The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) that leads anti-Maoist operations across the country has been headless for almost two months.
The paramilitary wing lost more than two dozen of its men on Monday to an ambush by the communist guerillas in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district- the second attack on the CRPF in the area within 40 days.
"Why is a force of 300,000 personnel headless for two months?" asked Prakash Singh, former director general of BSF. "Where is the leadership for the force? When this government took over, (home minister) Rajnath Singh made a grand announcement about a policy to deal with the situation. Three years later, where is that policy?"
The patrol team of 99 personnel was on a road-sanitisation operation.
"The CRPF party had left their camp around 5.30am. While patrolling the road they took a break around 10.30am. That's the time they noticed some villagers approach them. The villagers had cattle with them and soon moved away. It now appears they were a Maoist patrolling party to assess the number of CRPF personnel and their weapons,'' top sources in the ministry of home affairs told MAIL TODAY.
Around 12.45pm, the 99-member CRPF patrol decided to break for lunch.
"As per standard operating procedures, the entire party does not eat together. While one section eats, the other stands guard. In this case, during the shift between the two parties, they saw a large group of villagers approach them. Even as they focused their attention on the villagers, another group of about 50 Maoists opened fire from the other direction and there was a loud explosion," sources added.
Before the CRPF patrol could take cover, the first group of Maoists hiding behind villagers opened fire. The firing started from two sides. "The Maoists were dressed in all-black and very well-armed. We could not open fire immediately because they were using villagers as a human shield. By the time we took cover and opened fire, there was an attack from two sides," constable Sher Bahadur, an injured CRPF jawan, told MAIL TODAY.
The Maoists, or Naxals, are inspired by the political philosophy of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong. They say they are fighting for the rights of poor farmers and landless labourers, but have been found to be involved in crimes such as kidnapping, smuggling and mass murders.
Sher Bahadur says he shot at least four armed Maoists in the chest before being injured in the encounter. As the CRPF personnel retaliated, a second wave of Maoists came and began firing at the security forces. The paramilitary soldiers claim several women cadre of the Red terror group were also involved in the attack. "There were about 300 Maoists in all and they came from two sides in three waves. We were outnumbered and outgunned," Sher Bahadur added.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh cut short his visit to Delhi and rushed back. He visited the injured CRPF jawans at hospital. "Our jawans will not back down. Sukma is a Naxal bastion. The road (construction when completed) will cripple their network," he told the media.
RAJNATH CONDEMNS ATTACK
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh too condemned the attack and said Hansraj Ahir, union minister of state for home, will travel to the affected area.
Ex-BSF chief Prakash Singh also hit out at the Chhattisgarh government. "There have been a series of attacks on the CRPF in Chhattisgarh. Has the Raman Singh government done an audit of the number of personnel trained in their Jungle Warfare School? Is there an audit of the intelligence gathering capabilities and the state police force operations on ground,'' he asked.
The Maoist insurgency feeds off anti-government hostility in some rural areas, highlighting the uneven nature of India's economic boom. Prakash Singh is not the only one seeking a national policy and multi-state operations against the guerillas.
"These attacks cannot go on. It is now time to gather actionable intelligence and carry out parallel operations across the entire Red Terror corridor," concurs Vikram Singh, former police chief of Uttar Pradesh.
One of the biggest problems the security forces on the ground face is lack of actionable intelligence.
"If 300 people with arms are assembling to launch a terror attack on security forces, word must have gone out across several villages. Why is it that the state intelligence agencies did not learn of it,'' says an official monitoring the situation.
(With inputs from Sunil Namdeo in Raipur)