Two days after the deadliest attack by Maoist fighters in Chhattisgarh killed 22 security personnel, survivors from the encounter say there was only one possible explanation for what happened: they had walked into a well-laid trap.
Questions were also raised about faulty intelligence that led to the ambush.
“There were so many of them, so suddenly... it had to be planned,” a Chhattisgarh Police officer, who was injured in the gunfight, told The Indian Express. He is currently being treated in a hospital in Bijapur for a shrapnel injury on his leg and a shallow gun wound on his arm.
The fighting erupted on Saturday when security forces, acting on intelligence, raided a Maoist hideout in Bijapur district, the police said. Besides the 22 killed, 31 more were wounded. One security force member is still missing.
The Maoists say they are fighting on behalf of the poorest for more jobs, land and wealth from natural resources for the country’s indigenous communities. For decades, the groups have waged an armed insurgency against the government, operating from thick forests of Chhattisgarh.
But Saturday’s toll was the heaviest for security forces battling the group since 2017.
‘Attacked from three sides’
Around 2,000 troops had gone on the operation, deep in the jungles of Bijapur, on information that a large number of Maoists were holding a meeting, Home Minister Tamradhwaj Sahu said, according to The Times of India.
Security personnel belonging to the Central Reserve Police Force’s elite CoBRA unit, the District Reserve Guard, and the Special Task Force were part of the anti-insurgency operation. Unidentified officials told The Indian Express that 10 teams were launched in all – two from Sukma district and eight from three camps in Bijapur.
Of the six teams, three, with one comprising of District Reserve Guard (DRG) and Special Task Force, another of a DRG team and one CoBRA team, were launched at 10 pm on the night of April 2. These teams went the deepest with a plan to corner the Naxalites assembling in the area.
But several things went wrong that day.
One of the survivors of the encounter told The Times of India that they were attacked by over 400 Maoists from three sides. The ambush lines stretched over 2 km near Tekulguda village. Running gunfights broke out near Tekulguda, Jonaguda and Jeeragaon villages, he said.
There were other red flags too, according to the officials. “The two villages that the security personnel passed, Jeeragaon and Tekulguda, were completely empty,” one security officer told The Indian Express. “Both the villages were emptied out and we realised too late that something was wrong.”
Other personnel told The Times of India that they were carrying their injured colleagues into the deserted Tekulguda village, only to run into Maoists who “pounced on them with daggers”.
Villagers from the area spoke of “blood-soaked bodies of security personnel scattered over 1 km”. “Bullet-riddled and stabbed bodies were found in an open field and huts in Tekulguda,” a villager told the newspaper. “A few of the bodies were without trousers.”
Took a day to reach site of encounter
The news of the ambush got out late on Saturday afternoon when the gunfight was still on, according to The Times of India. Till then, the police had confirmed only five deaths.
It was only after 24 hours of navigating the dense jungles that a rescue party of 500 police personnel was able to reach the site of encounter on Sunday.
As security personnel returned to retrieve the bodies of colleagues, they remembered how they “were completely covered” from all sides. “We tried to carry our injured and dead, but eventually, had to leave them behind,” one of them told The Indian Express.
Several reports quoted officials as saying that Saturday’s ambush was a result of faulty intelligence inputs.
The Chhattisgarh Police said that the operation was launched based on intelligence inputs on the presence of Hidma, the commander of the lethal Battalion 1 of the Maoists. Other unidentified officials of CoBRA corborrated the same thing to The Indian Express.
The operation was also based on inputs from one Sujatha, an associate in the Jagargunda-Jonaguda-Tarrem belt, according to NDTV.
This turned out to be a trap, according to reports. “We are being played,” a senior police officer told The Indian Express. “The kind of fire we came under, and the positions they took, show it was well-planned.”
The officer said there were “clear signs that the Maoists know we are listening to their code”.
There were operational loopholes as well. The official said that “hard questions will have to be asked as to how 21 jawans, including elite CoBRA fighters, got left behind during the gunfight”.
“The Maoists had so much time that they could strip our men of all our weapons and equipment and the bodies lay there for hours,” he added. “What is even more concerning is that this was not deep in the forests at all. Journalists reached the spot the next morning in no time because it is only half an hour from the camps and the main road.”
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and CRPF Director General Kuldeep Singh, however, denied any intelligence failure. “Had it been some intelligence failure, forces would have not gone for the operation,” Singh claimed. “And if there was some operational failure, so many Maoists would not have been killed.”