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We are winning against Maoists, but it doesn’t have to come at such high cost

April 11, 2021, 7:28 AM IST 
Rahul Pandita

Pandita is the author of Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist movement.

The director-general of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) is of the opinion that the killing of 22 security personnel, including seven of his commandos, in a Maoist ambush last week is not an intelligence and operational failure. Perhaps he meant to say that in encounters with insurgent groups like the CPI (Maoist) such casualties are bound to happen.

The problem begins here. It is not that soldiers do not die in gun battles. The problem, as many CRPF officers would tell you in anguish, is that they do not have to die so senselessly. That will only stop when we stop lying to ourselves and look at cold facts staring at us.

Consider the Bijapur ambush in Chhattisgarh, laid so well by the Maoist guerrillas that the troops had no inkling of it till they found themselves surrounded. The teams of security personnel had been sent out on an operation based on “intelligence inputs” that the elusive Maoist commander Madvi Hidma and a large number of his fighters had gathered at a village on the Sukma-Bijapur border. When the teams reached the location, they found nothing there. As they were returning, some of them came under heavy attack from a big group of Maoists, armed with grenade launchers and at least one Light Machine Gun. The “intelligence inputs”, of course, did not specify any of this. If it did, why were the forces not ready for it?

Also, according to the CRPF chief, the security forces also managed to kill an equal amount of Maoists. There is no evidence of it so far; only one body of a female Maoist guerrilla could be recovered from the site, while the Maoists have acknowledged the death of four fighters. But, let us go by the DG’s numbers, and assume that 22-23 Maoists were killed as well. That is a terrible ratio of 1:1. As at least one former Cobra veteran has pointed out that counter-insurgency operations aim at a ratio of 8:1 (eight insurgents to one soldier), that too when soldiers are chasing insurgents on a specific input. But there is clear indication that it was the other way round. The Maoists had set up a trap and some of those in the operation fell into it.

Why did this happen? 

This happened because there have been

 no learnings from several such mistakes in the past. 

There is 

no investigation, and no post-mortem of what went wrong. 

In the absence of any serious inquiry, body bags keep coming. Speak to any CRPF officer on the ground in Sukma or Bijapur, and he will tell you that such ill-fated operations are planned by officers who have no understanding of the Maoist heartland other than the PowerPoint presentations they carry on their laptopsSometimes, buoyed by their ‘performance’ in other sectors like Kashmir, they think that the same models of counter-insurgency can be replicated in villages where it has taken years for some security personnel to develop a little understanding. But officers who have far better wisdom on Maoists and their surroundings because of their on-ground experience have hardly any role to play in planning such operations.

A CRPF officer once told me about an operation several years ago that went wrong on similar accounts like the one in Bijapur. “If I put T in the plan, my senior, who had come on deputation, would remove it and put K,” he said. And when it finally got implemented, it led to a botched-up operation in which several CRPF men lost their lives.

The irony is that the state is bound to win the war against the Maoists. In the last few years, their strongholds are falling one by one. For instance, in the so-called cut off area in Odisha’s Malkangiri district, from where the Maoists abducted my friend Vineel Krishna in 2011, the building of a bridge over Gurupriya River has been a game-changer. In Sukma itself, the road from Dornapal to Jagargunda and beyond it is ensuring that the Maoists are pushed further back. Better connectivity means that the Adivasis, especially the younger ones, who have lived under the shadow of Maoists, will get a chance to see how vast (and, hopefully, promising) the outside world is. In areas like the one Hidma operates in, there are still pockets of sympathy for Maoists. And, no matter what the state would like you to believe, a lot of it comes from the government’s support to mindless and vicious plans like the Salwa Judum.

The Maoists will be defeated eventually. But setbacks like the one in Bijapur, where hundreds of Adivasis witnessed a Cobra commando tied in ropes, will stagger this process.

Pandita is the author of Hello, Bastar: The Untold Story of India’s Maoist movement


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