Dantewada: Another election, another blast and a few more lives lost. The story doesn't seem to change in the Naxal-affected Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, where Maoists have proved that their war with the Indian State continues. Every time the Indian State embarks on a big exercise, or its top functionary comes calling in the hotbed of Naxal violence in the country, the Maoists respond with more violence, almost always taking the lives of innocent people.
On Tuesday evening, the last day of campaigning for the Lok Sabha election which will be held in Bastar, comprising seven districts on 11 April, the sitting BJP MLA from Dantewada, Bhima Mandavi and four security personnel were killed in an attack by the Naxals. The incident becomes even more shocking because it comes at a time when security in the region is at its tightest as it goes to the polls.
Tuesday's fatal blast and death of the only BJP MLA from the Bastar Lok Sabha constituency was almost a repeat of the 2013 Maoist attack on a Congress convoy that was on its way to the next stop on its campaign trail at Jheerum Ghati in which the entire top leadership of the Chhattisgarh Congress was wiped out including prominent tribal leader and former minister Mahendra Karma, former Union minister Vidya Charan Shukla, state Congress president Nand Kumar Patel among others.
A step ahead of security forces
The Naxals in the region have repeatedly check-mated the police and paramilitary personnel, sending out a loud message that not only does their war with the Indian State continue, but that they are very serious about it and will do everything to guard their supremacy in the region. Repeated fatal attacks on the country's security forces point to a very disturbing reality — the Naxals are a step ahead of the security forces.
The blast seemed to be a rejoinder to the poll boycott called by the Maoists after the election was announced. In a blatant violation of the country's constitutional machinery, Maoist posters had come up in the entire region ordering people to stay away from the election process.
"We had requested the Election Commission to allow voters of Bastar to use 'magic ink' instead of regular electoral ink, as Maoists have issued a diktat that the hand of a voter would be chopped off, if they found ink on his finger. But, our proposal has not been accepted," a Dantewada district administration officer said.
They even asked the local villagers to support their cause of establishing 'Janatana Sarkar' (People's Council) — a State within a State — where Naxals rule the roost.
Given the open call for a boycott by the Maoists, did the Indian State not do its homework right in preparing for polls in this region?
This raises a host of questions that beg for an immediate answer, such as:
1. What went wrong and how?
2. Did the security forces not follow the SOP that is required of them especially in this challenging region?
3. Is the latest attack an intelligence failure?
4. Renewed Maoist strategy
What went wrong and how?
Speaking with various people from police officials to eyewitnesses; from locals to security experts, Firstpost found that besides a security lapse, several factors like a failure to follow SOPs, ground-level Naxal intelligence, sudden changes made in the MLA's route plan, etc contributed in the successful execution of the Naxal plan to eliminate Mandavi.
According to the police, locals and the BJP sources, the MLA's convoy left Dantewada town in the morning, visited Kirandul, Bacheli and Nakulnar, and held rallies. Instead of returning home on the pre-decided road, Mandavi took a shortcut and reached Syamgiri village. This wasn't part of the plan.
A source told Firstpost that the MLA had received a call requesting him to attend the weekly village market (haat) at Shyamgiri and address people there, which he did. The caller couldn't be identified yet. Mandavi stayed at the haat for 20 minutes and then left for home.
This gave ample time to Maoists to plan the IED blast.
Was there a security lapse?
Dantewada, the volatile district in Bastar has become infamous due to some of the worst attacks recording the highest casualties in Naxal history. The spot where Mandavi was killed on Tuesday, continues to be a favourite route for the Maoists. In the past, local Congress leader Trinath Thakur and, Ramesh Rathod and Surya Prakash Chouhan from the BJP were killed in Naxal attacks, during poll campaigning. In 2014, the Maoists in an ambush had killed a police officer and his constables.
If the road taken by Mandavi after attending the haat wasn't sanitised, why was he allowed to proceed and why was no extra protection given to him? Mandavi was given 'Z' category security by the Centre. "No police security was removed. The District Reserve Guards had been providing security to the deceased MLA. In fact, the thana in-charge of Bacheli had cautioned him not to divert from the pre-planned route and take the Bacheli-Kuakonda road. But, it wasn’t considered," Inspector-General (Bastar Range), Chhattisgarh Police, Vivekananda told Firstpost from Jagdalpur.
Local BJP leaders including former chief minister Raman Singh have raised doubts about the fact that even if Mandavi had changed his route and took his convoy on the Bacheli-Kuakonda road, why wasn't a police team sent?
"It's impossible to send a police team, if someone suddenly changes the route plan at the last moment. The police teams are allotted as per the sanctioned plans. There are no policemen in reserve to meet such demands. Moreover, there is already a shortage of policemen, so the department needs to use the force judiciously," a Dantewada police source claimed.
The police also justified that sanitisation of roads by road-opening party (ROP) couldn't be done due to poll campaigning, as it leads to fear and chaos among the local public.
Why intelligence still a major challenge?
Almost all the past incidents of ambush and attacks by the Naxals in this region on the Red Corridor indicate a failure in intelligence or information leaks. It has also been observed that the intelligence network of the Maoists has remained stronger and more efficient than that of the forces. Difficult terrain, use of local dialects, involvement of some local tribal villagers, active Jan Militia cadres, the failure of successive governments in the past to redress grievances of the tribal population etc have given an edge to the Naxals in strengthening their intelligence network.
That is why on several occasions, the ultra-Left cadre could breach the strong security cordon and strike when it hurts the most. As a result, security forces and the government have been left helpless. However, over the past few years, the state's intelligence system and policing have improved in Chhattisgarh's Red Corridor.
"Unlike in the past, now we're into round-the-clock, real-time intelligence gathering and sharing between the state police and other Central security forces. We've been successful in a large number of encounters due to this and avoided mishaps. However, the intelligence network of the Maoists is effective because one can't identify their 'men'. They are everywhere and mixed among the tribal villagers. They are not outsiders and are part of the community — they speak the same language the villagers do. It's almost impossible to identify their 'source of intelligence' — it can turn out to be the one — who's most unexpected and unassuming. This is the most challenging task before us," a source in the anti-Naxal operations intelligence told Firstpost on condition of anonymity.
Aggressive posturing by Maoists
The aggressive stance of the Maoists is being attributed to the change in leadership of the insurgents that took place in the region last year. Ever since the military strategist Nambala Keshava Rao alias Basavaraju, who was heading the party's Central Military Commission took over as the general secretary of the banned CPI (Maoist) last year, the insurgency assumed a more aggressive attitude towards the State.
The result has been obvious in the series of blasts that have greeted the arrival of Indian State or its representatives in the region. The experts working on Left Wing Extremism (LWE) believe that this change in guard is likely to infuse a renewed energy into the Maoist movement, which has relatively been pushed on a back foot due to offensive strategy by security forces and development measures undertaken by the government. Basavaraju is known for his expertise in handling explosives and IEDs.
Even ahead of the Assembly election in Chhattisgarh, Maoists had blown up a bus carrying security personnel in Bijapur district in April 2018. This was a few days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was slated to visit Jangla in Bijapur (13 April). During former Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh's Vikas Yatra, amid tight security, the Maoists had triggered a blast as a mark of protest.
The previous month, Maoists had blown up a mine protection vehicle in Sukma, killing nine CRPF soldiers.
"Given the ground situation and the modus operandi of the Maoists, the BJP MLA was an easy target. It reminds us of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. If utmost security and protection is not taken during a public road show or a procession, a political leader becomes an easy target. There's no doubt that there had been a lapse in police security and SOP. Besides this, prima facie evidence indicates to three factors," counter-terrorism analyst Anil Kamboj told Firstpost.
First, whether there had been lapses in following SOPs and by the ROP in sanitising the route. It's less likely that this factor was ignored, but the way the MLA changed his route plan midway and thereafter participated in a village fair — made the ambush easy for the Naxals. If the route that the MLA later took wasn't cleared, he shouldn't have been allowed.
Second, whether the MLA and his convoy was lured into the trap.
Third, leakage of information. Details of the change of route and destination were possibly leaked ahead of time and gave the Maoists ample time to prepare and hit the target successfully. There has to be a mole in the police and/or within the party, who knew about the exact plan and passed it onto the Maoists. It just can't be a random affair.
"This also indicates the strong grassroots intelligence network of the Maoists. They are far ahead of the police and security forces. From the Jhirum Ghati incident to this one, all indications point to the successful execution of an ambush plan with surgical precision. Maoists hardly miss their targets," added Kamboj, who in the past had led his forces in Bastar.
After Tuesday's horrifying incident, a sense of fear prevails across Bastar, as the voters are anxiously waiting for Thursday's polling.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 15:44:50 IST