The recent encounter in Chhattisgarh on the night of June 28/29 and the controversy over its genuineness has thrown up some important questions. Did the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), our premier paramilitary force to deal with internal security challenges, go berserk and commit ‘cold blooded massacre’ of the tribals? Did a section of the media play to the Maoist gallery? Above all, is the Government of India serious about tackling the Maoist problem?
Let us first get the facts straight. There was specific intelligence that a strong contingent of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) was moving from Odisha to Chhattisgarh with a view to perpetrating a major act of violence. A plan of action was accordingly drawn up jointly by the state police and the CRPF to intercept and engage the PLGA unit. It was decided that three units of the CRPF, supported by the state police, would move from three different locations. One of these was from Basuguda in Bijapur and it was scheduled to go up to village Silger. At midnight, while the unit was on the move, it was fired upon near Sarkeguda village.
The CRPF was taken by surprise and was at the receiving end to start with. Six jawans of the CRPF suffered bullet injuries. Two of them were grievously injured; one Islam was hit in the chest and is battling for life and the other one, Gyanendra Prakash, is in the ICU for a bullet injury on his face. The exchange of fire lasted for about an hour till 0100 hours. The first impression of the CRPF was that it had been worsted in the engagement. In any case, the force got busy evacuating the injured personnel, who were moved in an ambulance to Bijapur and from there flown in a helicopter to Raipur for treatment. Significantly, two Maoists who had also sustained injuries and were apprehended were also airlifted to Raipur for treatment. Early in the morning, the CRPF reconnoitred the area and they found 16 dead bodies of suspected Maoists. It is only then that they realised that the operation had not been one-sided.
A total of 19 persons were killed in encounters by all the three parties. Out of these, the state police have given background of five, throwing light on their involvement in Maoist activities. It is true that those killed included a young girl and two youth.
What was the option before the CRPF when it was fired upon? The paramilitary had to fire back, partly in self-defence and partly to silence and, if possible, overwhelm the Maoists. Any other force worth its salt would have reacted in the same manner. As subsequent inquiries revealed, people from three other villages, namely, Kothuguda, Rajpeta and Korsaguda had assembled at Sarkeguda, and it was not an innocent gathering. Presence of Maoists in uniform has been confirmed by independent journalists. It was stated by a Union minister that the CRPF should have ensured that there were no women and children before they opened fire. How could that be done at midnight is beyond comprehension. Two things need to be emphasised here. In any counter-insurgency operation some collateral damage is at times unavoidable; the effort should always be to avoid or at least minimise it. Secondly, it is an established fact that the Maoists have a substantial number of women cadre and that, as mentioned in a United Nations report also, they have been forcibly recruiting children in their ranks.
It is alleged that the CRPF used excessive force and that their firing was indiscriminate. In the first flush of the engagement, the initiative was with the Maoists. The CRPF had to fire back — and fire effectively, which they did. At the dead of night, there was no means of knowing the number of Maoists on the other side or the weapons they were carrying. Besides, the CRPF had been briefed about the movement of the PLGA and they must have thought that they were engaging the Maoist contingent at Sarkeguda. It must be said to the credit of the local commander that CRPF did not use area weapons (rockets and mortars) which they were carrying. Perhaps, need for the same was not felt after the Maoists were silenced.
There are also allegations of sharp edged weapons having been used by the CRPF to slit the throats of some of the dead and also molestation and even rape of some women. These allegations, to say the least, are absurd. Autopsy was conducted by a board of four doctors headed by the medical officer of Bijapur Civil Hospital. Besides, complete still and video photography was done of all the deceased. There are no indications of hacking by sharp weapons or mutilation in any manner. The question of molesting or raping any womenfolk simply does not arise. Nothing of the kind happened. It is organised propaganda to demonise the security forces. It is unfortunate that persons like Ramchandra Guha and E A S Sarma also joined in the chorus of criticism.
The hard facts are that the CRPF was on an intelligence based operation, that they were surprised by the Maoists at Sarkeguda, and that in firing back they acted in good faith. It is tragic that some villagers, including a woman and two boys, lost their lives.
A section of the print media and some TV channels played into the hands of Maoists. The irresistible temptation to sensationalise and blow up the political differences between the Congress and the BJP leaders weighed with them. Considerations of national security and morale of security forces became secondary in the process.
The most unfortunate part of the saga is that it throws doubt on the intentions of the central government in combating the Maoist problem. P Chidambaram appears serious and is clear that without neutralising the PLGA, there can be no development or long term solution of the problem. However, it is clear that he is not getting support of the party high command. Manish Tiwari, spokesman of the Congress, preferred to support the state Congress leaders rather than endorse the stand of Union home minister. Mani Shankar Aiyar was subtle in his criticism of Chidambaram, saying that development had to take precedence over armed action. The prime minister seems in no position to ensure that the government stand is supported by the central and state party leaders. It is indeed tragic that the internal politics of the ruling party is going to sabotage the home ministry’s efforts to deal with the Maoist problem and frustrate the operations of the police and paramilitary forces.
Prakash Singh is a former director general of the Border Security Force. E-mail: email@example.com