The May 1 ambush of 15 Gadchiroli Police commandos near Kurkheda, close to Maharashtra’s trijunction with Chhattisgarh and Telangana, was a reminder that the Maoists, though down, retain the ability to surprise and strike back with a change in strategy. What happened last Wednesday — arson by Maoists on a road works site followed by an ambush on policemen apparently headed to the spot — has happened earlier.
2009-14, five attacks
Ten years ago, the Maoists had killed 48 policemen in three deadly attacks in Gadchiroli — besides another four personnel in separate incidents — destroying the morale of the police force, and underlining the tactical superiority of the guerrillas in the area.
*In February 2009, the Maoists set on fire some vehicles at a road construction site about 3 km from Markegaon village in Dhanora tehsil, not far from the site of this month’s attack in Kurkheda. The police, aware of the possibility of an ambush, waited a couple of days before setting out on foot for the site of the arson. Near Markegaon village, however, they came under fire from all directions, and lost 15 men.
What was remarkable about the Maoist strategy was that they had waited a full two days for their targets, and that they had impeccable intelligence on both the timing and the route of the police movement. They succeeded even though the police stuck to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of not going immediately to the spot.
*In May 2009, however, the police rushed, in violation of the SOP, to Hattigota, also in Dhanora tehsil, where Maoists had felled trees to block the road. Instead of walking to the spot, the police chose to use a vehicle — walking and riding it intermittently, presuming the road ahead was safe. But as they reached Hattigota, guerrillas lying in wait fired on the vehicle from both sides of the road, killing the 16 personnel on board.
*In a November 2009 attack, the Maoists demonstrated another new stratagem. A police party was on patrol in the forest near Lahiri outpost in Bhamragad tehsil. But instead of attacking them in the jungle, the Maoists set up an ambush close to their outpost, and surprised the team returning from the operation inside their ‘safe’ territory. The Maoists were said to have filmed the ambush — and reportedly chased down policemen running helter-skelter for their lives, and shot them dead. Seventeen police personnel were killed.
*In 2012, the Maoists set off a landmine near Pushtola village, again in Dhanora, killing 13 CRPF personnel, and injuring 29. The CRPF men were travelling in a vehicle to a village which their then Director General of Police Vijay Kumar was to visit. No road-opening operation had been carried out to ensure safe passage for the vehicle, and the CRPF personnel proved sitting ducks for the Maoists.
*In May 2014, the Maoists set off an explosion under a vehicle carrying policemen in Chamorshi tehsil. The men were returning to Gadchiroli from a combing operation, and had chosen to get on the vehicle on the assumption that the area was “safe”. Seven personnel were killed.
In two of the five major attacks between 2009 and 2014 — Hattigota and Pushtola — police and CRPF failed to follow SOPs. In Markegaon and Lahiri, the Maoists surprised the police with new, unexpected tactics. In both these attacks, the police were also done in by miserable intelligence failures.
The attack in Chamorshi was similar to the Kurkheda incident to the extent that it too, resulted from a misplaced sense of security.
Over the last five years
Since 2014, the police have built strong intelligence networks, and penetrated deeper into the Dandakaranya zone of the Maoists, building fortress-like outposts there. The Maoists have lost 84 cadres during this period, nearly four times the number of Gadchiroli Police casualties (22). This trend has been the reverse of that in the 2009-14 period, when police lost 77 personnel as against 59 casualties suffered by the Maoists. 2018 was the worst year for the Maoists — they lost 50 cadres, 40 of them in back-to-back police encounters on April 22 and 23.
After many years, iron ore mining has started in the Surjagad hills in the worst-affected Etapalli tehsil. Despite the continued opposition by Maoists, hundreds of people from the nearby villages have made a beeline for the mines, seeking work. In November 2016, the Maoists carried out their biggest ever act of arson, setting on fire 80 vehicles deployed for work at the Surjagad mines. The incident happened close to the Hedri police outpost; police, however, observed caution in not rushing to the spot, averting potential casualties.
Kurkheda, in perspective
The May 1 incident underscores the ability of the Maoists to carry out attacks in areas considered “opened” by police through years of area domination, and which have come to be seen as being among the least vulnerable.
That an estimated 150 Naxals were able to congregate in Kurkheda shows gaps in the police vigil and intelligence. The fact that the Maoists could exploit the laxity on the part of the police suggests they have an active intelligence network even in the “open” areas. This network could provide them with pinpointed information on the movement of police personnel on the Kurkheda-Purada road, so that the private vehicle carrying the 15 commandos could be targeted precisely. At the same time, the police failed in gathering their own intelligence about the possible attack.
The violation of the SOP was, in fact, not as stark as in some earlier attacks. The police weren’t moving in a flank to the arson spot 15 km away; they were travelling to the nearest police station in Purada to formulate their strategy. The lesson from the Kurkheda attack is that no area can be considered permanently “open” in a Maoist-affected landscape — and that as long as the Maoists retain a presence, levels of vigilance in terms of physical area domination and intelligence gathering must be of the same order as that in the “not-yet-open” ones.