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Why Ambushes Happen: The Chhattisgarh Challenge

Updated: May 9, 2023

10 police personnel and a driver were killed in an ambush in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district on April 26. An explosive device (IED) was used to blow up the police personnel's vehicle when returning from an anti-Maoist operation.

The failure of the security forces to observe SOP even as the Naxals have been active during the period of what is known as the Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign or TCOC has resulted in a major setback.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel stated that the State will “end Naxalism in the state soon”. “Pressure is being created on Naxals, so they did this act of cowardice. Naxalism will be uprooted,” CM Baghel was quoted by news agency ANI. He added, “Their sacrifice will not go to waste.”

Union home minister Amit Shah spoke to Baghel and promised help to the state government to overcome the menace. “Anguished by the cowardly attack on the Chhattisgarh police at Dantewada. Have spoken to Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister and assured all possible assistance to the state government. My condolences to the bereaved family members of the martyred Jawans,” the HM tweeted.

Despite the political commitment to overcome the insurgency in Chhattisgarh and other States witnessed for the past three decades now the ambush in Dantewada is a grim reminder of the continued operational challenges posed by Left Wing Extremism in India, thus complacency needs to be avoided.

Even though the area of operations for the Naxals have been greatly reduced, yet their potential to carry out such attacks remains high.

Police COBs & Terrain

While the police – state and central have increased their presence in the heartland of Abujmadh by establishing Company and Forward Operating Bases the vast forested terrain renders is virtually impossible to avoid movement of small groups of Naxals who can exploit the gaps in security to carry out such ambushes though the numbers have come down over the years.

The geographical tri-junction of Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Odisha located right at the southern tip of Sukma district in the south Bastar region is an area that witnesses the maximum number of such incidents including the deadly 2010 Maoist ambush in Dantewada district where 75 CRPF and one Chhattisgarh police personnel were killed.

Maoist PLGA

While several Maoists leaders and cadres have surrendered, arrested and killed, the strength of the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) continues to pose a threat of such attacks. The area of the ambush is controlled by the Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee of the Maoists and led by the 'elusive' Hidma, stated to be the commander of the PLGA battalion no. 1 which is accused by police agencies of planning and executing hundreds of ambushes against the forces over the last two decades.

Darbha divisional committee of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) has claimed responsibility for the attack. Maoist leader Jagdish and his team had planned the IED blast and the explosives were planted a day before the attack. Jagdish alias BubraKuharami was reportedly present at the site of the attack.

Darbha Division Committee called it an “act of resistance” against alleged atrocities and killings by security forces, who, it added, have turned Bastar into a security camp. The Maoists also alleged that drone attacks were being carried out by the security forces. “In such a situation the public has no option but to resist…in the recent act of resistance the PLGA forces attacked the DRG,” the statement read. The Maoists also intended to motivate the local tribal youth to join the group and desist the police.

While the Maoist central leadership is said to be old and jaded, there appear to be a number of younger commanders as Jagdish and Hidma who are capable of launching such attacks and thus there is a need for continued caution.

Under such circumstances adopting well established Standard Operating Procedures for movement and operations assumes importance. Conduct of the movement by the police personnel needs to be examined.

Adherence to SOP

The local guard unit personnel were a part of a four-vehicle convoy carrying personnel of district reserve guard (DRG), a special anti-Maoist unit of the state police. Around 150 DRG jawans were sent to Aranpur police station from Dantewada on April 25 following specific inputs on the movement of Maoists. An encounter ensued in the early hours on April 26 and two suspected Maoists were detained, police.

The Maoists team under Jagdish were reportedly awaiting return of the police team and sprung the IED based on information of movement of the convoy from informers on the route awaiting at Aamaa Pandum (celebrated with mangoes) barriers by tribal to collect donations.

Lack of a Road Opening Party at a time when four unprotected vehicles were moving in a convoy has also been questioned. Though it is claimed now that demining procedure as part of a road clearance operation was carried out before the troops passed along it, but the IED could not be detected as it was possibly dug in and planted after the demining had been carried out.

The road had been constructed of bitumen in 2014 or 2015 and during rain, the road shoulder had washed away and a four-foot hole was created which was exploited by the Naxals to plant an IED through a tunnel. “Even before this incident, IEDs have been placed under pucca roads. We have removed mines from the stretch in the past as well.”

Initiative - Advantage Naxals

In a militancy scenario where the terrorists hold the initiative they have an advantage which was evident in Dantewada.

By trailing the police or possibly luring them to an operation, the Darbha Division Committee was expecting return of the party and possibly knew well the timing of their return to spring an ambush.

The DRG personnel exhausted from their operation were possibly lacked the vigil desired and moved in a convoy rather than staggering with inherent protection.

It is difficult to maintain a high level of alertness for long periods which can be exploited by the Naxals.

It is such factors where counter insurgents need large number of boots on the ground – for rest, recoupment, turnover of patrolling and operational parties. Hopefully lessons will be learnt to avoid such unfortunate operational mishaps in the future.

Beyond COBs

While the Central and state police forces have done well to deploy COBs, these need to be employed as pivots for raids and offensive operations in the zone of influence apart from establishing an intelligence grid for active acquisition of information and neutralisation of the Naxals.

Integrating villages in the neighbourhood with tangible programme of fraternisation is also the role of the COB personnel. These are complex tasks capacity for which will have to be build up through a structured progamme.

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