At a high-level meeting after last month’s attack in Tongpal in Darbha in which 16 people, including 15 security personnel, were killed, the usually soft-spoken Raman Singh almost screamed at officers: “If you cannot fight even here, what can you do?”
The Chhattisgarh chief minister was annoyed because 11 CRPF and 4 state police men had been killed on an open road with fields on either side allowing clear lines of vision, in an area that was supposedly being sanitised regularly. Forensic examination showed the Maoists had fired from less than 50 metres away.
Three of the country’s biggest Maoist attacks of the last 11 months have now taken place in Darbha valley. The biggest was the ambush of the Congress convoy, in which 27 people, including top leaders, were killed. In their election speeches on Saturday, neither Rahul Gandhi nor Narendra Modi mentioned the IED attack that destroyed an ambulance and killed its seven occupants.
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Darbha is a 50 km stretch of national highway 30, straddling the districts of Bastar and Sukma, a patch that has both hills and plain fields. It shares a border with Orissa, the western districts of which are now a considerable Maoist base.
The CRPF has opened several camps along the stretch, and the road has been repaired and rebuilt. Compared to the sites of other major attacks like Taadmetla (76 killed) and Rani Bodli (55 killed), Darbha is easily accessible, and reinforcements can reach in minutes. The site of the Tongpal ambush in March was a five-minute drive from a CRPF camp; the Congress convoy was attacked 10 minutes from the camp. Yet reinforcements took three hours to reach.
All three attacks happened because of fundamental operational errors. Last May, the government was simply caught napping, as it failed to provide even basic security to the Congress convoy, believing that the Maoists would not attack them. And on Saturday, the CRPF personnel got on to the ambulance apparently because they were “tired”.
“We have been repeatedly telling our men to take side roads and avoid the main ones. And here a 50-year-old inspector takes a lift with his entire team in a vehicle and falls to an IED without any resistance. Who is to be blamed?” said an exasperated CRPF officer in Raipur.