Lying on a bed on Sunday morning at the Bijapur district hospital, a shrapnel injury on his leg and a shallow gun wound on his arm, the Chhattisgarh Police jawan can’t stop going over the events of the previous day in his mind. He has now come to an overwhelming conclusion: he and his colleagues had walked into a trap laid out by the Maoists.
“We didn’t find anything when we reached the spot we were asked to reach. Once we started returning, they ambushed us. There were so many of them, so suddenly… it had to be planned,” he said.
Sources in the know of the operational plan told The Indian Express that 10 teams were launched in all — two from Sukma district and eight from three camps in Bijapur.
It was a massive operation that included the STF, DRG and District Force of the Chhattisgarh Police, the CRPF and its elite COBRA unit, with close to a 1,000 personnel from Bijapur alone.
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Six of the eight Bijapur teams were launched from the Tarrem camp while the other two were from Usur and Pamed.
Of the six teams, three — one comprising of District Reserve Guard (DRG) and Special Task Force (STF), another of a DRG team and one COBRA team — were launched at 10 pm on the night of April 2. The operational plan was for them to travel to Alipuda and Jonaguda, 11 and 12 kilometres south of Tarrem respectively, and return at 6 pm the next day, on April 3. These teams went the deepest and were the ones that came under fire.
Jawans who were survived the gunfight told The Indian Express that several things went wrong.
One of the injured in Bijapur district hospital said, “After we didn’t find anything at the original target, we were coming back when we were attacked. We don’t really know when the Naxals covered us from all sides. They had sophisticated weapons and they were using them in abundance.”
There were other red flags as well.
The two villages that the security personnel passed, Jhiragaon and Teklagudem, were completely empty. “Both the villages were emptied out and we realised too late that something was wrong,” another jawan said. He had managed to escape the ambush using a road through the jungles that took him to the Silger camp, 6 km from the Tarrem camp, from where they had started.
The jawan returned on Sunday afternoon to retrieve bodies of his colleagues, along with other members of their team. Pointing towards the tree-covered hill in the backdrop, he said, “We were completely covered from all sides right there. We tried to carry our injured and dead, but eventually, had to leave them behind.”
Saturday’s gunbattle began in Tekulugudam, around 12 km from the Tarrem camp. Once driven down the Tekulugudam hill, some of the security personnel tried to seek shelter in the houses around them, but were attacked by bullets and UBGLs, along with hand grenades. Following this, the personnel were chased down the hill into the open plains, where seven of their bodies lay when The Indian Express reached the spot on Sunday.
The Chhattisgarh Police has said that the operation was launched to based on intelligence inputs on the presence of Hidma, the commander of the lethal Battalion 1 of the Maoists. Sources in the COBRA too confirmed that the gunbattle had tell-tale signs of Hidma’s battalion.
However, sources said there were other intelligence inputs as well. The operational plan, they said, was based on information from the state SIB on the presence of 60 to 70 Maoists in Silger on March 26 and Intelligence Bureau inputs of 40-50 Maoists at Bodaguda on March 25, among other local intelligence inputs.
Sources in the Chhattisgarh security setup told The Indian Express that the encounter has raised several questions, including long-standing tactical ones.
The first is the quality of information that they get. “One of the primary sources of information these days is intercepts of information from a receiver police have placed on a hill in Dantewada. This is not a new exercise, and has happened before. In Minpa a year ago, and now here, there are clear signs that the Maoists know we are listening to their code. We are being played. The kind of fire we came under, and the positions they took, show it was well-planned. They knew we would find nothing at the spot, and would return. When our team did, they were waiting, with very little escape route for our men,” said a senior officer.
Another officer said the entire concept of “large, unwieldy, 1,000-personnel-plus operations” needs to be relooked.
“This needs concerted thought, which we haven’t done… When there are large troop movements, in a large operation, senior officers fly in and fly out to Bijapur and Sukma, travel between camps happen. It is too unwieldy to be kept quiet. In our most successful operations, like the Greyhounds for instance, there are small teams that hit based on solid human intelligence. We have to do that, otherwise this game of death and loss will keep happening,” said a security establishment officer.
Operationally, hard questions will have to be asked as to how 21 jawans, including elite COBRA fighters, got left behind during the gunfight.
“Clearly, we were under so much fire that jawans ran and came to the camps, and some got left behind, and died fighting. There is no hiding from this reality. By night, we had five dead, and 21 had been left there. The Maoists had so much time that they could strip our men of all our weapons and equipment and the bodies lay there for hours. What is even more concerning is that this was not deep in the forests at all. Journalists reached the spot the next morning in no time because it is only half an hour from the camps and the main road. How we got trapped so close to the camp will need investigation. We need serious thought based on deep consideration of Maoist tactics and our own; not knee-jerk response and ill-planned operations,” said a senior officer.
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