Those responsible for the tragedy of April 3 will find countless reasons for the loss of personnel that the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force and the Chhattisgarh police suffered at the hands of the Maoists. But the plain fact is that sole responsibility for the monumental failure lies on the shoulders of the top leadership of the CRPF.

Twenty-two soldiers were killed in a Maoist ambush on the border of Bijapur and Sukma districts in southern Chhattisgarh on Saturday. This includes 14 Chhattisgarh policemen and seven jawans of the CRPF, including six members of its elite CoBRA unit, specially trained to take on Maoist guerillas. One CRPF jawan is still missing, held captive by the Maoists.

There are eerie similarities between this ambush and another one that took place exactly 11 years ago on April 6, 2010, near Tadmetla village of Sukma in which CRPF lost 76 soldiers within three hours. Then, as in now, a large body of troops were launched into an operation without intelligence, knowledge of terrain or adequate preparation. They became sitting ducks to the Maoists who had been tracking their movement.

Since 2010, there have been at least five major attacks on the CRPF by the Maoists in the Bastar region, which have resulted in the death of 159 personnel and injuries to a much larger number. The leadership of the CRPF refuses to learn from the past and keeps repeating the same mistakes.

A badly-planned operation

Reports about the April 3 ambush suggest that over 2,000 troops of the CRPF and Chhattisgarh police were sent out to the jungle in search of an assigned target. It is beyond imagination that the planners chose to send such a large body of troops on a wild goose chase without giving thought to the endgame. How could the leaders even assume that the type of operation planned by them would succeed without what is termed as the softening up of target in military parlance?

The Maoists have overground sympathisers all over the affected area and are assured of logistics, rest, relief, and most importantly, information of the movement of security forces. Should the leaders therefore not have ensured that the line of communications was secured before launching the troops?

A trained commander would never follow the methodology adopted in this operation for dominating the area by merely showing the presence of security forces. The leadership of the CRPF should have adopted a gradualist approach over the past decade to extend domination of the area. What should have been done over a decade of operating in these areas is to establish operating bases progressively from the periphery of the so-called “liberated zone”, as the area dominated by the Maoists is called, and advance inwards to establish similar bases. That would have ensured a secured line of communications for troops to operate and prevented the Maoists from roaming around freely.

Being ambitious is alright but the planning of this operation reeks of naivete and lack of understanding of the Maoist strategy. What endgame did the commanders plan for? Did they think that it is an operation similar to the one carried out against Veerappan, the sandalwood smuggler?

Home Minister Amit Shah visits those injured during an attack by Maoists in Chhattisgarh. Photo: PTI

Poor understanding of the ground

The CRPF leadership should have been even more alert than usual because of the ongoing “Tactical Counter Operations campaign” by the Maoists against the security forces. This is an annual phenomenon from March onwards till the onset of monsoons. This year, the Maoists had started the campaign in February itself as they were celebrating 20 years of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.

Ten days before the April 3 ambush, on March 23, the Maoists had attacked a bus and killed five personnel of the Chhattisgarh police’s district reserve guards and injured several others.

As per reports in the local newspapers, the Maoists had offered peace with conditions that all security forces be withdrawn from the affected areas and top Maoist leaders be released. This was proof that the Maoists were feeling the heat. The security forces should have carried on mounting pressure by gradually increasing their area of influence as suggested above. Only a leadership divorced from the situation on the ground can ignore such indicators and plan operations in such a haphazard manner.

No accountability

One of the dramatis personae in the April 3 fiasco is Nalin Prabhat, the Indian Police Service officer who is currently the Inspector General (Operations) of CRPF for this area. He was the Deputy Inspector General (Operations) during the Tadmetla ambush of April 2010. It is said that the probe into the ambus, headed by the former director general of the Border Security Force, EN Rammohan, had found this officer blameworthy for that tragedy.

It is deeply ironical that an officer prone to repeated blundering was elevated and made in-charge of the same area. Why was his accountability not fixed for the grave errors in 2010? It is unlikely that any action will be taken against him even now because everyone from the Special Security Advisor to the government of India downwards is learnt to have been associated in planning this operation. Besides, Prabhat belongs to the twice born tribe of IPS officers.

Needless to say that the transient leadership of IPS officers cannot live up to the demands of the specialised forces like the CRPF, the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Seema Sashashtra Bal. It is high time that a professional leadership of the original cadres of these forces well-experienced in ground level functioning, ethos and operational philosophy of these forces takes over the reins.

The other aspect that the CRPF needs to introspect about is the training for such operations. That the troops on ground suffer repeated losses does not speak well of the training philosophy and its execution. A thorough audit of the training systems not only in CRPF but also in other paramilitary forces is essential to remedy the situation.

Leadership failure

The Group of Ministers set up after the 1999 Kargil war, in their wisdom, had designated the CRPF as the premier internal security force of the country. The moot question, however, is whether the force has been equipped with essential wherewithal in terms of leadership, equipment and training? The answer is a resounding no.

The common thread in all the setbacks in the Maoist theatre has been the failure of the supervisory leadership to lead from the front but also to provide timely analysis and dissemination of actionable intelligence to troops. The leadership has no clue about how to operate in jungle terrain against an enemy which cannot be identified and which can merge easily with the masses without a trace. Worse, the leadership has refused to take responsibility for the lapses and learn from them.

Every time an ambush occurs, the official analysis is mostly an exercise in cover-up which gathers dust in the confines of the CRPF archives. Either to satisfy their guilty conscience or to project a facade of concern towards the families, the top officers often recommend the personnel who were killed for gallantry medals. The politicians spout the usual rhetoric – statements like “we will not let these sacrifices go in vain” – whereafter they unashamedly go on to exploit the tragedy for electoral gains. Everything is forgotten in a few days’ time and it is business as usual.

The task of security forces is limited to bringing down the levels of violence so that the political process can start. The political leadership has to understand this and formulate a cohesive policy for that. That this has not been achieved for over a decade is a sad reflection on part of both the security forces and the government.

Unless we take urgent steps to remedy the situation we will continue to suffer losses. Organising ourselves in a better manner both at policy and functional level is a much better option than shedding tears and laying wreaths on bodies of the dead.

Sanjiv Krishan Sood is a former Additional Director General of the Border Security Force who retired after 38 years in service. His Twitter handle is @sood_2.