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Only a fair investigation can expose murky realities behind the attack on CRPF in Sukma
(We cannot put an end to 'sacrifices' by 'our martyrs' without addressing the political and administrative defalcations in the highest offices of government.)

A great deal has been written in the wake of the latest tragedy in Sukma, about the delay in appointing a Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force, and the government appears to have been stung by this criticism and has, with belated alacrity, appointed an officer to this post within 48 hours of the Burkapal attack, after dithering for nearly two months. Delays in such critical appointments are certainly unfortunate, and are an index of the incoherence, indifference, contestations of power, and misplaced priorities on Raisina Hill. It must, however, be understood that this has nothing to do with the circumstances that led to the failures of the CRPF at Burkapal. Whether or not there is a director general is of no consequence to the functioning of a battalion in deployment, each of which is a self-sufficient unit. No aspect of the daily and operational functioning of a battalion is in any way compromised by the presence of an acting director general, as opposed to a permanent incumbent.

Frank inquiry

Information I have received regarding the incident at Burkapal suggests grave irregularities and lapses on the part of the unit, which led to the eventual tragedy. But this is the subject of an official inquiry, and any analysis of hearsay and derivative accounts would be inappropriate. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear, even from what is publicly known, that flagging discipline, poor training and bad leadership will have contributed directly to the debacle. Suffice it to say that even the most rudimentary imperatives of self-preservation appear to have been ignored by the targeted unit.

However, the Court of Inquiry process is unlikely to be useful, and will only result in the active distortion of facts, as various individuals and institutions seek to protect themselves from blame. A punitive approach serves little constructive purpose in such cases. In Punjab, during the years of terrorism, and in Andhra Pradesh through the successful phase of counter-Maoist operations, the model followed was a frank inquiry into major incidents to define the specific circumstances in which a particular outcome resulted, with the objective of ensuring that identifiable lapses did not recur, or that any structural vulnerabilities that existed were removed. It is only such an approach that can help ensure that another such tragedy will not be repeated in Sukma - or elsewhere - a month or two down the line, something the Maoists will certainly try to orchestrate.

Challenging terrain?

Much has been said and written about the difficulties of operating in Bastar, its "challenging terrain" and "dense forests". Most such commentary is ill-informed. Indian counter-insurgency campaigns have been carried out in much more difficult terrain, certainly in many of the far more densely forested and hilly tracts of the North East, and the mountainous terrain of Jammu & Kashmir; the swamplands of the Mand in the Punjab had their own unique challenges. The Burkapal area in which the latest attack occurred is largely scrubland, with limited tree cover.

In any event, the challenge of terrain and of Maoist tactics is far from insurmountable. I had written in 2003 about a unit of the Punjab Police, under the command of then Deputy Inspector General HS Dhillon, that had been deployed in the Bastar region for the Assembly Elections there. While this is a long time ago, their experience bears recounting:

"A contingent of the Punjab Police (PP) was deployed in Chattisgarh for 22 days on polling duties, with a large proportion of these in the Bastar area, including four of the areas worst affected by Naxalite violence: Jagdalpur, Kanker, Bijapur and Dantewada. One party of 50 PP personnel, accompanied by one local policeman, started from Bijapur to go through forests to reach a place called Sundra, to prepare a helipad so that electoral officials and materials could be brought in. This short journey was to be completed in two stages, with an overnight stop at Sagmeta. They moved from Bijapur at 07:00, and by 10:00, they were in the thick of the forest. They were greeted by as many as 19 landmine blasts, coupled with heavy firing. The commandos retaliated and used area weapons - 2-inch mortars, GF rifles (grenade launchers), Light Machine Guns and ALRs (sniper rifles). They found that all the existing forest trails were mined, so they marched cross country, cutting a path through the forest and reached Sagmeta, just 15 kilometres from Bijapur, at 17:00, completing the journey in over 10 hours.

At Sagmeta, from 23:00 to 05:00 the next morning, there was a pitched battle between the police party and the Naxalites who were surrounding them from all sides. They then received information that the route to Sundra was heavily mined. The party consequently stayed on at Sagmeta for another day. Firing on the party started again at 2200 and continued till 0500 the next morning. A helicopter was eventually pressed into service, and lifted one party - about half a platoon - who secured the ground at Sundra. The remaining policemen were then airlifted to create and secure the helipad. They came under heavy fire from the Naxalites through the night at Sundra as well. For those who have not faced fire, it is difficult to understand the enormous courage and character that it would have taken this small contingent, as they confronted a faceless enemy, although unused to the terrain, being in the area for the first time… despite the fact that they took casualties, they managed to set up the polling station, and polling did take place… After polling was over, the party returned, once again under heavy fire throughout the night…"

While exemplary, this is not a unique experience. In my tenure with the CRPF in Jammu and Kashmir, I have seen a CRPF contingent going through an ambush that was sustained across 15 kilometres, without losing any men. The fact is, a well-trained, well-led force would prevail in this area, as in any other, and it is deficiencies of training, leadership, orientation and motivation that are contributing to the repeated and large fatalities that the Police and Paramilitaries are suffering in some Maoist areas.

K.P.S. Gill
"The writer, former DGP, Punjab, is president, Institute for Conflict Management, and publisher, 'South Asia Intelligence Review'"





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