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.

CRPF officers pay tributes to slain jawans at Patna airport. Image credit: PTI

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.

Sukma: The site where Maoists ambushed and massacred at least 24 CRPF personnel in Chhattisgarh's Sukma district on April 24, 2017. The attack took place at 12.30 pm when 74th Battalion of CRPF reached a forested area in Kala Pathar near Chintagufa. Image credit: IANS

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.

Critical roads

Crucially, moreover, the broader political and administrative mandate and orientation are also suspect. As Advisor (Security) to Chattisgarh in 2006, I travelled across thousands of kilometres of the worst Maoist-affected areas and recommended to the government that three roads were strategically critical, and should be developed on a war footing. These were the Dornapal-Jagargonda link (the road on which the latest attack at Burkapal occurred), the Sukma-Konta road and the Narainpur-Orcha road, totalling a mere 200 kilometres. When the idea was first discussed with security and administrative officials at the lower level, there was great enthusiasm, and I was assured the money was available. When it was then taken up at higher levels in Raipur, the entire plan simply fizzled out.

Crucially, more than 10 years later, not one of these roads has actually been completed and I am given to understand that well under 50% of the work may have been done. To me, this is inexplicable. We can build a 218 kilometre Delaram-Zaranj Highway in the war zones of Afghanistan, under relentless attacks from the Taliban (some 135 lives, including 129 Afghans and six Indians, were lost in the process) in under four years. How is it that we cannot build three short sections of road, each between 50 and 80 kilometres, in our own territory, in areas afflicted by an insurgency that is not even a shadow of the state of war that prevails in Afghanistan?

There is more that is incomprehensible in the Burkapal attack. What precisely was the CRPF guarding there? What possible utility could be served by guarding a work team for six to eight hours a day, and then abandoning the site? Whatever they construct through the day could easily be torn down or blown up by the Maoists in the night. Unless the area is held and dominated round the clock, no real progress is possible. What ends were, consequently, being served? A deeper investigation is likely to expose at least some murky realities.

A CRPF road opening party at Chhattisgarh. Image credit: HT file photo.

Reports indicate that the construction team under CRPF protection in the Burkapal area was building a culvert for several days. A prefabricated steel culvert would take no more than a few hours to assemble. Why are such options not explored? The entire road building process – excavation, filling, compaction and construction – is now mechanised, and entire kilometres of road can be laid in a day. Why are primitive systems of manual construction being employed? Modern road building infrastructure may cost more to transport and protect for a short while – but any greater cost on this account would be more than compensated by the strategic gains, the economies of the movement of force, and the neutralisation of Maoist influence, that would inevitably result. There is no rocket science in any of this. Why, then, do these projects never end?

It is easy for political leaders to trot out the customary clichés about “our brave jawans” and their “sacrifices” after every major debacle, and to pair them with empty threats of overwhelming retaliation and letting no one “go unpunished”. It is necessary, however, to understand the circumstances under which such “sacrifices” are made necessary at such an unnecessary frequency, and the political and administrative defalcation that underpins these recurrent tragedies. Unless this crisis, with its source in the highest offices of government, is addressed, such “sacrifices” and the number of “our martyrs” can only mount.

KPS Gill served as Director General CRPF and as Director General of Police Punjab. He was Advisor (Security) to the Government of Chhattisgarh for a year in 2006-’07.