical situations the reinforcement party thinks twice,” adds Dr Pandey.
The Maoists, he explains, typically lay ‘wait’ and ‘bait’ ambushes. They either ‘wait’ patiently for their targets and attack them at the spot of their choosing and advantage.
Or they ‘bait’ their targets into making mistakes — just what the reinforcement party fears during such ambushes — and then catch them unawares.
During training, CRPF troops are taught to lay an ambush as well as how to break an ambush.
“They are trained to break an ambush by selecting the enemy target and get out of an ambush even while inflicting heavy casualties,” says Vashisht. “Had that been done so many jawans would not have lost their lives.”
This is what the CRPF troops did when faced with the Maoists on the scorching afternoon of April 24, say CRPF officers.
“It is because our jawans’ intense training and bravery that despite the Naxals outnumbering our men — they were 500 against our 90,” says one CRPF personnel, “that they could not achieve their objective of killing many more.”
“Considering their presence in such heavy numbers, one can assume they had much bigger plans which our jawans thwarted.”