On the day the BJP made electoral history by winning the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh by an unprecedented, landslide victory, a gruesome incident rocked the jungles of Bastar. Twelve jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed in an ambush by Maoists at Kottacheru in the Bhejji area of Sukma — one of the worst-Maoist affected districts in the country, but the incident was subsumed in the deafening celebrations of electoral victories.
Taking a leaf out of the Hollywood blockbuster Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), in which actor Sylvester Stallone uses explosive-tipped arrows to take on his enemies single-handedly, the Naxals used explosive-tipped arrows to distract the attention of security forces, while attacking with landmines. It was not just another Naxal attack in which the CRPF lost valuable lives. The 11 March attack has the sub-text of the development of the region — something the Naxals have been opposing for some time. The timing of the attack — coming at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development agenda is finding a growing number of takers as is evident in successive Assembly elections going the BJP's way — cannot be overlooked.
The road to development, or death?
According to locals, the road connecting Konta to Sukma is the reason for the latest Naxal attack. It is in the process of being laid for the past one-and-a-half years despite persistent opposition by the Naxals through banners, burning of vehicles and even the killing of civilians. Jagdalpur-based journalist Rishi Bhatnagar said, "The Maoists have been opposing the construction of the highway from Konta to Sukma and also the road passing through Bhejji as Maoists are anti-development. Once the highway gets completed, it will give easy and smooth access to security forces in the remote areas dominated by Naxals. The road opening party (ROP) of the CRPF on 11 March was attacked when they were sanitising the road in the morning. One can still smell the explosives in air and see the gore of the attack at the ambush site."
How CRPF troops got trapped?
As a routine exercise, a ROP comprising 110 jawans of the CRPF’s 219 Battalion left camp at around 7.30 am on 11 March for the twin-purposes of area-domination and sanitisation of the road. The day was also important as it was a local market day (haat) at Bhejji and lot of public movement was supposed to take place during the day. The party found itself divided into two groups — one took the highway and the other with 55 jawans entered the forest area. As they got deeper into an area surrounded by trees, they were ambushed and attacked with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at 9 am.
"The troops of the A/E 219 Battalion were part of the road-clearing party that has been securing an under-construction road between Bhejji and Kottacheru. They were ambushed by Maoists, who set off multiple hidden IEDs on the ground and opened fire. The squad effectively retaliated but we lost 12 of our brave personnel. There was no intelligence input about any such attack. This area has been the biggest challenge for us, as we’ve been witnessing hostility from day one," a senior CRPF official told Firstpost.
Strategy adopted by Maoists
According to security forces and the field sources, the Maoists adopted linear ambush at Kottacheru by planting IEDs on both sides of the road to corner the troop. The attack was initiated using landmines, which was followed by random firing on jawans with AK-47s. The militia that accompanied the Maoists used explosive arrows to distract the combating jawans. The Naxals have been keeping a close watch on the ROP for quite some time and carried out a recce prior to the ambush. The attack took place in the area after two years.
"They were down, but not out. The Maoists, who are adept at the guerrilla style of warfare, waited for two years before this big hit. They must have been carrying out recces for a long time," the CRPF official said. According to police and local sources in Sukma, the attack was carried out by Military Battalion No 1 of the Maoists, under which there are three units. "One of the three units that led the ambush was headed by one Sonu; whereas, the commander of the military battalion Hidma provided the backup support," sources said.
The Maoist cadre in Bastar has two military battalions — one under Hidma operates from Sukma, whereas the other is from Marh-Kanker-Gariyaband. Hidma, who operates under a pseudonym, is considered the 'best fighter and strategist' in guerrilla warfare among Maoists in this hotbed of Left-Wing Extremism (LWE). He has been involved in several cases, including the one in the Kasalpad attack. "Sonu, who apparently led the attack on CRPF jawans is a new name that has come up. The objective of the unit was to cause maximum casualties, but as the jawans strongly retaliated, the Maoists went on the back foot," a police source said.
According to official sources, the Maoist cadre used landmines to blow up the troops. Besides, they used rocket launchers to fire shells, planted IEDs in steel tiffin boxes, and used improvised mortars and AK-47 to fire at the security force.
One thing that caught attention of security forces and the media was bunch of explosive-tipped arrows (looked like mini grenades) recovered by the Chhattisgarh Police from the ambush site.
Although the police would like to call it an 'IED arrow' or 'arrowed IED', it has not yet been established whether the arrows function similar to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and whether there is any electrical circuitry inside the small grenade. "We’re trying to ascertain the nature of these IED arrows. Prima facie it can be said that these arrows explode after hitting a target. They seem to be working on a pressure mechanism. After an impact with the target, the needle (switch) at the tip of the small grenade hits the explosive. These arrows after explosion create high decibel noise, but causes less damage. The objective is to distract the attention of the security forces elsewhere, confuse them and then attack them with AK-47s. This tactic was applied here. Earlier, on one or two occasions, such arrows had been used," Inspector-General (Bastar range), Chhattisgarh Police, Sundar Raj P told Firstpost.
The country-made rocket shells and mortars recovered from the site are also improved ones. "The use of arrows proves that besides the Maoist’s military cadre, its militia was also used to attack our jawans. From the appearance of the unexploded rocket shells and mortars, it seems these are improvised ones. The rocket shells are of a new kind. We’re trying to make an assessment of these recovered ammunitions through an in-depth study," a senior CRPF official told Firstpost.
Sources claimed that after the attack, the Maoists stole an Under-Barrel Grenade Launcher (UBGL) and a large cache of shells from security force, besides rifles. "Now the Naxals in Bastar have 10 UBGLs, which are very dangerous. An UBGL can fire five to seven grenades in a minute, each of which covers a long range and can cause heavy destruction and a lot of casualties," the source claimed.
Season of attacks
The attack comes just at the time the rebels launch their annual Tactical Counter-Offensive Campaign (TCOC). The TCOC, the military term for the most violent operations time of the Naxal cadres, is usually noticed in the summer months between February and June and security forces are on their maximum vigil during this period as they anticipate audacious attacks on them by the Maoists.
Every year from April till the beginning of the rains, the Maoists send out guerrilla squads to attack the security forces. Not only is the movement easier in summer compared with the wet season, the heat withers the bushes and tall grass, offering the hiding ambush teams a clearer view of troop movement. Almost all the major attacks in Chhattisgarh have taken place in the summer, including the Darbha Ghati attack in May 2013 that wiped out a chunk of the state Congress leadership.
Sources said that on International Women’s Day (8 March), the Maoists gathered and took out a rally at Sukma-Bijapur border.
What experts say?
Counter-terrorism analyst Anil Kamboj said, "This time the weapons used by Maoist cadre are improvised ones; like they have used improvised rockets. As far I can guess, the arrows with explosives at the top functions similar to crackers (hand bombs), which explode on impact. The Maoists got their training in IEDs, landmines and manufacturing of improvised devices from the members of LTTE cadre, when the latter was on run and took shelter in the jungles of Bastar. Naxals had given them shelter on the condition that they would be trained by the LTTE men."
"Considering the type of ambush and the timing, I strongly believe the ROP somewhere missed following standard operating procedures. If they follow the routine pattern every day, they are bound to be tracked. Once jawans are caught off-guard, Maoists launch attacks. If the area of operation is not dominated, one is bound to get killed. Tactics and timing need to be changed. Moreover, this is time of TCOC, when Maoists launch big ambushes. I failed to understand, despite repeated incidents in Bastar, how intelligence failed to track the Naxals doing recce at Kottacheru," added Kamboj, who had conducted an in-depth study of this Maoist hotbed, besides serving in country’s major insurgency-hit regions.
Both the CRPF and Chhattisgarh Police have been investigating how after a hiatus of two years, the Maoists suddenly got activated and carried out such a well-planned attack.
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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2017 08:33:17 IST