Exclusive: Sukma Naxal attack was an unequal battle, Air Commodore Ajay Shukla tells Firstpost
Air Commodore Ajay Shukla narrated what it takes to evacuate casualties in the “darkest hour” after the Naxal attack in Sukma.
New Delhi: Air Commodore Ajay Shukla is the commander of the Anti-Naxal Task Force (ANTF) of the Indian Air Force (IAF). He is based in Raipur. He oversees the helicopter operations that involve induction and de-induction of troops, the extrication of casualties and what it takes to land and take off from makeshift helipads at night in the “Red Corridor”.
He spoke to Firstpost on Tuesday-Wednesday night. He narrated what it takes to evacuate casualties in the “darkest hour” and what he saw at the killing field of the Naxal attack on the CRPF in which 25 of its personnel were killed.
The IAF has helicopter detachments based in Raipur, Jagdalpur and Ranchi. They are based in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. But the ANTF is responsible for all counter-Maoist operations in support of the state police and central paramilitary forces across the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
“We are authorised for all actions except in the offensive role," said Shukla. This includes provisioning of stores, weapons and ammunition, transporting troops to places where there are no roads. “Offensive role” means firing from the air except in self-defence.
On Monday, his detachments from Jagdalpur and Raipur flew to Burkapal, the gory site of the killings of the CRPF's 74th battalion. Burkapal is on a broken and beaten road in Chhattisgarh's Bastar Division. It is on a road from the muffasil town of Dornapal to Jagargunda. The killings happened about 1.7 kms from the CRPF camp at Burkapal, about eight km short of a major garrison in Chinta Gufa.
“I visited the area today,” said Shukla. “All the trees around were embedded with tons of bullets."
The Indian Air Force operates Mi-17 V5 helicopters for the ANTF. It is under the Indian Air Force's Central Air Command headquartered in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
The Mi-17V5s – or V5s, for short – are the latest in the force's inventory. Each V5 has two pilots. In the last year, they started operations at night. An air chief has called the night-capable operation in the Maoist areas a “game-changer”.
One of the two pilots wears a night vision goggle – called a “heads up display” (HUD) – that allows him to penetrate darkness. The other functions as a navigator.
On Monday, when the CRPF jawans were killed, Shukla was informed over one of his mobile phones at 2.30 pm. He was not in Raipur.
“Our most important task is CASEVAC (casualty evacuation). This includes not only of the security forces but also of Maoists. This is huge because of the intelligence and information it can yield," Shukla explained.
He said his helicopters were mostly flying at night over the past year to extricate patients of malaria. Malaria is common in the southern parts of Chhattisgarh. In Bastar, it is often said of the CRPF “if malaria does not get them, the Maoists will."
Shukla's detachments of helicopters actually began flying after sunset with night vision goggles in November 2015. In January this year, they carried out extraction of casualties from a village in Bijapur, a district adjacent to Sukma, where a bus had fallen down a gorge. There were 17 central police personnel in the bus apart from a few civilians.
But Monday's operations were of a different nature.
“Getting the wounded and the dead out of a battlefield is a huge morale-booster for the troops,” he says. “Earlier, the CRPF would finish operations by 3 or 4 pm in the afternoons. But today, their field operations extend into the night. One jawan told me, 'aap logon ko dekhte itna rahat milta hain' (it is such a relief seeing you people)," Shukla narrated.
There are similar stories from harsh terrain where soldiers are deployed. At the Siachen Glacier, for example, the Indian Army's soldiers look at the IAF with gratitude for landing their helicopters in minute pads at extreme heights.
The first information which Shukla got was that there were three wounded soldiers who needed to be flown to a hospital.
Shukla was out of station at the time on an official assignment. He detailed two choppers from the detachment in Jagdalpur to fly to Burkapal. He had himself flown to Burkapal earlier. This reporter has been there too, more than once. Burkapal is on the road from Dornapal to Jagargunda, about an 80-km stretch of much sand, broken asphalt, and lantana bush with camps of the police every few kilometres. In April 2010, the biggest insurgent strike in India was along this road. A total of 76 policemen were killed in a “designer's battlefield” at Mukram adjacent to a hillock called Tadmetla Tekri by Maoists who used bombs packed into babyfood cans.
Shukla, who dispatched two helicopters to rescue three casualties from Burkapal, said, “We did not know on Monday afternoon that the incident was on such a big scale." Helicopters usually operate in twos in the region. While one is tasked to land, the other is an escort on Combat Air Patrol (CAP).
“But when the first helo landed, we were told there were seven casualties (sic)," he said. Also, they had to be flown to a hospital in Raipur, the Chhattisgarh capital, that was much farther away from the site than Jagdalpur. The first helicopter landed in Burkapal at around 5 pm on Monday. To fly the longer distance, it had to be refuelled. The more an aircraft tanks up, the less load it can carry.
Of the seven casualties, five were badly injured. An air force doctor from Jagdalpur was on the first chopper. One policeman died in the aircraft even as he was being flown back. The others have since survived.
At sunset, Shukla was told there were more casualties, including 12 deaths. “Burkapal is not night-cleared," he told Firstpost.
He meant that the makeshift helipad in the village was not secure enough to land in at nights. Even during the day, helicopters can land there after a guarantee of “sanitisation”. The IAF needs to be assured that their flying machines are out of range of possible small arms fire from Maoists. Yet, in 2013, an IAF helicopter was debilitated even after such a guarantee.
“We have been fired at 8-10 times," said Shukla. “It is always risky but that is why we are here."
The V5s took off again from the detachment in Jagdalpur to evacuate the 12 dead policemen. It was past sunset. The troops on the ground were told on the radio to sprinkle the helipad and its surroundings with water so as not to raise dust.
“Dust can be a killer, especially at night. There were many things that were wrong yesterday. We were heading towards the darkest phase of the night," he said. The nights were heading towards 'Amavasya' (moonlessnes) and there was nothing really to go by. The helicopters had to fly without external lights, dependent on one of the two pilots' night vision goggles that has a 40 degree field of view.
“When we got there, we were told that there were 24, not 12 dead men. I told my boys to bring them all back. Land both helos. If the bodies are left there in this heat, they will rot (sic),” he narrated. This is the driest part of the year in Chhattisgarh and the Bastar division is one of the hottest, often the hottest, in the country.
The second sortie landed in Burkapal at around 7.30 pm.
“We were breaking all the rules," says Shukla. A dozen bodies were loaded into the first chopper and a dozen into the second.
“I am glad we broke the rules because today, we could give them a befitting and soldierly tribute (in Raipur),” he said.
The Air Commodore, a qualified Mi-17 V5 pilot and instructor, flew seven hours himself on Tuesday. What he saw at Burkapal, he said, was evidence of the Naxals outnumbering the police.
“There is no doubt that it was an unequal battle. There will be an intelligence assessment that is not my job. But it seems that there were all kinds of small arms used and also arrows with explosive projectiles at the nose," he said.
He said that it takes usually about 90 minutes from a “cold start” (meaning being informed) in the dead of the night during a mission for his choppers to be airborne. In the day, it would take half that time.
Time has changed since the Indian Air Force used to say that the police cannot give guarantee that helipads have been “sanitised”, meaning ensuring that they are out of the range of small arms fire of the Maoists.
“Sanitisation is always going to be an issue. Given the terrain, undulating land, forests, it is the thing I talk about every day with the police and the CRPF because if a helo goes down, everyone would be a loser. We would reduce risk-taking and that is not good. Credible sanitisation works for everyone (sic),” he explained.
The company of the CRPF's 74th battalion that was ambushed by the Maoists on Monday was 'road opening party' (ROP). It was their daily activity.
“But the troops remaing motivated,” said Shukla. “I am sure they will give a befitting reply."
His choppers from Jagdalpur and Raipur flew to Burkapal to bring home the dead and the wounded even as another detachment was flying from Ranchi in Jharkhand. That was to bring back three injured policemen of the paramilitary Jharkhand Jaguars.
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