Sukma attack: Chhattisgarh Police under scanner for failing to train tribal recruits properly, possible leakage of operational details

The killing of 17 security force jawans by the Maoists in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh, whose bodies were recovered on Sunday, questions the preparedness of the forces engaged in guerrilla warfare.

Experts on counter-terrorism and Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) have raised concerns on whether the jawans from the local forces who went on to take the Naxals head-on in the core Maoist area, were professionally trained and prepared for the highly-risked job.

 Sukma attack: Chhattisgarh Police under scanner for failing to train tribal recruits properly, possible leakage of operational details

Representational image. AFP

In a fierce gun-battle between the Naxals and the joint security force comprising CRPF’s elite CoBRA battalion and Chhattisgarh Police’s Special Task Force (STF) and District Reserve Guards (DRG) near Kasalpad in Sukma district, 17 jawans from STF and DRG were killed and 14 were injured on Saturday evening.

Though the police have claimed that eight to 10 Maoists and their leaders were also eliminated during the encounter, none of their bodies has been recovered yet.

This was one of the biggest setbacks and the most horrifying Maoist attack on security forces after 2017 incident, in which 25 CRPF personnel were killed. More than 300 Maoists had attacked a road opening party comprising 90 CRPF personnel near Chintagufa in Sukma in 2017. Later, in 2019 during Lok Sabha election, Maoists triggered an IED blast and killed BJP MP from Dantewada, Bhima Mandavi, along with his five security personnel and driver.

The encounter

On 21 March, Saturday afternoon, the gun-battle took place inside the forest near Chintagufa -- between the hilly terrains of Kasalpad and Koraj Dongri between security forces with strength of 600 personnel and nearly 250 Maoists.

Based on an intelligence input about a large gathering of Maoists planning to launch a big attack, an encounter was planned and the troops left Dornapal for the destination on 20 March. The joint force was divided into five teams.
According to police sources, when the troops didn’t find any Maoist gathering, they retreated. On the way back, they got entrapped in an ambush laid by the Maoists. The tribal jawans of STF and DRG who were at the forefront got killed. Thousands of rounds of bullets were fired by both sides.

The Maoists snatched weapons from slain jawans and escaped, which includes 12 AK 47 rifles, one Under Barrel Grenade Launcher, one INSAS rifle and one Excalibur rifle.

Sources said that Maoists were led by the dreaded commander of PLGA’s military Battalion One, Hidma, who operates out of Sukma and is an astute military strategist. In the past, Hidma, who belongs to Puvari village in Sukma district, had planned and led several deadly attacks on security forces.

“It was a joint operation in which more than 600 jawans were involved. It was a very tough encounter in which, according to our estimate, 250 Naxals were firing on our jawans from the other side. Our jawans gave a fitting response. We had 17 casualties and evacuated 14 injured jawans,” Inspector General (Bastar) of Chhattisgarh Police, P Sundarraj told reporters on Sunday.

What experts think about 17 jawans’ death?

Almost every encounter, whether inside the forest or in an urban area comes under scrutiny.

The death of 17 jawans -- five STF and 12 DRG jawans, almost all of whom were tribals, raises doubts on whether the slain received adequate training like CRPF jawans in handling an anti-Naxal operation of this magnitude. Apart from this, leakage of operation details and ignoring the recent Maoist threat could have been the factors that led to the killing.

In this joint operation, none of the slain or injured belonged to CoBRA battalion, as the CRPF headquarters clarified.

The Chhattisgarh Police formed DRGs in Naxal-affected districts in Chhattisgarh by recruiting local tribal youths and surrendered Naxals to combat Maoists. Their knowledge of local tribal languages like Gondi, Halbi, etc and that of Bastar terrain give them an edge.

“It’s an advantage to have local tribals in the force to combat Naxalism, as they know the difficult terrain of Bastar and local language. But are they professionally trained in guerrilla warfare as their counterparts in CoBRA battalion or Greyhounds? Lack of proper training and regular upgradation is one of the main causes of loss of lives of these tribal jawans, who are being recruited by the state police,” counter-terrorism analyst, Anil Kamboj, who had headed various anti-terror training programmes, including LWE told Firstpost.

“CRPF and BSF recruit local tribal youths and provide them with high-level training and they have always proved to be excellent fighters. The state police need to provide specialised training to these local recruits—from physical combat to weapons. Knowledge of using guns won’t do. It needs a deeper understanding and knowledge to combat terrorism and insurgency,” he explained.

Unlike 2017 Naxal attack on CRPF team which was sudden and unexpected, the Saturday encounter was a pre-planned one. The combined force, whose strength was double of the Maoists, was well-equipped.

This is the first instance when so many local tribal jawans of DRG force have got killed, which has emerged as a serious concern among the locals in Bastar.

“Going by the operation details available in public domain, the Maoists attacked the teams, while they were returning. It appears that Maoists gave a safe passage to the troops while they entered the forest in search of them. The jawans didn’t find anything and on way back they were caught unaware and attacked. It’s an old tactic used by the Naxals. They made the troops feel as if there had been no gathering of Maoists in the jungle. In many cases, this makes troops a bit complacent and they are caught unaware. This might have been one of the causes of such a big casualty,” said a retired senior police official, who had earlier served in Bastar, on condition of anonymity.

The security experts have also pointed fingers at the apparent leakage of operation details, which helped Maoists to successfully get the troops into their trap through an ambush.

“There seems to be a leakage of details of the operation, which might have been another reason of this killing. It clearly appears that the Maoists were aware of the encounter and its details; and therefore instead of getting in the hands of troops, they laid an ambush for the latter. The troops walked into the trap. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible to kill so many jawans in one go. There wasn’t any IED blast. It appears as if the gun-battle was one-sided,” the retired official said.

Was the Maoist threat taken lightly?

Question has also been raised on whether a threat issued recently by the banned CPI (Maoist) was ignored or taken lightly.

While dubbing ‘Operation Prahar’ — an anti-Naxal operation by a joint force comprising CRPF’s CoBRA battalion, Chhattisgarh Police’s Special Task Force (STF) and District Reserve Guards (DRG) — as ‘fake’ and an ‘attempt by the state to suppress the revolutionary people’s movement of the Naxals’, the South sub-zonal bureau, Dandakaranya of CPI (Maoist) had issued a statement on 3 March and said that its military wing, People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, would strike hard. The statement had appealed the tribal villagers to join hands with the Naxals.

“A few days ago, in two different encounters, three Maoists were killed. Probably the police force was riding high on confidence and thought it would successfully crack this encounter as well but underestimated the preparedness of the large Maoist force this time,” a local source from Sukma said.

Face saving exercise

While hailing the deceased jawans and the troops for the courage they showed during the operation, the Chhattisgarh Police claimed on Sunday that eight to 10 Maoists were killed during the gun-fight. Even Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel on the basis of inputs from the police, said that a large number of Maoists have been killed. However, not a single body of Maoists has yet been recovered, which is surprising.

It’s a known fact that Maoists usually take away the bodies of their slain comrades to show that the security forces failed to incur any damage to the Maoist cadre.

“It appears to be a face-saving attempt by the police. The Maoists do take away bodies of their killed ones, but in a gun-battle of this magnitude where so many jawans got killed and not a single body of a killed Maoist has been recovered sounds surprising. On what basis the police claimed that nearly 10 or more Maoists were killed, including their leaders?” questioned Kamboj, a former BSF official and a senior fellow at Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses.

There’s no iota of doubt about the determination and exemplary courage being shown by the troops of the combined force, especially the local tribals while taking Naxals head-on but casualties show that a lot of ground needs to be covered as far as training of personnel is concerned.

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Updated Date: Mar 23, 2020 15:54:27 IST


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