It is a curious cocktail of bravery, success, and also operational paralysis. Like most incidents reported from the theatres affected by Left Wing Extremism (LWE), the 16 May 2015 incident in Chhattisgarh also has a twist in the tale. In the end, the big picture that emerges from the incident merely reinforces the oft-repeated assertion that a victory over the reds is improbable in the near future.
In the early hours of 16 May 2015, an encounter took place near Ponjed in Bijapur district, between the Special Task Force (STF) and the District Reserve Guard personnel of the Chhattisgarh police (who were conducting an anti-LWE operation) and the extremists. A prolonged exchange of fire resulted in the death of three police personnel and two Maoists. Notwithstanding the loss of lives of its three men, the police establishment projected the incident as one of their “best battle[s].”
The “best battle” assessment by the Director General of the Chhattisgarh Police is based on the success of the police personnel in recovering the corpse of Hemla Masa alias Vijay, the commander of Company 2 of the West Bastar Division of the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) who was killed in the encounter. Maoists usually drag the corpses out of the encounter sites. The recovery of Masa’s corpse, described as the lone case of such recovery of a “top-most cadre in the entire history of the Maoist conflict,” is an achievement.
Additionally, 15 rounds of AK-47 ammunition, nine shells of the Under Barrel Grenade Launcher, a 12 bore rifle and a wireless set were also recovered following the encounter. Given that it took almost 24 hours for the police to recover the bodies of seven of its personnel killed in the 11 April 2015 encounter in the neighbouring Sukma district, a task that was achieved only after the local journalists sought permission from the extremists, the recovery of Masa’s body could be a source of gratification, although with negligible operational value.
This ‘success’ of the Chhattisgarh police, however, needs to be placed within the overall context of a difficult phase of anti-LWE operations in Chhattisgarh. This year, till 16 May, 30 security forces have been killed in the state, constituting a staggering 83 per cent of fatalities among the forces in all LWE-affected states. This data underlines why the state is the worst affected by the LWE problem. However, what invariably points at a much deeper malaise affecting the anti-LWE operations in Chhattisgarh is the fact that not a single one of these 30 fatalities belong to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), which has deployed 593 companies in the LWE-affected states according to the last count.
Far from an expected deduction that the CRPF personnel have been more successful in avoiding losses among their ranks, the on-ground reality remains what a prominent newspaper report concluded recently. The CRPF “has almost stopped sending its men to distant areas for operations,” wrote the Indian Express on 18 May 2015. Notwithstanding the periodic rebuttal issued by the CRPF, which flaunts its own set of data of successful anti-LWE encounters, the force, once at the fore-front of the anti-LWE operations, has today become a defensive one, operating with the sole objective of completely preventing deaths among its personnel. According to a directive issued by the CRPF headquarters last year – which is still in vogue – officers on the ground must wait for sanctions from their higher-ups in the headquarters before launching an intelligence-led operation. The invariable bureaucratic delay ensures that such operations are either avoided or achieve little purpose when carried out due to the fact that these were undertaken much after their specific period of utility.
In his April 2015 media interview, CRPF chief Prakash Mishra attributed the drastic reduction of casualties among his personnel to tactical and intelligence-based operations. He outlined that the CRPF now focuses on helping building infrastructure in affected states, providing more facilities for people in the areas, including medicines, which will eventually lead to “more surrenders of Naxals in the coming times.” He also pointed at the problem in generating ground level intelligence especially in areas where no functional police station exists. Some of Mishra’s assertions run contrary to the opinions of the Chhattisgarh police authorities who swear by the ‘CRPF taking a backseat’ narrative. They emphasise that there is a persisting problem of coordination among the state and the central forces and accuse the CRPF of acting like an “unhelpful big brother.”
New Delhi on several occasions in the past has underlined its intention to effect policy changes to resolve the LWE problem. Deployment of more forces, allotment of more resources, and undertaking of development projects in the affected areas have been highlighted as priorities. Somewhere in these big policy statements, the persisting operational problems affecting coordination between central and state forces appear to have been missed out. A course correction is urgently required, especially at a time when the extremists are struggling with their own set of existential issues.