Tiptoe into forbidden hills
|JAIDEEP HARDIKAR IN NARAYANPUR, CHHATTISGARH|
The irony was not lost on anyone, though some did see a fitting metaphor. So, first went the unmanned flying machines into the officially unmanned territory.
Then went the men — 3,000 of them — from three flanks, armed with the Swedish Carl Gustav rocket launchers and C-90 rifles. Since it would be a weeklong venture into the unknown, without maps or a mobile phone network, they carried GPS devices and topography sheets based on satellite images.
This was not a small-step-but-giant-leap moment but a little-documented effort that showed how deceptive and how utterly ordinary some missions can appear in India's war within when viewed from afar.
Last month, 3,000-odd troops from the CRPF and two states' police claimed to have forayed for the first time into an uncharted 5,000sqkm terrain called Abujh-Maadh — literally, the "unknown hills" — in the Narayanpur district of Bastar, Chhattisgarh.
The country's largest Maoist "liberated zone", home to a primitive tribe that has remained on the margins of the agricultural age, had remained a forbidden forest for the government for the past two decades. When the government could go in, it didn't care to do so; when it wanted to, it was too afraid to step in.
So much so that the very entry of the troops on March 10, and their unharmed return a week later, is being considered by the authorities as a success. But some have seen the irony.
"It's a travesty of sorts," a senior Chhattisgarh police officer said. "For years we as a country neglected the area and the tribes; now we must send UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to see what's in there."
"It was a full-scale operation," T.J. Longkumer, inspector-general (Bastar), Chhattisgarh police, told The Telegraph in Jagdalpur last week. "We were fully prepared for any big attack on us."
The three teams of troops faced a dozen minor skirmishes and an hour-long gunfight, and suffered just two injuries. They could not arrest any Maoist leader but picked up a dozen village militia members and seized trunk-loads of books, notes and cadres' diaries.
The security forces hint that the operation by the CRPF's Cobra unit and the police of Chhattisgarh and adjoining Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra was a precursor to future missions to "hit" the Maoists' bases. "It's the beginning," a CRPF source claimed.
For now, what Operation Haka — the name means "drive them away" — seems to have partly expelled is the fear of the unknown, fuelled further by legends about the Maoists' prowess in their fortress of the dark, green hills.
"More than an operation, it was an exploration of the unknown," the CRPF inspector-general (operations) in Raipur, Pankaj Kumar Singh, said. "We needed to understand the terrain — and debunk myths we ourselves had built up."
Myths and claims
Many researchers and scholars — sociologists and anthropologists studying primitive tribes and their art forms, medicos tracking cerebral malaria, historians looking for lost tribal kingdoms — have travelled on foot across the Maadh. But that was before the rebels made it their stronghold some two decades ago, local revenue officials say.
The Maadh now is virtually devoid of state presence. So, new stories had added to the old myths about many-headed Maadh snakes: that it's a place strewn with landmines at every step and dotted by the rebels' arms factories and training camps, a land the guerrillas' janatana sarkar (people's government) watches over with a hundred eyes and a thousand ears.
Now, officials say, the myths are slowly being laid to rest as the contours of a more realistic picture emerge.
Yet, not all of it can be dismissed as myth. Tactical retreat is a classical option in guerrilla warfare. As officers admit, the rebels may have preferred sizing up the enemy to attacking such a large contingent straightaway. They also admit that the Maoists have mobile weapons-making units.
Throughout the operation, the police teams noticed three or four persons tailing them from morning till evening, sometimes peering at them through binoculars from behind hillocks.
"They definitely have a big presence there. We were followed," Singh acknowledged.
Besides, the troops religiously stuck to the routes assigned to them, never getting off the designated path to enter the jungles and "firing only when fired upon". In a terrain stretching 95km north to south and 55km east to west, each of the three teams ventured 80-110km and yet they together covered barely 15 per cent of the area.
Interrogation of some small-time cadres suggested there were no-go areas for them in the Maadh, implying the presence of top rebels, said Narayanpur superintendent of police Mayank Shrivastava, who led one of the three teams.
But chances are, said a Chhattisgarh police source involved in intelligence-gathering ahead of Haka, that the Maoists knew about the operation and left the Maadh ahead of it.
The operation was conceived by the two inspectors-general, Singh of the CRPF and Longkumer of the Chhattisgarh police.
The troops' acclimatisation began a month before the operation. They were put on anti-malarial drugs; satellite images were scrutinised; doctors and helpers were drafted to accompany all the three teams.
UAV sorties helped the forces identify eight plateaus on the Maadh where choppers could land in an emergency. The air force was put on alert.
First, two smaller operations, "Kilam" in Bastar and "Podku" in north Bijapur, were carried out from March 5 to 10 to clear the three selected entry points of possible Maoist presence.
A Cobra team led by S.S. Gill, the commandant of its 206 battalion, set off on March 10 from Dhondraj in Gadchiroli, entering the Maadh through the southwest. One other team entered from the northeast corner near Narayanpur town and the third from north Bijapur in the south.
Each trooper lugged along a 22kg load, which included his daily dry rations, Singh said. The Maadh has no food to offer, but plenty of water.
The troops' movements were monitored 24x7 from Singh's Raipur office. "We got an update on each team's location every 15 minutes," Singh said.
Scouring through several hamlets inhabited by the hill tribe, called Abujh-Maadhias or Abujh-Marias, the three teams met at a village, Jatwar, on March 16 morning. Here was where they faced the only serious attack but the rebels backed off after an hour, according to the official statement.
From Jatwar began the return journey, which ended in Kurusnar, a foothills village about 40km from Narayanpur town, where CRPF director-general K. Vijay Kumar received the troops on March 18.
The trek spawned many surprises. For instance, many of the hamlets turned out to be several notches off their coordinates as marked in the old topography maps in Raj-era gazettes. Some did not exist.
What looked like a plateau in satellite images turned out to be a muddy patch; what had seemed a wall proved to be a dense bamboo forest.
The Maoists levelled allegations of torture, which the forces denied, but neither version could be verified because the villages mentioned in the rebel statement could not be reached.
The forces are hoping that the two trunk-loads of documents seized from the hamlets may provide insights into the lives and strategies of the guerrillas. Among the seizures are:
* Designs indicative of experiments into manufacturing new crude arms. For instance, the forces recovered a prototype of what Shrivastava said looks like an anti-tank device
* A 1960s book on low-intensity warfare that meticulously details strategies and tactics to be deployed against large forces
* A book on how to bring down choppers
* A guide on how to prepare for civil services examinations
* Diaries of cadres
* Notes on learning Telugu and English, as well as Goendi (spoken by most Gonds, the predominant tribe in the region) and Maadia (spoken by Maadias, a Gond sub-group)
* Notes on computer software programmes
* Ideology-related books for recruits
* Notes from senior cadres
* A bagful of CDs and audio cassettes. "We are yet to decipher what they contain, but it must be propaganda material," said Shrivastava
* Plastic explosives bearing the stamp of Pune's Kirki ordnance factory
* A battery-driven ink-jet computer printer found in Ikonar village, a suspected rebel stronghold.
What did Haka achieve? A psychological victory, claim CRPF and state police officers.
"We now know the terrain, the hamlets, and where all the plateaus exist," Longkumer said.
The army is securing a tract on the foothills of Abujh-Maadh to set up a training facility. "We want local youths in all the forces --– police, central paramilitary and the army," Longkumer said, hinting that recruitment drives could be on the anvil.
But local tribal leaders say such operations will not help unless a political dialogue with the tribals goes hand in hand with the security operations.
"Else, you will be distancing the local population," a former MLA from Gadchiroli warned, saying the tribals would construe a purely police action as an attack on them.
"If political leaders across party lines hold rallies to establish a dialogue with the local tribals, it will allay their fears."
After Haka, a tribal leader in Bastar said, the Maoists held a series of meetings in Maadh villages. Soon enough, the hill tribals organised at least four protest rallies in Narayanpur town pressing several demands, including one against the security operation, Shrivastava said.
But it was good that the tribals came out of the hills to protest, he added. The police took the opportunity to distribute mosquito nets and other material among the protesters.
The larger question is how to bring these primitive tribal groups (PTGs) back into the development fold, and what development means to them.
"There is no dearth of money for the PTGs," a local Congress leader in Narayanpur, Rajanu Naitam, said. "The problem is how to utilise it."
The Centre runs a scheme for each of the country's 75 PTGs through independent development authorities. For the Abujh-Maadias, more than Rs 2 crore is spent annually through a local development authority, but the money doesn't reach those it is meant for.
In the absence of access to the Maadh, the authority spends the money in and around Narayanpur town, with the thrust on building infrastructure such as schools. But hardly any hill tribal students attend these schools.
Local politicians say the country must work out a different development paradigm for the primitive tribal groups. The first step, they say, is to talk to them.