Bastar: A Maoist hotbed
On Saturday, March 21, 2020 the CRPF garrison deployed in Bastar suffered serious casualties. While at least 17 policemen were killed, 14 more were injured. This is the worst attack in the last two years after 24 CRPF policemen were killed in July 2018 in the Sukma District of Bastar Division in Chhattisgarh.
Apparently, lured by the information of a Maoist gathering at Elmagunda, a major offensive was planned, which involved almost 600 security force personnel. According to the plan, the security forces involving the District Reserve Guard (DRG), Special Task Force (STF) and CoBRA, advanced on three sides (Chitagufa, Burkapal and Tamelwada). Since the region is underdeveloped and Elmagunda is located almost 40 km from NH-30, the final assault would have had to be conducted on foot, to preserve the element of surprise.
Sukma District is located in South Chhattisgarh, 513 Km from the capital Raipur. Connected by NH-30, to Raipur, Sukma is surrounded by Odisha to the East, Telangana to the South and Maharashtra to the West.
Analysis: Apparently, the task force could not establish contact with the Naxals as planned, at Elmagunda. However, on their return from the operation and while making their way to their vehicles, they were apparently ambushed by heavily armed Naxals. Reportedly, the engagement was fierce, lasting more than two hours. The security forces broke contact and returned to their base, only to discover that 13 policemen were missing. In subsequent operations, all the bodies were recovered, but at least 16 weapons were lost; including 12 AK-47s and one UBGL (under-barrel grenade launcher).
Why did the CRPF undertake such a major operation, away from the Axis?
The CRPF has a challenging role in Chhattisgarh; holding in check the activities of the CPI (Maoists), protecting nation-building activities (road-construction, mobile towers etc.) and winning the hearts and minds of the local people. The national strategy appears to have significantly reduced the number of Naxal-affected districts in the country. According to a 2018, MHA report, 89% of Naxal violence is now confined to just 30 districts. However, in objective analysis, the Bastar Division of Chhattisgarh has always had a disproportionate number of Naxal incidents, with associated killings. Bastar Division is the Southernmost region of Chhattisgarh, comprising seven districts; Jagdalpur, Dantewada, Bijapur, Narayanpur, Sukma, Kondagaon and Kanker.
Analysis: Like with any other insurgency, the CRPF is required to establish bases, dominate the area and reduce the influence of Maoists, over the local population. With development (road communications and mobile telephones), it is becoming increasingly difficult for Maoists to assert themselves. While development work is also progressing in the Bastar Division, the relative underdevelopment of the region still enables such attacks to be carried out. After carrying out the ambush, the Naxals are expected to have split into smaller groups and escaped to neighbouring Maharashtra, Telangana and Odisha.
CRPF operations in Chhattisgarh are reportedly supported by Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operations. However, it is surprising that UAVs failed to detect such a major Maoist ambush and provide timely early warning. Also, it is difficult to accept that Maoists can escape with CRPF weapons with impunity. Surely, aerial surveillance, aerial pursuit and coordination with neighbouring states can facilitate the recovery of the stolen weapons and bring the culprits to book.
Not too far away, in Afghanistan, the US conducts war from UAVs, with literally no boots on the ground. In contrast, are we conducting operations in the Red Corridor, with too many boots on the ground and literally no UAVs?