Bastar Series – Part 4 – Don’t Like Facts, Change Facts on the Ground

Bastar Series Bastar Series

Gautam Navlakha is a journalist and human rights activist. In 2014, he published a series of articles on the living conditions, the struggles, the resistance and the repression in Bastar. The Bastar is a tribal area of the state of Chhattisgarh where the CPI(Maoist)  entered in 1980 and created a powerful movement that New Delhi now terms as “India’s biggest internal security threat”. Let us note that today, Bastar is still occupied by the Maoists and the state’s repression is intensifying day after, both towards the guerrillas, their sympathisers and the tribals.

The December 1 ambush by Maoists near Kasalpara in which 14 jawans of CRPF lost their lives and an equal number were injured has triggered a great deal of hand wringing and contradictory explanations about the fortnight long operations led by CRPF and the reason why an “unit” was sent to Kasalpara on December 1. Few things were missing in such post-facto rationalizations. Why did the security forces undertake such a prolonged ‘area domination exercise’? Why was it led by the CRPF when a decision had been taken that all operations were to be led by state police officer? What was happening in villages being combed just prior to the ambush?

Deeptiman Tiwary , reporting for Times of India [Malaria, Maoists came together to fell CRPF men in Chhattisgarh], claimed on 5th December that the unit which came under fire was not part of the operation launched on November 16th in Chintagufa-Dornapal belt. The reporter claimed that on November 29th five CRPF and one chattisgarh police personnel came down with malaria. The unit was sent to Kasalpara because the village had open fields and hills abutting which was deemed suitable for helicopters to land and ferry the jawans. This was the most bizarre story concocted.

Another story is that the unit somehow got separated from the main force as they were moving back to their Chintagufa base headquarter. Rahul Pandita [Monitoring the situation in Chattisgarh] wrote on December 3rd that soldiers patrolled a ten km radius area for 15 days looking for the elusive guerillas. A more credible version is in Asian Age [Naxal “mole” led CRPF into trap?] of December 2, 2014 which claimed that a Maoist “mole” lured the forces claiming that Maoists leaders were coming to pay homage on December 1 to the 15 Maoists allegedly killed on November 21st. Convinced of this the unit was sent to Kasalpara to surprise the Maoists.

Barring The Hindu of 04/12/2014 [Kasalpara villagers fear CRPF backlash] whose correspondent visited the spot and interviewed the villagers and got their eyewitness account, all the other stories were based on briefing by one or the other officer. This one report raised more questions about official story tellers than anything else. They report that villagers complained that security forces had entered their house to “search” and had taken away five villagers, that they had been beaten by CRPF personnel and that even a three year child was not spared. They claimed that Maoists had asked them to hide away in one corner of the village on November 21 which saved them from getting caught in crossfire. It also reported that that the CRPF had fired grenade launchers because shells were found about 400 metres away from the village, which means that they had fired on the villagers.

Thus the one credible report based on a visit to the concerned village, confirmed that Kasalpara was the scene of an encounter ten days before the ambush. And this meant that Kasalpara could not have been selected by the ‘unit’ as a safe spot for helicopter to land to ferry the malaria stricken soldiers. And in fact they could not have been on a mission to select a safe spot for helicopters to land. Interestingly, both police IG (Bastar) and IG of CRPF had also claimed that “technical and reliable” information had reached them that 15 or so Maoists had been killed in the November 21st operation whereas 5 CRPF personnel were injured. This was the area where the ‘encounter’ took place! And when the helicopter was taking the injured away Maoists opened fire and injured a flight gunner and an IAF commando.

It is also interesting to note that most newspapers were conspicuously silent when operations had been on for a fortnight and villagers complained of how CRPF-led forces attacked villagers and detained people who were then tortured in custody. These stories were of no interest for the media because no one had been killed. And how does it matter if women are molested (not raped), children are injured (not killed), or household goods looted or destroyed that does not run into crores. Stealing Rs 5000 may be peanuts for media but for a tribal peasant whose money was stolen, Rs 5000 saved is a result of many thousand hours of labour. Feisty lawyers who were trying to help the villagers by getting their complaints registered and get the injured treated faced insurmountable difficulties. The worst was when local newspapers carried lies that Adivasis blamed Maoists for their injuries whereas the villagers had been on dharna for days against the security forces and had been demanding that a FIR be recorded. So if everyone was caught by surprise it was because of deliberately playing down a number of cases of brutality committed by the CRPF and police during the operations.

The story about malaria makes for a good story and a catchy headline. But on December 1, the Indian Express carried a news report that ten days ago (November 20) 400 soldiers engaged in the operations came down with malaria and one soldier lost his life [Malaria outbreak hits anti Naxal operations]. It reported that with only one hospital available in the entire Bastar region at Jagdalpur only fifty soldier patients could be accommodated there. Moreover, they were made to sleep on the floor. It was said that two units may have to be disbanded. Indeed when transportation for the injured remains a serious logistic problem for the forces and even the uniform worn by dead soldiers are not treated as either “case property” or something that next of kin are given to bring closure and instead thrown into garbage, then there is a bigger story of how even ordinary jawans who carry out the orders of the rulers get treated abominably when alive, and are turned into “martyrs” after their death for officials and the media to beat their chests and presumably attract more of the jobless young men to join security forces. A large number of soldiers want to quit because unlike the Maoists guerillas they do not have any direct stake in the war and therefore do not share the motivation of the tribals fighting for their own self-preservation.

The trouble is that psywar (psychological warfare), with its tendency to manipulate, distort or misrepresent facts to confuse the public, guerrillas and their supporters, creates victims of itw own machination. Or, the manufactured fact is so outlandish that professional reporters find it difficult to digest and instead work hard to ferret out the truth. This was done by Ashutosh Bhardwaj of Indian Express [December 8th, 2014], whose story not only raised doubts about the surrenders but showed how 270 out of 377 “surrenders” between June and November were ordinary villagers and how not a single person who ostensibly surrendered had laid down his weapon. Also how those who surrendered after a few days returned to their villages! Pavan Dahat, Hindu’s Raipur based correspondents’spot visit brought out internal inconsistencies of the CRPF story. Although his newspaper did not have any follow up story on this since then. But there is another side.

Major General Dhruv C Katoch, former Director CLAWS, (Centre for Land Warfare Studies) wrote on 7th December on this purely from the vantage point of COIN (counter insurgency), which deserves to be read:

“While the details of what actually happened at the ambush site remain sketchy, the statement made by Mr (HS) Siddhu, the IG in charge of the operation, as also another statement made by a spokesperson of the force require deliberation and analysis. As per Mr Siddhu, the ambushed group somehow got separated from the rest of the company, implying thereby that it was under strength and hence unable to react. This statement by itself throws up uncomfortable questions. Even if the company got separated as the IG claims, the strength of the ambushed group was not less than 30 fully armed and trained CRPF personnel, led by a deputy commandant and an assistant commandant. A force of this size certainly has the resilience to fight back an ambush, despite suffering initial casualties. If a force of this size is considered inadequate by an IG ranked officer, then we have very serious concerns on our hands. These get further magnified by the fact that the Maoists had no qualms in ambushing the full company. They would not have known of the separation at the time the ambush was launched. This fact should cause us additional concern. It was also stated by some force personnel that the Maoists used civilians as human shield which prevented the CRPF personnel from returning the fire. This appears unlikely as the PLGA does not advocate using human shields in an ambush. Ambushes are sited after detailed reconnaissance and thorough preparation, with reliance placed on surprise, speed and concentrated fire power at the point of impact. Using civilians as human shields would defeat that purpose.” (Italics added)

He also went on to add that

“The clamour for sophisticated equipment like drones to assist in combat is misplaced. So are mine protected vehicles. Drones require an extremely sophisticated set up for basic functioning and maintenance and have limited utility in the jungles of Bastar. Mine protected vehicles are easily identifiable and are equally easily neutralised by simply increasing the quantity of explosives in the improvised explosive devices.” [See more at:]

So now let us look at what could have transpired. On November 16, a force comprising 2253 personnel of CRPF and COBRA and 224 personnel of District Force, split into ten units to carry out an “area domination exercise”. It was led by IG of CRPF, HS Siddhu. There were four or five occasions when fire was exchanged between the forces and the Maoist guerrillas. But, whereas the military suffered injuries, there were claims about Maoist casualties without any proof. The officials at the helm of the operations were at pains to show and project Maoist casualties. This would have been evidence of the success of their operation. IG CRPF told The Hindu [November 28, 2014, ‘15 Maoists killed: CRPF’] that as per “technical and intelligence inputs” there were 25-30 Maoists who were injured and about 15 died.

This is also the period when tall claims were made about desertions/surrender by Maoists, their impending defeat. [On December 8th Indian Express and The Hindu exposed the much trumpeted surrenders to be fake.] Indeed just 24 hours before the ambush, the state CM had famously announced that “the day is not far when the state and Centre will together wipe out the Maoist menace and succeed in making a Naxal-free Chhattisgarh”. On December 1, 2014 an unit of 237 personnel was sent to Kasalpara village. Since this was the same spot where fire was exchanged on November 21st it is clear that the unit was not sent for spot selection for helicopter landing but to surprise the Maoists, who according to their “informer” were going to gather here. Officers, while remaining anonymous, told newspapers in the first few days that Maoists had been tracking the movement of the force and kept the forces guessing. As for the story of human shields, it seems that on December 1 there were no villagers when the ambush took place and going by what villagers told The Hindu correspondent, it was the Maoists who ensured that they remained safe on November 21st [Kasalpara villagers fear CRPF backlash]. But it is also interesting that at a time like this other aspects of ground reality also reveal themselves. Reports concur that Maoists enjoy support in the area where their Jantana Sarkar runs parallel administration. That is the reason that the security forces did not receive any actionable intelligence from either their informers or from the villagers. In fact many claimed that the forces were lured to the spot by saying that Maoist leaders would be coming there on December 1 to pay homage to 15 Maoists guerrillas martyred on November 21st. Desperate to prove that their operations had been successful, they got trapped in their own device. With nothing to show for their wanderings in the forest for 15 days they were desperate for some evidence of “success”.

Read together with what General Katoch said, this version appears more credible.

It is also worth recalling what had happened in March 2014. IG of CRPF, HS Siddhu had then expressed to Indian Express [March 15, 2014] his outrage at the state police shooting down his plan for a 35-40 day long operations by a force of 3000. This operation was to be in February and meant to pre-empt the Maoist TCOC in March [Tactical Counter Offensive Campaign]. The plan was to move forces to cover Bijapur, Dantewada, Sukma, Abhuj Madh, etc., and similar areas from 20 different spots. The plan was shot down because senior police officers then found the central forces to be “trigger happy”. This refers to two incidents, one in June 2012 and another in May 2013, when 19 and 8 civilians, including children, had been killed by the “new forces” (CRPF). Hence, the plan was thought of as being “very risky”. With the change in the Government after 16th Lok Sabha elections many changes were brought about. It was decided that a unified command will be set up and that all operations were to be supervised by IG of police leading the forces. And an “operation” was launched to pre-empt the PGLA foundation week being celebrated by the Maoists from December 2nd to 9th [Edge with Maoists in Restive Bastar by Ajaybhan Singh, The Statesman 3rd December, 2014 & Naxal Mole led CRPF into trap? By Rabindranath Choudhary, Asian Age 3rd December 2014].

This operation went horribly wrong. The worst case is when security forces fall prey to their own “psywar” and start believing in them. So being convinced that Maoists are now on the run and guided by advice from some ‘neutral’ scholars, they were bound to suffer. Many scholars advising the authorities claimed that Maoists and Adivasis are different and that Government should wean them away by playing on Adivasi indegenity [a softer version of Salwa Judum] where upper class Adivasis propound Adivasi identity politics and scholars propound theories about how Maoists are worse than the Indian State! For instance, Shashank Ranjan, writing for Centre for Land Warfare Studies on 07/10/2014 in “Slump in Maoists War: An opportunity to Reap” quotes Shubhranshu Choudhary, author of “Lets Call him Vasu: With the Maoists in Chattisgarh” [Penguin (India) 2012], from his talk titled ‘Weaning Away the Maoists Support Base’ as part of CLAWS National Workshop on Internal Security on 12 September, 2014.

Shubhranshu Choudhary argues for “information campaign… to show and project what is being done, to manage favourable perceptions for the state. Perception amongst the adivasis is gaining ground that eventually it would be the ‘State’ and not the ‘Maoists’ who can bring in genuine and long term development – and in the process, also preserve their identity and safeguard their aspirations.”

Indeed a summary provided by CLAWS states the following: “By opening out to the world the adivasi’s support base of Maoists shall diminish. The positive potential of such measures have started showing with already dwindling support base for Maoists…” The claim was that only 2000 Maoists are left and that revolution is just a bogey. While everyone has a right to their own beliefs it does not behoove any scholar to concoct or misrepresent facts. Thus, the 35 year long association of Maoists with Adivasis and the organization they built with their sweat and blood cannot be wished away.

While Guerilla Zone is an area of contention and unstable, yet they run parallel administration in what they call the guerilla base in these zones. Here they run parallel administration with community-based economic model of self reliant development. They raise taxes and employ them for their own model of development and to fight the war. The work teams, cooperative farming, on the one hand and organising tendu leaf pickers or bamboo cutters for better wages (better piece rate) on the other; social reforms as well as ensuring basic health and education; building a fighting force but also a mass cultural movement; preserving and promoting Adivasi languages as well as preparing text books for children, are all results of their labour. Ignoring or ridiculing all this to propound a theory that they “exploit” Adivasis and therefore Indian State ought to break their hold and wean away the Adivasis somehow appears a rather crude way of distorting reality.

So it is interesting that even Shahshank Ranjan writing on 8th December, 2014 [Its Sukma Again] raises a very significant point. “While acknowledgement has dawned on ‘root cause’ aspects of the challenge, ‘law and order’ measures remain the dominant component of the approach towards conflict resolution. As the recent sterilization related tragedy in Chhattisgarh showed, the poor and marginalized have very little to thank the government for. These people are caught between the devil and the deep sea.

Former DGP, Vishwaranjan and many others say that development cannot take place because of Naxalites. And if and when they are gone, will the government be able to ensure the same? With the current government’s thrust on the industry and core sector, Chhattisgarh and other affected states may well see a rapid increase in activities such as mining. That will only add to the misery of the tribals, with their land and forests and water resources suffering further damage. Development is no doubt necessary, but care should be taken to ensure that mining activities are carried out with enough sensitivity to the needs and concerns of the people living there, and not in callous disregard of their interests”. In other words he is skeptical as to whether the State can deliver. But the question is this: if the State consistently shows callous and criminal disregard of people’s concerns, then why elevate Maoists as a bigger problem than the State?

And that is the crux of the bind. To keep claiming that Indian State ought to be more mindful of the Adivasi concern cannot wipe out the fact that State has done precious little so far and there is little to show that the State is at all interested in them beyond fooling them to acquire their forest land for mining, by tweaking forest and environmental laws to pave the way for corporates to enter the lucrative mining sector. In other words to lament that State must change its way (and do what it has not done in past six decades) even while advocating annihilation of Maoists by fair means or foul, means that notwithstanding the unbroken record of State’s indifference towards Adivasis their “enemy” remain Maoists.

In other words there is a two pronged attack. On the one hand, few non-Adivasis scholars claim

to be more loyal to Adivasi cause than Adivasis themselves, who comprise the CPI(Maoist). So, they too criticize the government for not doing enough for tribals; but their main target remains Maoists whom they despise and want wiped out. On the other hand the state wants Maoists out because it wants to enable FDI into mining. Let us not forget what former PM Manmohan Singh had famously said: Maoists control the forests where minerals lie buried, and without opening the mining sector for FDI, India’s growth story cannot be sustained. This strategic importance of mining for India’s “growth story” remains the concern of the new corporate favourite, the Narendra Modi-led government.

This brings me to the last point. Additional DG of Police Chattisgarh writing in the Indian Express on December 6th, 2014 unwittingly admitted that Maoists guerrillas grew when they came under attack by the State [Old New War]. Thus in 2005 they had just two military level companies. This grew to two battalion by 2010. However what also interest me is that he wrote “More than a thousand security men have already made the supreme sacrifice in Chhattisgarh since the state was formed. The road ahead may be full of risks and challenges. More setbacks and sacrifices may be lying in wait, but we have to move forward with determination. The nation must honour its martyrs. It is at their cost that a long-lasting peace will be achieved”. Which would have been alright but in the entire write up there is not an iota of concern expressed for Adivasis. It is as though there are no issues. Instead it is substituted by referring to buses plying, setting up more and more police stations inside the forest areas and tangentially mentioning “development”.

Of course, the reason is clear. The “development” that the Government wants to bring is one that has to do with helping the corporate sector. Since this is the main object, to believe that soldiers of the State would be fully charged to die for helping the corporate sector is to live in a fools paradise. It is this that explains the recurrent descent into indiscipline, venting their rage on civilians, and desire to quit the services. Given this state of affair, it is no wonder that policy makers and enforces of policy exhibit gross mis-conception about resistance. One expression is that ADGP, RK Vij is reported by The Hindu (December 7, 2014) as proposing that security forces should wage “guerrilla war” against Maoists [CRPF teams deviated from planned route]. Thus he wants size of force to be reduced from 200-500 to 25-30; the duration of patrolling restricted to 6-7 hrs daily so that soldiers do not tire and get enough rest; he wants to deploy a dog squad; and he praised the Naga battalion for exemplary work during Salwa Judum, which needs to be emulated, if not brought back.

Salwa Judum and role of the Naga battalion for killing, rape, destruction is too well documented to need any comment. What is significant for the ADGP, however, is that this gave results and made Salwa Judum precious for “generals” like him. But what is rather amusing is the fact that as a “general”, he is oblivious of the fact that a regular army or para army can break into small units for fighting “war of movement” but a “guerilla” fighting a people’s war differs from official guerillas waging counter-revolutionary war, in a fundamental way. State coerces people to offer their support to State. Maoists guerillas have to win their support to be able to wage their war. This is reflected in what General Katoch wrote as referred above.

What does this mean? Simply that government forces can split into smaller units to fight a “war of movement” (which is what guerilla warfare is) but with a crucial difference. The Maoists guerillas depend for their survival on the support of the people and therefore swim as “fish in the sea”. The government “guerillas” are more like piranhas in the water and prey on the people to force their cooperation. That is the seminal difference between them.

So let us not fool ourselves by changing facts to suit our pet whims. Let us rather face facts to understand and explain the ground reality.