Cover Story

The Blind Men of the Home Ministry

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CRPF soldiers fighting insurgents on the ground reveal a horror story of official ignorance and apathy

ONE EVENING, IN THE first week of January 2013, a C-130J Super Hercules aircraft took off from the Indian Air Force base in Hindon, Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi. It carried, among others, a senior officer from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and one from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The aircraft was to fly over Jharkhand’s Latehar district where, for weeks, hundreds of CRPF personnel had been scouring the jungles of Booda Pahaad to capture or kill the elusive Maoist leader, Arvindji. A source among the Maoists had been in touch with a handler from IB, giving him information about Arvindji’s movements. Arvindji, alias Deo Kumar Singh alias Nishantji, is a member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s Central Committee, its highest decision-making body, who carries a reward of Rs 1 crore on his head. The aircraft’s pilot was to use thermal imagery to detect movement in the jungles below, thus providing real-time location of Maoists to the CRPF personnel on the ground.

After making a few rounds in the air, the pilot finally said he had detected some movement below. The coordinates of the spot were noted and promptly passed on; they turned out to be the coordinates of a CRPF party.

Shortly afterwards, on January 7th, the Maoists ambushed a group of CRPF personnel in the area, killing 11 of them. It turned out that instead of the CRPF chasing Arvindji and his men, it was they who were following the CRPF party. The Maoists even planted a 1.5 kg improvised explosive device (IED)in the belly of a slain CRPF constable, Babulal Patel; luckily, it failed to detonate, averting the possibility of a major tragedy in which the helicopter carrying the dead and other security personnel to the state capital, Ranchi, could have been brought down.

The IB handler later told the CRPF that he had spoken to his source after the ambush and that Arvindji’s party had moved towards Chhattisgarh. But no information was forthcoming over what had gone wrong and why the source had failed to reveal Arvindji’s intention. A CRPF officer who was in the know of operation later said that he wasn’t even sure if the source was real or fictitious.

More than four years later and after several ‘intelligence-based’ operations in the area, the security forces have still not been able to find Arvindji.

ON MAY 8TH, 2017, the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh presided over a meeting attended by most chief ministers and senior officials of Left Wing Extremism (LWE) affected states, senior Home Ministry officials, and IB and CRPF chiefs. A few days earlier, on April 24th, Maoists had killed 25 CRPF personnel in an ambush in Burkapal in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. On March 11th, in another ambush on Sukma’s Bhejji- Injeram road, they had killed 13 CRPF personnel. South Bastar, of which Sukma is a part, is in a way the last bastion of the CPI (Maoist). That is why, in the last few months, security forces have been trying hard to enter into areas which have remained Maoist strongholds for decades. Major road construction is taking place in Sukma which will run through areas considered to be Maoist liberated zones. Already, more than half of top Maoist leadership has either been arrested or killed. A few vital surrenders have also taken place due to fissures within the party. The Maoist movement is close to over in Telangana and has also been contained in places like Lalgarh in West Bengal. The push of the security forces throughout LWE areas has meant that the Maoists are on a back foot. But, still, the ambushes in Sukma are proof that they can inflict major damage upon security forces at a time of their choosing. It is also a fact that despite heavy security presence in LWE areas, especially Chhattisgarh (out of 83 CRPF and 9 Cobra battalions deployed in LWE areas, 27 CRPF and 4 Cobra battalions are deployed in Chhattisgarh, most of them in Bastar region), the success rate against Maoists remains very low. Barring rare exceptions, none of their big leaders have been arrested or killed in these areas (senior leaders like Patel Sudhakar Reddy, Cherukuri Rajkumar, Ravi Sharma, Kobad Ghandy, Solipeta Kondal Reddy, Sakhamuri Apparao were either arrested or killed in urban areas like Nagpur, Delhi). In 2015, 89 Maoists were reported to have been killed by security forces; in 2016, this number increased to 220. But CRPF sources say most of them belong to the CPI (Maoist)’s people’s militia—men and women who may be Maoist sympathisers and help them in their operations, and not battle- hardened guerrillas from the Maoist army. “That is why crude short guns and muzzleloaders are mostly recovered after such encounters, not sophisticated weapons like AK-47 rifles,” reveals a CRPF officer. In a recent column, even KPS Gill, former security advisor to the Chhattisgarh government, said that the thousands of Maoist ‘surrenders’ and arrests in Chhattisgarh rarely include ‘identifiable leadership elements’ and that state police leaders admit in private that a bulk of these are ‘fake’.

CRPF sources say most of those killed in anti-Maoist operations are from CPI (Maoist)’s people’s militia: men and women who may be Maoist sympathisers and help them in their operations, and not battle-hardened guerrillas

After every big ambush on security forces, the response of the Union Home Ministry has remained the same, no matter which government is in power. A kadi ninda—strong condemnation— has been to successive Home Ministers what canned laughter is to sitcoms. After performing his duty of kadi ninda, Rajnath Singh called the Burkapal ambush a cowardly attack. At the CRPF headquarters in Delhi, a senior officer let out a frustrated laugh. “The Home Minister thinks that Maoists should behave like Pandavas, cautioning their opponents that they are going for the kill,” he said.

After the end of May 8th review meeting, Rajnath Singh came up with a ridiculous acronym, SAMADHAN, which he referred to as a new doctrine to fight Maoists. Singh said it stood for Smart Leadership, Aggressive Strategy, Motivation and Training, Actionable Intelligence, Dashboard-based Key Performance Indicators, Harnessing Technology, Action Plan for each Theatre, and No Access to Financing. From his briefing, it was clear that the Home Ministry had no clue on how to fight Maoists and how to prevent casualties among security forces. In fact, one of Singh’s claims is a reflection of his ministry’s defeatist attitude. Singh said that since Maoists looted weapons from security forces, these and other equipment like bulletproof jackets will be embedded with trackers. In other words, Singh accepted that more attacks would happen on security forces in which they will lose weapons (and, naturally, men).

Why is it that even after losing men in similar ambushes, the CRPF seems to learn no lessons? Why is it that not many anti- Maoist operations in LWE areas have yielded desired results? After the Burkapal ambush, the new CRPF chief, RR Bhatnagar, said his men had conducted 200 ‘special operations’ throughout Maoist-affected states, arresting 72 Maoists. He also said a huge cache of ammunition was recovered, including 17 arms. It was not specified what these arms were. On May 16th, the CRPF said it has managed to kill 20 Maoists in the jungles of Basaguda in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district. But there is no report of any Maoist’s body or any arms being recovered so far.

In his May 8th review meeting, Rajnath Singh said that since Maoists looted weapons from security forces these will be embedded with trackers. In other words, Singh accepted that more attacks would happen in which they will lose weapons and, naturally, men

Those who have fought Maoists for long and are acquainted with their fighting strategy blame the Home Ministry for creating a system that perpetuates collective lies. They say that India’s fight against Maoists is a farce of epic ignorance in which ordinary jawans of CRPF are just expendables.

What is the reality on the ground? Using Home Ministry’s own acronym, SAMADHAN, here is a reality check on anti- Maoist operations:

Smart leadership?

The first CRPF battalion was deployed in Bastar in June, 2003. The 87 battalion had been asked to move from Kashmir to Barpeta in Assam; half way, they were told that their destination is Bastar. The brief was to eliminate “a handful of Maoists” seen in south Bastar and then move on to Assam. A CRPF officer who was deployed with the battalion recalls how the state government was not even willing to give them accommodation since it thought the whole exercise was a matter of few days or at best a couple of weeks. “In those days, there were only two Maoist platoons in south Bastar and one of them traversed between here and Telangana,” he recalls. The same year, another battalion of the CRPF, this time 140 battalion, was deployed in Narayanpur. On October 28th, the battalion’s Second-in-Commandant VT Mathew was severely injured in a landmine blast on the Antagarh-Narayanpur road and later died in the army hospital in Delhi. The CRPF officer says it took him several months to figure out how the Maoists worked and how they set up ambushes. He was helped in this understanding by a Maoist platoon commander who surrendered in 2004. “All our initial learning came from him,” says the officer. He told them how his erstwhile comrades planned an ambush and how to escape it. But when they wanted him to give advice on how to go after Maoists, he told them they would get nothing. “He said at best we would get a member of people’s militia. That was 2004 and, even 13 years later, it still holds true,” says the CRPF officer.

The 87 battalion ended up spending 30 months in Bastar. On September 3rd, 2005, a landmine blast at Panjar Nala in Cherpal resulted in the death of 22 CRPF men (and two state policemen). But barring that incident, the battalion suffered just one casualty, in 2004, thanks to the learning its leadership had invested in.

By the time the battalion left Bastar, the Salwa Judum movement had started. The violence perpetrated by the vigilantes of the movement became a major catalyst in the spread of Maoist insurgency. From 2007, the situation turned further volatile. Amidst this chaos, senior CRPF officers, in most cases officers on deputation from the Indian Police Service, kept on pushing men into the jungles in the name of counter insurgency operations. “The poor jawans had no idea of what to do. They were supposed to fight with an elusive enemy, without any intelligence, plan or methodology. As a result they fell back on their commonsense which was of little use,” says a senior CRPF officer.

On April 6th, 2010, the Maoists struck big. In a deadly ambush in Tadmetla in Sukma, they trapped about 180 CRPF men who had been sent by their officer on an area domination exercise and were asked not to return to their camp for three days. Seventy five CRPF men and one state policeman died in the ambush. This was the highest ever casualty faced by security forces in any theatre of insurgency. As the Home Ministry faced flak for its failure, it asked the former Chief of the Border Security Force, EN Rammohan to investigate the incident. An internal inquiry by a CRPF cadre officer severely indicted the CRPF’s Deputy Inspector General, Nalin Prabhat, who had launched this operation (named ‘Khanjar’) just a day after he landed in Chhattisgarh for the first time in his life. But in a subsequent inquiry by an IPS officer, Prabhat was let off and was soon shifted to Chandigarh. Rammohan’s report has still not been made public.

Officers fighting Maoists on the ground say that the current operations have been reduced to taking chances with luck, hoping that Maoists will err somewhere. But they say that nobody is even asking for their opinion

One would have thought that at least within the CRPF, some lessons would be learnt. But as the CRPF men kept dying in Maoist ambushes, it was clear that Tadmetla had been conveniently forgotten.

Aggressive Strategy?

Among other incidents, the same mistake was repeated on December 1st, 2014, when a large group of CRPF men drawn from various battalions were ordered to proceed for a SADO (Search and Destroy Operation) in Kasalpada village in Sukma. Nine days earlier, the CRPF had come under attack near the same village. But ignoring the fact that there was Maoist presence in the area, around 200 men were kept waiting by CRPF’s then Chief of Operations in Chhattisgarh, HS Sidhu. In the absence of their commandant (who was summoned by Sidhu a little distance away), the Maoists attacked, killing 14 men.

After the incident, the then CRPF’s acting chief RC Tayal had formed a committee under its Special Director General Vivek Dube who issued a long questionnaire to Sidhu. According to CRPF insiders, Sidhu refused to respond to this in spite of several reminders. Sidhu has now returned to his parent cadre in Punjab.

Aggressive strategy is fine, say CRPF forces, but it should not mean sending men without any actionable intelligence. “Even if by any chance some Maoists happen to be in the area, they refuse to fight superior forces and melt away. They will only engage when they are sure they have hundred per cent element of surprise, cover and concealment,” says a Cobra officer deployed in Chhattisgarh. In most cases, such operations mean planning a route on GPS, reach the point and turn around. One assistant commandant of the CRPF says that sometimes when they tell their superior that they want to venture, say, 100 metres left or right of the planned route, they are asked to shut up and return. “I was told: zyada chatak matt dikhao (don’t show too much smartness).”

Motivation and Training?

Officials who have dealt with Maoist insurgency for long rue the fact that India has never produced a single page on what its counter insurgency doctrine should be. In the absence of such a doctrine, the poor jawan or his immediate commander is always blamed for what is called ‘Deviation of Standard Operating Procedure’ (SOP). But what is SOP, really? “No SOP of any kind exists anywhere,” says a CRPF officer. According to him, the troops who are sent on operations do not have the slightest idea of the science of combat. The truth is, say experts, even most officers deputed in LWE areas know nothing about professional aspects of jungle combat such as security and movement in jungle, planning for defence in jungle, point, flank, and rear security, combat patrolling in jungle, combat techniques of fire and fire formations, different types of ambushes and how to lay and execute them, the scientific principles of countering ambushes in various situations like when the entire force is not caught in the kill zone or when the whole of a force is ambushed. On the other hand, there is evidence that Maoists know most of these techniques, especially laying ambushes. “Much of their knowledge is derived from the literature of the erstwhile Viet Cong which they had obtained in the early years of Naxalism, and recently, from western sources available in the public domain,” says a senior CRPF officer. In one of the Hindi manuals recovered by the 205 Cobra battalion from Barachatti in Bihar’s Gaya district, it was found that the Maoists had copied photos from published American sources. In other Maoist documents, they have been found giving very detailed instructions on attacking mine protected vehicles (MPVs) and helicopters in flight. “The information is surprisingly accurate,” says the officer.

In many cases, security forces realised that Maoists are thinking one step ahead of them. A few years ago, the 207 battalion of Cobra learnt painfully in an operation in Jharkhand’s Jhumra Pahaad area that the flanking maneuver (circumventing a force’s front to attack from the side) was very much anticipated by the Maoists. The flanking party walked into accurate fire coming from prepared defences and suffered two casualties. Both of them had been shot in the head. “In our training, we take a lot of things for granted. For example, we are asked to do crawls. But how will one crawl if one is shot in the leg? The Maoists have separate instructions for such eventuality, they don’t presume anything,” says the officer.

In the unified command meeting in Chhattisgarh on May 5th, it is believed that the Senior Security Advisor to Union Home Ministry, K Vijay Kumar, pulled up the Chhattisgarh police for not extending cooperation to the CRPF. It has now been decided that the CRPF will assist and not lead operations in Chhattisgarh

But are the Chhattisgarh police ready to lead operations?

In 2013, the Chhattisgarh government decided to set up seven police camps in interior areas, each with strength of 750 personnel, headed by an officer. 5,500 men from non-LWE affected districts were chosen for training at several places including the state’s Jungle Warfare College in Kanker. One day in May, all of them landed up in the police camp in Sukma’s Dornapal town. “There was so much movement there that I feared that Maoists might launch an attack on the camp itself,” recalls a CRPF officer. Ultimately, 1,500 of them were sent to Temalvara after being inducted by the CRPF. The next morning, two of them died near the gate of the police camp after being hit by bullets fired by Maoists. Sources say this created such fear among the rest of the new recruits that many simply refused to join duty. After much cajoling, another 1,500 of them were convinced to join at Burkapal. From there, they were asked to go to Minpa village nearby. But they were too scared to go. It was then decided that 70 men from the CRPF will first go and secure the place. “We reached there in the evening and positioned ourselves over a hillock. From there, we could see some uniformed Maoists in the village below,” recalls a CRPF person who was a part of the group. By morning, they realised that there was at least a company of Maoists (100 guerrillas) in Minpa. They spoke to their superior who asked them to fire a few shots and scare the Maoists away.

The Maoists slipped away as soon as the CRPF personnel opened fire. Afterwards, the 1,500 policemen reached Minpa. But the same evening, the Maoists returned and kept firing at them. No sooner had it started that the policemen got scared and sent an SOS to their superiors. “We kept telling them that you are 1,500 in number and the Maoists are just trying to harass you. But they wouldn’t listen,” recalls a CRPF officer.

The next morning, the same 70 CRPF men had to go and ‘rescue’ 1,500 policemen.

Actionable Intelligence?

CRPF insiders reveal that till the April 2010 ambush in Tadmetla, the intelligence in Bastar was so weak that they believed the Maoists had only one company there, for protection of its top leaders in Abujhmaad. Later, they realised that by 2008, the Maoists had already formed a battalion (roughly ten companies) in south Bastar.

In 2012, a senior officer created a big source in one of the villages (name withheld for security reasons) in Sukma by chance. One day, on his way to his camp, he spotted an injured man lying on the road. The man, who was on a motorcycle, had been hit by a truck. The officer rushed him to a hospital where the man’s life was saved. The man’s son was so thankful to the officer that he became a vital source. After a few months, the officer was informed about a huge gathering of Maoists in a village. Suspecting a big attack, the CRPF officer checked with the police if they had planned any operations. They hadn’t. The officer then thought that perhaps the Maoists were planning to attack a police camp nearby. Later, the district police chief came to know that 110 men from the police’s Special Task Force (STF) were on the move and they had not bothered to even inform him. The Maoists had information about their movements and were planning to attack them. “The STF men thought they would move in civilian cars. But the Maoists had complete information. Had the SP not known of their movement on time, they would have been massacred,” says the CRPF officer.

In February 2013, the same source told the officer about another huge gathering of Maoists. “He said a Maoist company had arrived from Odisha as well,” says the officer. The information was promptly passed on. But there was no action on it.

It turned out to be planning for the Darbha Valley attack of May 25th, 2013, in which 28 people, including prominent Congress leaders, were killed.

According to CRPF insiders, most secret service funds running in crores every year are being spent in the name of running ‘own sources’. “These sources have never been transferred to another handling officer after the transfer of the first officer. In the end, the gossip at the local chai shop or the brother-in-law of some sarpanch is passed off as intelligence,” says one officer.

Still, in the last few years, the police and the CRPF have created some sources in the interiors. But one CRPF officer says that the spate of fake Maoist surrenders initiated by the police has resulted in dwindling of sources. “Twelve of my sources who gave me crucial information in 2012 and 2013 are no longer in their villages,” rues the officer.

Dashboard-based KPIS?

Only the Home Ministry knows what this means.

Harnessing Technology?

In 2014, the Home Ministry formed a committee to analyse the matter of CI operations, chaired by K Vijay Kumar. He also took two retired major generals in the committee. One of them, according to a senior CRPF officer, kept on referring to the Sri Lankan army. “They forget that the war against LTTE was not a CI operation but a conventional war fought not by Special Forces but by the conventional army,” he says. The other general, according to a senior CRPF officer, kept on harping about explosive detectors and long-range locators selling in the international market under names such as ADE 651 and Diodebell AL-6D. What they did not know was that several laboratories in the US, including Sandia National Lab, had already questioned the claims of ADE 651’s seller, James McCormick. The ADE-651 was sold to Iraq, Niger and other Middle Eastern countries at $8,000 a piece. Some sold for as much as $40,000. McCormick is now serving 10 years in jail. His fraud, the judge said in UK, “promoted a false sense of security” and contributed to death and injury.

The CRPF has two Israeli Heron UAVs devoted to them that have proven to be useless in penetrating foliage. The indigenous Netra UAV, of which the CRPF has many, has an endurance capacity of only 30 minutes. “You cannot envisage a situation where a drone is constantly flying a kilometre ahead of you for the whole day. This does not even happen in Afghanistan,” says the officer.

Action Plan for each Theatre?

After fighting the Maoists for so long, if we are still planning action plan for each theatre, then God help us.

No Access to Financing?

After demonetisation, the Government did not stop raving about how this step had financially crippled Maoists. After recent ambushes in Sukma, the Government is no longer sure about this and is now talking about targeting illegal mining, poppy cultivation and extortion to choke Maoist funds. “These are just hollow words. It’s an open secret that all industries in LWE areas pay Maoists. How will the Government stop this?” asks a CRPF officer posted in Chhattisgarh.

So, where does one begin? Officers fighting Maoists on the ground say that current operations have been reduced to taking chances with luck, hoping that Maoists will err somewhere. But they say nobody is even asking for their opinion. “Look at the Home Minister’s review meeting. If they called SPs and collectors from every district, why couldn’t they call a few CRPF officers who are actually fighting Maoists in the jungle?” asks a CRPF commandant.