The attack on the Central Reserve Police Force contingent in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh that left 25 personnel dead was caused by an operational lapse, if the preliminary findings of a visiting team from the force headquarters is to be believed. The contingent of 99 CRPF constables was part of a road opening party, and had just finished their lunch when they were ambushed by the Maoists on Monday afternoon.

A team of senior CRPF officers rushed to Chhattisgarh along with Union home minister Rajnath Singh to assess the cause behind the heavy losses and have returned with worrying details of the way the force was operating in a known Maoist hotbed. “These are preliminary assessments, but we believe that the men had a lapse in concentration and were not adequately guarding their position, allowing the Maoists to surround and ambush them,” a senior official said.

Deadly assault

The team has also found startling evidence of the ferocious Maoist attack that led to such high casualties. Based on interviews of the survivors and spot assessments, the force commanders believe that the Maoists also used traditional bows and arrows and combined them with improvised explosive devices, leading to such high casualties. “We have not seen this before,” the official said. “The majority of the Maoist cadres are tribals, and are familiar with using bows and arrows. But to tie IEDs to the arrows and use them with such deadly effect is extremely worrying.”

The CRPF personnel had been deployed from Burakpal to do guard duty on a road being constructed from Chintalgufa to the Sukma district headquarters. A force of 99 men from the 74th battalion of the CRPF was deployed for the task, moving out in three groups of 30 to 36 men each. On Monday, a group of 36 men who had stopped for a lunch break came under attack. Senior CRPF officials believe that the men had lowered guard, and were resting when the attack took place. During road opening and guarding duties, the standard operation procedure calls for food breaks to be taken in small numbers, while the bulk of the personnel are on guard in an operational zone.

In some ways, CRPF officers said, the attack was reminiscent of the April 2010 attack when 74 men of the CRPF were killed by Maoists near Chintalnar in the neighbouring Dantewada district.

Lessons not learnt

In the April 2010, the CRPF men were on a three-day patrol when they were ambushed in the early hours when they had camped in the jungle. Inquiries at that time showed that the men had lowered their guard and most were asleep when the Maoists ambushed them. The men had also failed to control the higher features in the area, allowing the Maoists to occupy them, giving them a major tactical advantage.

Worryingly, Monday’s attack indicates that the force has not learnt its lessons despite a prolonged deployment in the state on anti-Maoist operations. In fact, within two months of the Chintalnar attack, Maoists managed to kill another 26 men of the CRPF when they were on a road opening patrol in Narayanpur district. At that time, senior officials found that the men had violated procedure and had broken formation and started walking back in groups when the attack took place.

“The men were obviously tired and were walking back in disparate groups, a move completely against their SoP [standard operation procedure], when the Maoists attacked,” a senior police official recalled. Both these attacks in 2010 now seem to confirm that the Maoists had exploited the similar operational and tactical deficiencies by the CRPF troops when they came under attack on Monday.

The Sukma attack on Monday also led to a major loss of arms and ammunition, with the force losing 12 AK-47 assault rifles, 31 INSAS rifles, and over 3,000 bullets, grenades and communication sets. While some survivors of the attack have told the visiting teams that the CRPF fired back, senior officials are sceptical about the claim. “If the men had managed to fire back, then the Maoists wouldn’t have had the time to collect and carry away such a large cache of arms and ammunition from the fallen CRPF men,” the senior official said. “We believe that the troops were completely overwhelmed by the attack.”

The construction of roads in Chhattisgarh is a crucial part of the government’s strategy to counter the Maoists. An expanding road network has been found to be effective counter-insurgency strategy, allowing government forces to quickly deploy and dominate the area. This has led to major clashes between the Maoists determined to delay the construction of the roads.

False calm

However, the months preceding the attack seems to have contributed to the CRPF men becoming complacent. Since November, there has been a spate of claims that the demonetisation by the Modi government had decimated the Maoists. In Parliament, the government claimed that demonetisation had led to 700 Maoist surrenders, while other reports continued to claim that the Maoists were struggling for funds.

However, security officials dealing the Maoist issue were sceptical and had pointed out that the such claims of large scale surrenders or setback to the Maoists were largely exaggerated. The Maoists “also have an army of over ground workers in the rural and urban centres who can launder significant portions of their money”, a senior security official had told at that time.

The fact that the CRPF, India’s largest central police organisation and the key force for anti-Maoist operations, has been without a chief since February 28 has also drawn criticism. The oufit’s director general, K Durga Prasad retired that month, leading the force headless. Usually a chief is named at least a month in advance. However, the force has been left headless, with only an “acting” Director General. However, the government has chosen to ignore these issues and instead released an official statement questioning human rights activists and civil society members.