The Ambush at Sukma

CRPF soldier Sanjay Kumar’s family at his funeral in Chechain Nagri village near Dharamsala
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Like most Maoist attacks, the ambush in Burkapal was swift and lethal

ON THE AFTERNOON OF April 24th, a contingent of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) came under attack from Maoist guerrillas near Burkapal village in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district. The jawans had been deployed as part of an arrangement to provide security to workers of a construction company that was working on a stretch of road being built from the district’s Dornapal town to a village called Jagargunda. The road is considered a crucial link, as it will give the security forces access to areas which have been Maoist strongholds for decades.

Like most Maoist attacks, the ambush in Burkapal was s wift and lethal. By the time a reinforcement of additional troops reached the spot, the CRPF had lost 24 of its men. One more succumbed to his injuries on the way to a hospital.

In the last few years, the Maoists have been under pressure, their operations restricted and movements constricted by the heavy presence of security forces throughout the entire ‘Red Corridor’ as it is called, especially Bastar region, of which Sukma district is a part. Along the Dornapal-Jagargunda road, which was once frequented by Maoists, several police and CRPF camps have come up. But beyond this, in the villages that lie in forest reserves on either side of the thoroughfare, the Maoist writ still runs large.

Word of the latest ambush sent TV news studios into a tizzy, with anchors, panelists and newspaper columnists discussing what went wrong and if the massacre could have been avoided. Most of them have clearly not been to Chhattisgarh, leave alone Sukma. In an interview to a TV news agency, an injured CRPF man said the Maoists who attacked them numbered about 300 and that he himself had killed a few of them. The news then turned into—among other things—a debate on why there were no intelligence inputs available about such a large presence of this outlawed group of insurgents in the area. Those who know Bastar and Maoists know that the 300 figure is an exaggeration. The injured jawan who made this estimate was perhaps too overcome with emotion to make a sound assessment, which happens in such cases of trauma. Some commentators said that the Army now needs to be deployed against Maoists in the region, while some berated the urban sympathisers of the rebels. Some said that there was no coordination between the state police and the central forces. Some felt that the CRPF lacks training and sophisticated equipment, although weapons looted by the ambush squad from the jawans included 12 AK-47 rifles, two light machine guns, three INSAS rifles, 22 bulletproof jackets and five wireless sets, among other objects.

The other thing which invariably comes up for public airing and groaning after every such attack is whether the ambushed jawans violated the Standard Operating Procedure. Some of the CRPF men had begun to have their lunch—while others reportedly kept guard—when the Maoists, who must have been watching every move of theirs, struck out of nowhere.

Is eating lunch in a forest area a violation of the Standard Operating Procedure? Is it even fair that CRPF jawans are put to work as a security cover for workers of a construction company? Can there be one Standard Operating Procedure in any case? There are no clear answers here. The jawans might take such precautions as emerging at different times every day from their roadside encampments to avoid creating a pattern that Maoists may detect and make use of. But they have to spend some time out in the open no matter what, and thus remain vulnerable to such attacks. Attacking Maoists typically have the advantages of surprise, cover and concealment. “An AK-47 rifle fires 30 rounds in 3 seconds,” says a CRPF official, “By the time the men react, some casualties will always have happened already.”

The road to Jagargunda was cut off in 2005 by Maoists. The state government is now building a concrete road which will take about two years to complete. Over the last two years, the CRPF has lost over 20 men to IED blasts on this stretch, while over 130 IEDs were recovered. On another road, from Jagargunda to Dantewada, about 100 IEDs were recovered in a period of less than six months in 2016.

In a similar ambush, Maoists killed 12 CRPF men on March 11th in Bhejji in Sukma. “The Maoists know the importance of the Jagargunda road and are trying to reassert themselves with such attacks,” says a CRPF officer deployed in Sukma.

It is not clear at this juncture whether the threat of violence will slow down the construction of this and other roads that are expected to play a crucial role in the fight against Maoists. The Union Home Ministry has said that it will renew its strategy on Maoists and take “strong action”. That should ideally mean that work on these roads be carried out faster, among other measures. But till that happens, the entire stretch will be dotted with memorials to fallen CRPF soldiers, like an officer told this correspondent in Sukma in February this month.