Darbha Valley in southern Chhattisgarh is flanked by the Kanger forest on its north and the Balimela forest on its east, bordering Odisha. This is an area that the Communist Party of India (Maoist) brought under its newly-formed Chhattisgarh-Orissa Border Committee last year. At about 4 pm on 25 May, a convoy of cars carrying senior Congress leaders and others was to pass through the area.
The Congress, in opposition in the state, was hoping for big gains in the Assembly polls later this year in the Bastar region. In the last elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won 11 of the region’s 12 seats, leading the party to power in Raipur. The Congress had set itself the goal of making a similar sweep in the forthcoming polls with its Parivartan Yatra, which was announced with much fanfare on 11 April.
Travelling from a political rally in Sukma towards Jagdalpur on the single carriageway of National Highway 221, the convoy was about to cross a sharp curve with a milestone that read ‘Jagdalpur, 43’. The first car in the convoy had just crossed the milestone when the vehicle behind it, a Bolero, was thrown several metres in the air. It was a landmine blast. The impact was so powerful that several people in other vehicles were seriously injured. Within seconds, the survivors found themselves surrounded by Maoist guerillas, many of them carrying wireless sets, who were walking slowly and firing at the cars.
It was one of India’s most audacious ambushes ever. Shouting slogans and expletives, the guerillas closed in and asked for two senior Congress leaders to be identified: Mahendra Karma and Nand Kumar Patel.
There had been no single interview of a Maoist leader or press release issued by the Communist Party of India (Maoist) for seven years that did not mention Karma. Since 2006, Karma had led an anti-Maoist militia called the Salwa Judum that killed more innocent civilians than Maoists, apart from indulging in an orgy of loot, rape and plunder that resulted in the displacement of over 150,000 people. Patel had not been on the Maoist hit list at all. On 25 May, when Karma turned himself over to the ambushers along with Patel and others, Karma was first beaten up, and then shot many times in his head. Then Patel and his son were taken into the surrounding forest along with a few others. While the rest were let off—some were even administered pain killers for their injuries by Maoists—Patel and his son were shot in cold blood. Their bodies were recovered the next morning by security forces combing the area.
Two days later, the CPI (Maoist) issued a statement hailing its guerillas for killing Karma and ‘other reactionary Congress top leaders’. The Maoist spokesperson Gudsa Usendi said Patel was killed because of his ‘history of suppressing the people’. While Usendi regretted the killing of innocents, he offered no explanation for why Patel’s son was killed too.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES ABOUND, with unconfirmed reports of how the convoy’s route was changed at the last minute, or how some leaders were let off, even as a slew of politicians, retired security personnel and human rights activists wrestle it out on TV channels, offering their take on the situation. But the crater left on that road in Darbha valley and the remains of the dead—25 were killed in the ambush—strewn all over the place made it clear that it was a brutal, premeditated attack on the Indian Government. Of course, in the past few months, Maoists had been on the defensive, prompting the Union Minister of Home Affairs to claim in front of a Parliamentary Standing Committee that there has been an “absolute turnaround in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand”. But after this brazen attack in Chhattisgarh, such claims have fizzled out.
The Centre has sent a team of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to the site to probe the ambush. But apart from investigating why Patel and his son were killed, there might be little else to look into. Going by past experience, there is not much the Government will learn from the probe in its effort to tackle India’s “biggest internal security challenge”, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called the Maoist insurgency three years ago.
In response to the attack, the PM, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-president Rahul Gandhi flew to Raipur, where Sonia Gandhi called it an “attack on democracy”. But violence in these parts has been bloodier than the State acknowledges, and for quite a while. Just a week ago, on 17 May, a security operation carried out by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Edasmeta village of the neighbouring Bijapur district had gone wrong, resulting in the death of eight Tribals, including three children. No investigative agency was despatched to get to the bottom of that incident. No politician issued any statement, let alone visit the bereaved families. The CRPF as usual said it was ordering an ‘internal inquiry’. In June last year, a similar operation by the CRPF had gone wrong in exactly the same manner, leading to the deaths of 19 villagers in the same district. While the Union Home Ministry immediately dubbed it ‘the biggest Maoist encounter’, it had egg on its face when it was found that the dead included two schoolgoing boys and a 12-year-old girl. The ‘internal inquiry’ ordered by the CRPF at that time has also yielded nothing so far.
In the last few months, Maoists have been under a lot of pressure. They are facing a leadership crunch, since many of their senior leaders have either been arrested or killed in police encounters. Of late, Maoists tell me, the morale of their cadres has been down. So, they say, it was two days after the Congress announced its Parivartan Yatra that the plot for the ambush was hatched. It was meant to hit headlines once again, and to send a clear signal to the Government that the CPI (Maoist) meant business and still had an upper hand.
On 13 April, in the neighbouring Malkangiri district of Odisha, a few men quietly turned up at one of the villages in an isolated area that is hard to reach. Situated on the banks of the Gurupriya river, the cluster of 150 odd villages is water-locked. Cut off twice in the 1940s and 1960s due to spillage created by hydroelectric dams, no electricity has reached these villages—except one—even now. It was from this area that Malkangiri’s district collector R Vineel Krishna was abducted by Maoists in February 2011.
The area is under the Maoist Andhra-Orissa Border Committee. Maoist sources reveal that among the men present were Nambala Keshava Rao, who heads their Central Military Commission; Katakam Sudarshan, another senior commander and a member of the CPI (Maoist)’s politburo; Gajarla Ravi (Ganesh), a senior commander who was made the head of this area in December 2012; and his brother, Gajarla Ashok (Eiatu), the Maoist military commander of Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli division. It is here that the attack was planned, with Eiatu given the responsibility of leading the team of guerillas. The explosives, sources indicate, were brought in from the neighbouring Koraput district. Another senior commander Srinivas Ramalu alias Ramanna is also believed to have participated in the attack.
The Maoist ambush team got more than a month to plan the attack. Under Eiatu’s command, every step was chalked out in detail. A highly experienced military commander, Eiatu had last met me in 2010 in a Maoist camp somewhere on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border. Eiatu’s right hand had three fingers missing, which he had lost in a firing accident. His brother Gajarla Saraya and his partner Rama had died earlier in separate police encounters. Eaitu is in his late thirties and has led several attacks against Indian security forces, including one in Gadchiroli’s Laheri area on 17 October, in which 17 policemen lost their lives. “We followed the police party for two days without food and finally cornered them in Laheri,” Eiatu had said in 2010.
It is this battle hardiness that gives Maoists an edge over security forces. In many encounters, Maoist guerillas have come across as better trained than their adversaries. In an area like Bastar, the CRPF has no means of gathering intelligence. The state police have no means either, since they hardly venture into this area. By the CRPF’s own admission, the 17 May Edasmeta operation was launched on inputs from the Andhra Pradesh police intelligence.
Also, most security personnel operating in Maoist areas suffer from very low morale. Given a chance, they would seek a transfer elsewhere. They often work in miserable conditions where many jawans don’t even have a table fan in their barracks. Then there are other dangers like malaria that kills many in this region.
The state police forces across the Maoist-affected states face an acute shortage of officers. In some areas, like in many of Odisha’s Maoist-affected areas, they have a tacit understanding with Maoists: ‘You don’t trouble us, we won’t trouble you.’ That is a bargain that both sides benefit from, since the police are largely incapable of ‘troubling’ Maoists in any case.
Four days after the Darbha valley attack, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has not returned from his US trip. The Indo-US homeland security dialogue he had gone to attend ended on 22 May and all other Indian delegates have returned. Not that it would have made any difference. In the past ten months, according to people in the know, Shinde has attended only one meeting to review security in Maoist areas.
Security experts also point out that India has no National Security Strategy that one could refer to while dealing with such an insurgency. “If I go to the internet,” says retired Director-General of Police Prakash Singh, “I can find a US security strategy draft with a foreword by Barack Obama. The same is true of other countries. But try looking for an Indian security strategy document, and you’ll draw a blank.”
For the past few years, the Government has been trying hard to explain that it can only develop Maoist-affected areas once Maoists are pushed out. But on the ground, this has hardly happened. Last year, security forces claimed to have cleared the Saranda forest in Jharkhand of Maoists, and a Saranda Development Plan has since been announced. On Republic Day this year, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh even unfurled the national flag there. This is an area for which mining projects have been given clearances (which Ramesh had opposed), and Maoists have claimed that the Saranda Development Plan is not aimed at Tribal welfare but a pretext for turning the area into just another mining zone.
Decades-old grievances are still in place in large swathes of central and eastern India. The Union seems to be in permanent denial over its failure to help locals lead better lives. In a letter written to the governors of Maoist-affected states, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs V Kishore Chandra Deo wrote: ‘The root cause of this [Maoist] situation is [the] continuous exploitation, oppression, deprivation, neglect [of] and indifference [towards] marginalised people.’ Cautioning against mining in Schedule 5 Tribal areas, he wrote: ‘In many cases powerful lobbies are trying to encourage mining themselves in flagrant violation of constitutional provisions.’
But few in New Delhi seem to pay any heed to such concerns. At the state administration level, the problem is the same—of misplaced priorities. The Chhattisgarh government has put up a swanky cricket stadium recently in Raipur, but Dantewada reels under a 60 per cent shortage of health services staff.
Over the next few months, security operations are likely to be stepped up in Maoist areas. Says Professor Nandini Sundar, who was instrumental in having the Salwa Judum declared illegal by India’s Supreme Court in 2011: “I think there will be an increase in violence by State forces, especially in villages around Darbha.”
There are indications that joint combing operations will be undertaken soon in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The monsoon is just weeks away in this region, after which many areas will become inaccessible to outsiders. Once that happens, and given the past record of such operations, there is not much that looks achievable. Except perhaps some more collateral damage—which would only work in favour of Maoists.