A security patrol in Bijapur in Chhattisgarh a day after the Maoist ambush, April 4 (Photo: Reuters)
FOR THE LAST several weeks, say sources in Chhattisgarh, the elusive Maoist commander Madvi Hidma had been teasing the security grid in Bijapur district to come and get him in his bastion. It runs along the Sukma-Bijapur border, a forest area where Maoists still hold strong. It is now not far from a motorable road, but security forces go inside on foot to maintain stealth. They have several times in the past gone there in pursuit of Hidma, but with “mixed results”, according to a senior officer of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). By this he means that sometimes they have managed to kill a few Maoists and sometimes suffered casualties themselves. But Hidma continues to elude them.
Hidma is from Sukma’s Puwarti village on this axis, north of Bijapur’s Bhattiguda hamlet. A little towards the southeast from Puwarti is Tadmetla where the CRPF faced its biggest casualty of 75 personnel in a Maoist ambush in April 2010. Hidma’s in-laws are in Tekalgudiam, close to Puwarti, and he has quite a following among the Tribal community there.
Not much is known about Hidma. But in all likelihood, he joined the Maoists at a young age sometime in the early 2000s, which makes him someone in his late 30s or early 40s. He rose to become the commander of the Maoists’ Battalion 1, which the police believe is responsible for most of the audacious attacks on security personnel, including the one in the state’s Jheeram Valley in 2013 that wiped out the entire local leadership of the Congress.
It is not clear if senior police and paramilitary officials decided to take up Hidma’s challenge, but on the night of April 2nd, several teams of Chhattisgarh Police’s District Reserve Guard (DRG) and Special Task Force (STF), and CRPF’s CoBRA commandos and men from their newly raised Bastariya Battalion were sent on an operation (both DRG and Bastariya Battalion fighters are drawn from the Maoist-affected Bastar region; in fact, many in DRG are surrendered Maoists). This seems to have been in planning for some time—at the time of the operation, two senior CRPF officials from its Delhi headquarters were present in the area. Local reports also indicated the presence of the Centre’s security advisor and CRPF’s former director general, K Vijay Kumar, in the area for almost three weeks. The CRPF chief, Kuldiep Singh, would later tell CNN-News 18 that the operation was launched in response to reports that Hidma was present with a large number of his fighters in a village approximately three kilometres northwest of Puwarti.
The teams walked in the night in the sultry April heat, carrying weapons and ammunition and heavy backpacks of food and water to last a few days in the jungle. After hours of vigilant march in extremely humid conditions, they managed to reach the village where their target was supposed to be. But they found nothing. They were asked to return to their camps.
By this time the troops had been out for hours, in an area where Maoists have a strong network of informers. A CRPF commandant who has served in this area for four years says that in his experience he found that Maoists were always in the know of their operational movements, especially when they went out in large numbers. In the Bijapur operation, a DRG team, reveals a CoBRA source, stopped for a long time in a village, slightly east of Puwarti. The next morning, as the troops continued their walk back to their camps, one of their teams, which was supposed to return to their camp in Tarrem village, began getting visuals from the drones flying overhead of a large Maoist presence all around. It looked like they were getting flanked on all sides. Another team, while crossing village Tekalgudiam, next to Puwarti, found the village completely empty.
This should have sent alarm bells ringing. In their jungle warfare training, CoBRA commandos are taught how to keep a lookout for suspicious behaviour among the local population. Several times, this has helped in saving lives. A few years ago, in Odisha’s Maoist-affected Malkangiri, for example, a police officer travelling on a road noticed a group of local Tribals gradually disappearing from the roadside. It turned out that Maoists had planted explosives underneath the road to blow up vehicles carrying security personnel.
But in Bijapur it was perhaps late by this time. Soon afterwards, the Maoist attack began. The input on which the troops had been asked to act was in all likelihood a trap set by Maoists. Maoists were aware of what route the troops would take back to their camps and had laid a well-planned ambush.
The first team of troops, situated on a hillock, found themselves under heavy fire. From the ground, Maoists began shooting with their countrymade under-barrel grenade launchers (UBGLs). They also had at least one light machine gun (LMG) with which they began to target the troops. It was a classic Maoist U-ambush, which surrounded the troops from three sides.
CoBRA sources say that the assault was overwhelming and that the Maoist firepower left them surprised. There are no answers yet as to why once the drones had shown the Maoist presence, the leadership did not ask for reinforcement or at least try to outflank Maoists.
In no time, there was total chaos.
Some of the troops who could take up positions fought back. But many were caught in an open area or ran towards it and were shot. Some tried to run towards the village to take cover in the abandoned huts but were pursued by Maoists and hunted down. Another team, sources revealed, saved itself by catching a Maoist militia (villagers trained by Maoists in the use of rudimentary weapons who are used as force multipliers in such attacks), upon spotting whom Maoists did not fire.
The encounter lasted several hours. Finally, as some among the CoBRA team fired a volley of UBGLs towards a spot where Maoist concentration seemed high, they began to retreat. A radio chatter intercepted by the CRPF caught a Maoist commander seeking permission from his boss, most likely Hidma (who must have been nearby), to retreat. “Ladne ka kshamta nahi hai ab (We don’t have the strength to fight anymore),” he said.
But by this time, 22 security forces personnel had died, including seven CoBRA commandos. This is the worst casualty suffered by CoBRA since the September 2009 Singhanmadgu encounter in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district, where six of them were killed. Not only that, it is perhaps for the first time that they left the bodies of their buddies behind. As the Maoists retreated, they took away several weapons from the dead troopers, including an LMG, AK-47 rifles and self-loading rifles (SLRs).
The injured troops, who included team commanders, were evacuated in an Air Force chopper. But the bodies of the slain lay there with no sign of retrieval. They were there a day later as several local journalists reached the spot, shot videos and took photographs of the corpses lying around.
It was a day later that an inspector of the DRG was sent with 400 of his men to retrieve the bodies.
When the CRPF counted its dead, they realised one of their CoBRA commandos was missing. Later, Maoists issued a statement that he had been taken hostage but would be unharmed. CoBRA sources reveal he might have fainted due to dehydration and was unable to escape. The commando, Rakesh, was set free on April 8th.
THERE ARE A few more factors that may have led to losses in the operation. For years now, various CoBRA battalions are deployed on particular stretches on which they then gain rich experience. The 204 CoBRA Battalion, for example, had been given charge of the Tarrem-Sarkeguda-Basaguda axis. Similarly, 201 is deployed on the Narsapuram-Chintalnar axis, 202 on the Bhejji axis, 206 on Chintagufa-Burkapal, and 208 on the Kistaram-Palodi axis. Last year, reveal CoBRA sources, they got orders from the headquarters to reshuffle and take each other’s camps. This plan was later shelved, but two companies (about 180 men) from 210 CoBRA Battalion, which is located in Assam, were shifted to the Ganglur camp. In the latter half of 2020, they were given additional responsibility of Tarrem-Sarkeguda-Basaguda as well while the troops of 204 Battalion were shifted to the Pamed axis. Just a day before the Bijapur operation, two teams (one team is approximately 30 troops, three teams make a company) from their other company were sent to the Tarrem camp while the third was on its way.
In Assam, where they have good experience, the 210 Battalion troops are used to operate in section formation (a section is approximately 10 troops, three sections make a team) according to local needs and not companywise, says a CoBRA source. They are also used to taking motor vehicles to conduct operations. “Operating in Bastar in less than a company formation is fatal,” says a CoBRA officer who has served in this area for long. When the Maoist attack happened, it is possible that the team leaders could not maintain team integrity and the troops fell loose. Also, after the deputy commandant and second-in-command (2IC) were injured, the assistant commandants, borrowed from other CoBRA units, could not lead troops the way their own assistant commandant would have, he says.
Open had sent its queries about these details to the CRPF but no response had been received by the time of going to press.
For his part, the CRPF chief has stressed that there was no intelligence or operational failure and that the security personnel had managed to kill Maoists in equal numbers. From the spot, though, the body of only one female Maoist was recovered. Even if we go by the chief’s claim, getting killed in a 1:1 ratio is not something to be proud of, especially when the task which they had set out for came a cropper. But, as old CoBRA veterans, such as its former inspector general, NC Asthana, point out, the so-called inputs based on which the operation was launched against Maoists offered no clue about their weaponry and planning. “This is not an error of judgement but an act of criminal negligence,” he says.
But CRPF officers Open spoke to, though aghast, say that nothing will change on the ground. “The officers who plan such operations have no experience of the area. During the planning of an operation, if we point out errors, their egos are hurt,” says a CRPF officer who has participated in several such operations in the area. Nothing will change on the ground also because, after several such mistakes in the past, no accountability was fixed and whatever little inquiry happens becomes just a formality—the police officer under whom the CRPF suffered its biggest casualty figure (April 2010) is currently the IG-Operations (Headquarters) of the force.
The truth of Bijapur is evident in the quivering voice of a CRPF soldier who was in the operation and who shot a video on his mobile as an injured 2IC was being carried on a stretcher towards the chopper. “Aaj humare bohot saare log mare gaye (Many of our men died today),” he says over the din of the chopper’s rotor blades. And then, in a leader-like staidness he continues, “Mein Anil Kumar Dubey…aapka bhai, aapka beta, aapka bhateeja (I am Anil Kumar Dubey…your son, your brother, your nephew),” addressing the imaginary countrymen before him. Over this dignified stance, his pain and anguish of losing his buddies skims over.
Perhaps somebody could at least tell him that he doesn’t have to be expendable in this war.