One hundred kilometres. That was the distance to be covered on that fateful Saturday, 25 May, between Sukma and Jagdalpur in south Chhattisgarh. Elections to the state Assembly are due by the year-end and, to garner support, the Opposition Congress party had launched its ‘Parivartan Yatra’ on 12 April. On that critical Saturday, the state Congress leadership along with a large number of workers had descended in full strength on Sukma to canvass support for their party. Among them was VC Shukla, a former Union minister, and Ajit Jogi, a former chief minister of the state. Shukla was perhaps the oldest in the group and showed remarkable energy for his 84 years.
Jogi had come by helicopter, a previous accident having left him partially paralysed. Also present were the state Congress president Nand Kumar Patel, his son Dinesh and some present and former MLAs. Among them was Mahendra Karma, a powerful tribal leader form Bastar who had founded the Salwa Judum movement, a people’s movement to combat the Maoists. On top of the Naxal hit list, Karma had been provided Z plus security and had escaped several previous attempts on his life. His luck was to run out this time.
It was afternoon when the group set forth on their return journey. Having come to Sukma via Darbha, they were to return to Jagdalpur via Dantewada. This route was safer and more intensely patrolled, but was about 50 to 60 km longer. Welcome arches dotted the entry to Dantewada, put up by Congress supporters in anticipation of the arrival of the high profile Congress team. But delays at Sukma caused a change in plans and the group decided to take the shorter route back to Jagdalpur — the route they had come by. In hindsight, this appeared to be their undoing.
Over a hundred people formed part of the Congress convoy of about 25 vehicles, which included Congress leaders, workers, support staff and police personnel. It was common knowledge that Maoists dominated the area and those travelling in the convoy could not have been unaware of the risks. But perhaps the large numbers travelling in the convoy, including police personnel in their midst, induced a false sense of security. The police providing protection consisted mostly of personal security officers of Congress leaders and some state police personnel. There is ambiguity, however, about the total strength of the police force in the convoy. Some newspaper reports put the numbers at about 50. That appears unlikely and a more realistic assessment is that about 20 police officers were present, including the personal security officers. But numbers were unimportant, as the police were not organised in a manner to put up effective resistance. Thus, whether they were 20 or 50 or even 100, in the absence of ability to function as a coherent team, the net result on the ground would have been more or less the same.
At 4.30 in the afternoon, the convoy was 43 km from Jagdalpur. The lead vehicle crossed a culvert and then another vehicle passed through. The third vehicle took the full impact of the improvised explosive device (IED) placed beneath the culvert, killing its occupants on the spot. Almost instantaneously, the Maoists opened fire on the convoy, spread at this time across a distance of about 200 m, and when the firing stopped, asked the people to surrender. Within a few minutes, even a semblance of resistance had ceased to exist. The Maoists were in total control.
Thirty people lost their lives in the attack, including eight policemen. On 11 June, Shukla, the veteran Congress leader, succumbed to injuries sustained in the attack after battling for life in a hospital in Gurgaon. About 32 people, including seven policemen, had suffered injuries.
The Maoists took the weapons and ammunition of the killed and injured policemen and looted the vehicles of cash and valuables. They also took Karma at gunpoint. He was their prime target and after many failed attempts earlier, they finally had their man. They shot him twice, then the women members in the ambush squad performed a macabre dance of death, stabbing Karma with knives to lay claim to being responsible for killing the man who was on the Naxal ‘most wanted’ list. The Maoists also took Nand Kumar Patel and his son Dinesh captive. After speaking to their leadership, they received instructions to eliminate them. Then they shot dead both of them.
While the incident has sent shock waves through the state and indeed across the whole country, a dispassionate analysis reveals severe lacunae in the functioning of our security agencies. The location of the ambush on a series of bends in the road and the placement of the IED on the far side of these bends indicate that the ambush was deliberately planned for the returning convoy. Had the Maoists planned to ambush the convoy when it was coming to Sukma, the IED would have been on the opposite side. Obviously, the Maoists were certain that the convoy would return on the same route it had taken to Sukma. What gave them this level of assurance when the route to get back to Jagdalpur had been advertised as going via Dantewada? This has thrown up various conspiracy theories and placed a question mark on information security. If the route was changed at the last minute, how did the Maoists come to know? Who informed them of the change in plans? Who stood to benefit by the killing of the senior leadership of the Chhattisgarh Congress? Was it the second rung leadership in the party or was it someone else? Why did the Maoists not ambush the convoy when it was going to Sukma when there was no surety of the convoy taking the same route back? A host of questions exist, but the answers will take time before they unravel.
The incident once again throws up the inadequacy of the police reaction to the ambush. True, the police were outnumbered, but that is no excuse for not fighting back. The forces were aware of the possibility of an ambush by Maoists, yet the police party was not briefed on what to expect or the action they were required to take in case they came under fire from Maoists. The force should have been grouped in a manner that would enable it to react to any situation. Preferably, it should have been moving in four to five vehicles, dispersed among the convoy, with all groups being in radio communication with each other. This was no ordinary convoy. It contained the top leadership of the main opposition party in Chhattisgarh. There should have been an officer nominated as security in charge of the convoy to take control when things went wrong. On coming under fire, they should have quickly occupied defensive positions and taken on the Maoists through covered positions with controlled return fire. This, of course, requires high standards of training, motivation and leadership. All three appear to have been missing as part of a response mechanism.
Some news reports suggest that the police forces ran out of ammunition and that the Naxals were not similarly handicapped. This does not bear scrutiny. The Naxals could not have been carrying an unlimited supply of ammunition. Most likely, each armed cadre could have been carrying about 30 to 60 rounds of ammunition. On the upper level, they could have been carrying about 100 rounds. This was just enough for about 15 minutes to half an hour of sustained resistance. The truth is that the surprise achieved by the Naxals totally disoriented the police forces and rendered them unable to conduct a coordinated defence. Had a coordinated defence been achieved, the Naxals would have suffered heavy casualties and the damage to the Congress leadership could have been minimised. This once again brings to the fore the importance of leadership and training.
The road was not secured which yet again points to leadership deficits. Coordination for such activities is the responsibility of senior police officers at the level of Director General or Inspector General of Police as it requires enmeshing of available intelligence, threat assessment and redistribution of available resources. If resources were not available to secure the 100 km stretch of road, then additional resources should have been requisitioned or permission for the Yatra should not have been given. The stretch from Sukma to Tongpal was protected, which goes to the credit of the Superintendent of Police (SP) at Sukma. He did his duty to the extent of his operational responsibility and he did it well. Why the further stretch from Tongpal to Darbha was not protected needs to be looked into. If resources were inadequate, then it was the duty of the senior police officers to make additional resources available from elsewhere. If resources were available, then the SP responsible for the stretch needs to explain why protection was not afforded.
On a broader canvas, we need to discuss the holistic employment of all police forces in the state to include the Central Armed Police Forces such as the CRPF and the BSF. Command and control structures must be looked into and commanders made accountable for their actions. The Centre is not unaware of where the weaknesses lie. A month before the Km 43 ambush, India’s home secretary expressed concern over the fact that since the Dantewada massacre of 76 CRPF personnel in April 2010, company-level operations had come to a halt. This has made junior level commanders defunct and they merely execute orders. Lack of initiative at the level of company commander has a negative effect on operations. Senior officers too have become excessively cautious, relying on using more and more police forces to avoid failure in operations. The home secretary also spoke of morale issues wherein a “lack of sync and feel” for each other existed among the police, leading to operational failure as the “feeling of sacrifice” is lacking. Another matter of concern is that the local police are not sharing information with the CRPF as they then might have to take part in operations with the paramilitary force.
The home secretary’s observations point to leadership deficits at the higher level within the CRPF. Why a force designated to be the lead agency in anti-Naxal operations has to be officered by the IPS remains a mystery. Police officers by training are managers and not leaders, but a counter-insurgency environment needs leaders with operational experience at the level of commandant and above. Addressing this issue will remain a challenge.
Another facet of the present methodology of conducting operations is that the CRPF companies are placed under the local SP for operations. This practice, too, needs to change. The CRPF must be employed as a battalion with the commanding officer being made responsible for operations in an area. Officers at the level of DIG and IGP must have their headquarters where the force is deployed and should be in daily touch with the deployed force. That should infuse the necessary camaraderie and esprit de corps in the force and will over time lead to focussed and successful operations against the Maoists’ armed wing. As of now, the police have limited capability to combat the base level force of the Maoists called the ‘Jan Militia’. They still have a long way to go to defang the main cadre of the Maoists.
Despite the success achieved by the Maoists, the conflict remains in a stage of strategic stalemate. While the Maoists may have won a brilliant tactical victory, the horrific incident may yet become a strategic blunder for them. For that, all organs of the Central and state government have to present a united front to combat Naxal violence, along with ensuring the rights of the local inhabitants and looking into development issues. A concerted effort encompassing security, rights and development can yet lead to a lasting peace in the Naxal heartland.
Major General (retd) Dhruv C Katoch is the Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi