The explosion, near Malewara on the Sukma-Dantewada road, created a crater some two metres deep and more than three and a half metres wide. It was so powerful that a tank could not have survived it. The mini truck that passed over it was thrown high into the air and blown to pieces. The bodies of seven Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans were found 100 to 150 metres away. They must have died instantaneously. The wire that presumably connected the trigger to the explosive was 120 metres long.
It was 3 p.m. on March 30. The sun had a long time to go before it would set. So, barely 120 metres away, hidden behind trees, 15 to 20 insurgents of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) were waiting. They probably belonged to the People’s Liberation Guerilla Army, a structured and trained armed force of the CPI (Maoist) which undertakes small-scale military operations against State and Central police forces. It is probably big enough to make an impact but not big enough to invite mass deployment of retaliatory State forces against it.
After a while, they emerged from the bushes to ensure that the CRPF men were dead—they fired at some bodies. Local sources later told the police that some of them were carrying traditional weapons. Perhaps they wanted to take the weapons of the dead CRPF men. But there were no weapons on them. It was not an armoured vehicle and the men were travelling in plainclothes. The jawans killed were Sub-Inspector D. Vijay Raj, constables Pradeep Tirkey, Rupnarayan Das, Devendra Chourasia, Ranjan Dash and Mritunjoy Mukharjee, and driver Saindane Nana Usesing. They were non-combat staff of the CRPF’s 230th battalion, and were from the Ghusaras camp in Dantewada. Some of them were returning after having taken leave for Holi. For at least two of them, it was their first posting. Their vehicle was alone; it was not accompanied by a support party, or a road opening party which is sometimes sent first as a decoy.
Meetings were called to figure out what had gone wrong. Chief Minister Raman Singh said a probe would be conducted to find out whether or not norms were followed. A special meeting of the anti-naxalite wing was called at the residence of the officiating Home Minister, Ajay Chandrakar. “The Maoists carried out the attack out of frustration. We make sure we take extreme precautions, but some mistakes happen. New instructions will be issued as per the situation. The Maoists are on the back foot and are targeting the innocent now,” Chandrakar reportedly said.
Conjectures were made. The Maoists could have dug a secret tunnel to plant the explosives, said the police. The Maoists had paid off a corrupt contractor to place the explosives while the road was being built, said reporters. In all probability, information was leaked from the inside, said insiders. “A surprise movement was under way. I don’t know how the news got leaked. The way the incident happened, it is clear that someone gave specific inputs. We will investigate to find out what went wrong,” K. Durga Prasad, Director General of the CRPF, told reporters after paying homage to the deceased.
One of the men was carrying an air cooler for Scout, a sniffer dog who had fallen ill. For the media, an emotional tale could be woven around a Maoist ambush after a long time and they made the most of it. Headlines screamed: “7 men lost lives to save sick dog.”
The jawans had stopped at a marketplace on their way to the Ghusaras camp. Maybe they should not have, said some police officers. Maybe that is where the trail began. There was a school barely 100 metres away. There were a few houses. There was an entire village on the Sukma-Dantewada road. The Malewara market was nearby. It was a populated area. The explosion was not only powerful but also sophisticated and well planned. Perhaps it was intended for another target, not CRPF men in plainclothes.
“Maybe, the Maoists were waiting for some other party, and this particular CRPF party came early and got hit because of some confusion,” Dinesh Pratap Upadhyay, Deputy Inspector General of the CRPF, Dantewada range, told reporters.
This is not the first, or the deadliest, of attacks against paramilitary forces by naxalites in Chhattisgarh. Although anti-insurgency action usually involves mixed forces, the maximum casualty is reported from the ranks of the CRPF because it is not equipped or trained effectively for jungle warfare, say experts. They are also soft targets.
Janardan Sonawane, a jawan of the CRPF’s 111th battalion, was injured when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded near Sameli village of Dantewada. He was providing security for road construction. Head Constable Ranga Raghavan was also on similar duty when he was killed, and four others from the 217th battalion of the CRPF were injured on the Chhattisgarh-Telangana border near Muraliguda village.
There have also been encounter deaths. Two Border Security Force jawans were killed and four others were critically injured in an encounter with the Maoists in the Becha forests of Kanker district. Two jawans of the CRPF’s special unit, the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), were killed and more than 12 others injured in an encounter with the Maoists in Sukma district.
There is no clear collated data shared by the forces on the number of CRPF men killed, but they do have data on the number of Maoists “apprehended”: 208, of whom eight were rewardees in 2015. According to the Chhattisgarh Home Ministry, Maoist surrenders have gone up multifold: 39 in 2013, 327 in 2015, and 368 until March 2016. As far as encounters go, there were 46 in 2015 and 46 until March 2016. S.R.P. Kalluri, Inspector General, Bastar range, has time and again quoted these figures to claim that the forces are gaining ground against the Maoists. He claims that under Mission 2016, naxalism will be stamped out from Bastar. But attacks by the Maoists, like the recent one, give the lie to such tall claims.