A Doordarshan journalist and two police personnel were killed and two more policemen injured Tuesday in an ambush by Maoists in the Aranpur sector of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh. Senior police officials said that DD cameraperson Achutynanda Sahu, sub-inspector Rudra Pratap and Constable Manglu were killed in the attack less than two weeks before Dantewada, and the rest of Bastar goes to polls on November 12.
While the two injured personnel were airlifted to Raipur and are said to be stable, the attack, in which police said three Maoists were also killed, comes just three days after an IED blast in Bijapur left four CRPF personnel dead and two others injured.
Senior police officials said that on Tuesday morning, a Chhattisgarh Police team left the Aranpur camp, towards Neelavaya village on motorcycles, 5 km off the main road. They were accompanied by a three-member DD team that arrived in Bastar two days ago to cover the election. The DD team comprised reporter Dhiraj Kumar, and light assistant Mormukt Sharma and Sahu.
“At around 10.30 am, near Neelavaya village, a team of over 100 Maoists ambushed the group, and opened indiscriminate fire. The exchange of fire lasted for over an hour, and in that time these deaths occurred,” a senior police official said.
According to officials, Sahu was on the first of many motorcycles the group was travelling on and was shot very early in the exchange of fire. Dhiraj Kumar’s motorcycle also fell when the firing began, but Kumar successfully crawled into a ditch where he remained for over 45 minutes.
DD reporter Dhiraj Kumar (37) told The Indian Express, “Sahu was riding pillion right in front, I was on the fourth bike sitting behind another jawan. At 10.30 am, I heard shots fired from the left side, and saw Sahu fall…my bike was unsteady too as a bullet had hit the tyre.”
“I fell to the right side of the road, into a five-feet-deep deep pit, and just lay there for 45 minutes. A jawan told me to stay still and that I’ll be retrieved later. I hoped and believed Sahu would have done the same thing.”
Dantewada SP Abhishek Pallava said that over the past few weeks, several teams of journalists had visited the area to report on development and the polls. “People have been telling reporters about how a new road has been built and a teacher was now going, bikes were going, and an ambulance could now travel. The Maoists have been beating up villagers asking them to cut the new road but they haven’t done it. Because of this, they have attacked in this manner. They killed the journalist in a pinpoint attack and tried to kill the other two as well, but a constable pushed them out of the way and was killed in the attempt,” he said.
In a press conference in Raipur, D M Awasthi, Special DG Anti Naxal Operations, said, “It should be clear that road construction has been happening for several months in that area, and this is an attack on that front too. The personnel fought bravely, with reinforcements being sent for quickly and we have information that three Maoists have been killed as well, whose bodies were seen being dragged away from the spot.”
Neelavaya is about 60 km from the district headquarters of Dantewada, and 5 km from the Aranpur road, which is tarred. While Maoist activity has receded in several parts of Dantewada, especially since the districts of Sukma and Bijapur were carved out of it in 2011, the Aranpur sector, which is on the Sukma border is still a sensitive zone.
Only about 13 km ahead is Jagargunda, long known as a symbol of the State-Maoist conflict. The government’s attempt to build a road to it from the Aranpur side has reached 8 km before Jagargunda, at Kondasawli village.
At least two other teams of journalists from the national media, one from a newspaper and another from an English television channel had visited the village in the past two weeks. Neelavaya had last seen elections in 1998 and had since then reported a zero per cent voter turnout. The district administration, police and the Election Commission have this year decided to set up a polling station in the village, for the first time in 20 years, which is why reporters were making a beeline for it.
Incidentally, when the media team from the television channel returned from the village three days ago with a similar police escort, they were asked to stop near a bridge on the main Aranpur Dantewada road, as they suspected an IED had been planted and there were suspicions of an attack. The team was allowed to proceed only after the area was sanitised after an hour and a half.
Asked if the repeated trips to the same village had created a pattern that was predictable, Awasthi, who also heads the Special Intelligence Bureau said, “This is all a matter of investigation. But yes, if there was a pattern of the police and the media going to the same village together for some time, then it could be easier to predict. There is no question of an intelligence failure, but in a sensitive zone like this, predictability can be dangerous.”
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore condemned the attack and said the insurgents won’t be able to weaken the government resolve. “Strongly condemn the Naxal attack on @DDNewsLive crew in Dantewada. Deeply saddened by the demise of our cameraman
Achyuta Nanda Sahu and two jawans of @crpfindia. These insurgents will NOT weaken our resolve. We WILL prevail,” he said on Twitter.
In a statement, Rathore said that Sahu’s family will be given Rs 10 lakh as compensation by Doordarshan and Rs 5 lakh from the Journalist Welfare Fund of the Press Information Bureau.
An attack on journalists by Maoists, though rare, has happened before. In 2013, journalists Sai Reddy and Nemichand Jain were both killed by Maoists eight months apart. The death of Sahu comes four days after the South Bastar Divisional Committee of the Maoists had issued a press release, dated October 19, where they said that “journalist friends” should travel and report from the conflict zone with freedom and without fear.
Meanwhile, in Balrampur district of North Chhattisgarh, an IED planted by suspected Maoists exploded, killing a 65-year-old civilian identified as Budhan Yadav. Yadav, police said, had gone into the forests looking for a cow, and stepped on an IED.