Hands and legs chopped, tongue slit, eyes gouged out, beheaded … and if this was not enough parts of intestine removed from dead body of CRPF jawans to implant bomb inside. One of the booby trapped bodies blasted killing three villagers while they were helping CRPF personnel bring back the bodies of their fallen colleagues. The Maoists in Jharkhand with this single encounter and mutilation of the bodies have gained the psychological upper hand. Because while they will put up a brave front, somewhere deep down in their heart, every CRPF jawan will now fear for his dead body.
10.30 am, Monday (January 7), six companies of CRPF and two of Jharkhand Jaguar were combing the Karmatiya jungles which is 55 km away from the Latehar district headquarters – 250 kms southwest from Jharkhand state capital Ranchi.
On the trail of CPI(Maoist) central committee member Arvind alias Dev Kumar Singh, around 300 soldiers from CRPF and Jharkhand Jaguars were ambushed by a contingent of Maoists led by a woman who were firing at them from hill top. The forces had taken the only narrow path that cut through the jungle and then opened into a plain with hills surrounding it. About 600 Maoists were suspected to be hiding in the jungles moving between Bihar and Jharkhand.
This is being seen as a likely retaliation to Operation Anaconda- II in Saranda forests, one of the densest in the Jharkhand.
An injured CRPF jawan said, “We had left in a train from Barwadih at 4.30 a.m. We got off at Hedegarha station and walked 15 km to Kamartiya forest. The firing started within a few minutes of our reaching the base of a hill. There must have been 400-500 Maoists who were in an L-shaped formation. They were firing from a height on the hill and from tree-tops. The firing went on till 3 pm. Ten jawans, who were shot at in the morning, waited till 3.30 p.m. before being put in a local jeep with 10 others and sent to a hospital in Daltonganj after the helicopter failed to land in the forest.”
In this first major encounter with the Maoists this year, seven jawans of the CRPF were killed and 12 critically injured on Monday. Six bodies were still missing as per reports from the CRPF. On Tuesday evening, security forces along with local villagers found body of Baijnath Kisku of CRPF’s 112 battalion in deep Karmatiya jungles. As soon as the body was picked up, it exploded, killing four villagers, part of the search party who never realized that it was booby trapped. The body of the CRPF jawan was blasted to smithereens as Maoists put the body of the critically injured and incapacitated jawan over a landmine.
A jawan, who had been part of an operation for the first time since joining the CRPF in 2011, remembering Kisku said, “He carried me after I was shot in right elbow and he had gone back again.”
Death toll of CRPF jawans in the encounter had risen to 10 by Tuesday (January 8), including a jawan from Jharkhand Jaguars. A senior CRPF official, referring to the landmine blast, put the figures rather heartbreakingly. “We can confirm the death of 10 jawans. However, we have found only nine bodies so far,” he told.
Sources said, in all probability the jawan bled to death while lying on the mine adding that even if he had gained consciousness and tried to move, he would have died.
Following the blasts, the forces retreated on Tuesday night and the combing operation was restarted with reinforcements on Wednesday (January 9). After the insurgents retreated into the woods, the CRPF on Wednesday found three bodies of slain CRPF jawans. One amongst the three, Babulal Patel, 29, a constable, had stitches in his abdomen.
His body was flown to Ranchi by helicopter and taken to the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) for an autopsy. When the doctors saw the stitches, they were alarmed and called the top security officials, said Binay Kumar, a doctor in RIMS.
Using X-rays, members of a bomb disposal squad detected an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., in the soldier’s stomach. It took over two hours for the bomb disposal unit to remove the explosive and defuse it outside.
“The I.E.D. connected with detonator batteries and a small solar panel weighing about 2.45 kilograms was extracted with utmost care from the body of the CRPF personnel,” said Dr. Kumar. “Even a small mistake or a little pressure could have exploded the bomb device, triggering a major casualty inside the hospital,” adding he said, “A part of his intestine was removed, the bomb implanted and the abdomen was stitched with surgical precision.”
“The balance of terror has tilted in their favour,” said a senior CRPF officer grimly, referring to the Latehar encounter in which not only were 13 CRPF jawans killed but the Maoists did something they had never done before. They had implanted a photosensitive, pressure bomb prototype in the abdomen of a dead CRPF jawan.
“Four jawans were killed in the afternoon and their bodies were missing but it was not possible to reach them in the darkness. There was firing and blasts when we tried to retrieve the bodies the next day. We managed to get to the bodies only by Wednesday, so the Maoists had two intervening nights when their medical teams may have planted the pressure device inside. We never expected this to happen,” said IG Operations.
The operation, that escalated and intensified with reinforcements on Wednesday (January 9), got its first achievement when the CRPF found couple of grenades, pieces of blasted grenades and fired cases of bullets recovered from Latehar that had clear markings to show that they were manufactured in Pakistan.
As per sources — “All ammunition contains details of the originating country, so do all the recovered ammunition from Latehar. It is for the first time that ammunition with Pakistani markings had been recovered from Maoists. In the past, some Chinese ammunition had been recovered.”
In another major development, first arrest in Latehar encounter was made on Thursday (January 10) by state police. Nanu Ram aliasPrabhatji alias Prabhat Mochi, 47, Secretary of the Maoists’ Koel-Sankh Zonal Committee, was taken into custody where he revealed startling facts. Mochi confessed that experiments on inserting bombs into bodies were conducted on dogs and goats in the past six months in Chakrabandha forests in Gaya district of Bihar. Trained medics were part of this ‘operation’.
Two other Maoists of PLGA, Harinath Singh and Dinesh Singh were also nabbed on the same day under Latehar police station. They were involved in laying landmines around Amuatikar area where the encounter took place, said Latehar SP.
The Maoist strategy of using a dead force personnel as a suicide bomber is seen as a crossing of all limits. But there are other reasons for being alarmed. The Latehar massacre, in a single stunning blow has exposed, fallacy of Government’s strategy against combating Maoists.
The Maoists have been known to leave behind booby traps in the form of landmines at a scene of a battle, which is one reason why security forces are wary of rushing in immediately on hearing of news of an encounter. But Latehar brings bad tidings. That is because Arvind, the CC member of CPI(Maoist), who is suspected to be the brain behind the attack, was leader from the MCC (which merged with the People’s War Group to form the CPI (Maoist) in 2004) were never known for their IED showmanship. In contrast, the People’s War Group which operated in Andhra Pradesh was notorious for using IEDs, almost like a signature. But Arvind has proven his expertise on these over the time.
The body of the CRPF jawan was found to contain a one kg shell of explosive. A ‘surgery’ like the one carried out in Latehar would have taken more than an hour and indicates the presence of several ‘experts’ among the Maoists who surrounded the troops and carried out the encounter. It also indicates a more inhuman and barbaric side to the movement.
But more alarming than anything is that, the analysis of the incidents, point out to an Operation that failed its men on ground. It indicates that the Maoists were well-prepared and forces walked right into a trap with Maoist sitting on high vantage point. It shows lack of knowledge of the local terrain on part of the CRPF.
The sources in forces said they had inputs of about only 40 to 50, whereas the Naxals were more than 300 in number. “Using LMG in itself indicates a plan for a bigger action. It makes no sense if frontline boys were sent without bullet-proof jackets,” a security expert pointed out. IG Ops though, blames it on a paucity of the jackets.
Tired and frustrated, the CRPF personnel had been chasing the Maoists for over a month but with not much success. “All that we had was a generic input about the presence of a large number of heavily-armed Maoists in the Kamartiya forest,” narrated a CRPF jawan who was part of the force that came under heavy fire from the Maoist on January 7.
The plan was that the force would head for the forest by touching hamlets to gather precise intelligence. “Navadi, barely 5 km from where we were, was to be our first stop. On reaching the village, we spoke to villagers but none helped. So, Amowatikar village, located 5km further, was to be our next halt. The village is surrounded by hillocks so if we enter it through the road, we would come into a killing zone. Thus we decided to approach the village from the rear,” his colleague said.
“Moments before we completed the trek to reach the village, around 11am, eight carbines opened up on us. An ambush party was lying in wait. All this took place within the Kurumkheta protected forest area before the Katiya forest. Obviously, our intelligence had goofed up,” he added.
Two jawans collapsed with bullet injuries and two others were hit. They retreated to take cover only to discover that the ultras had opened up another flank from the hill. “Maoists were well-armed carrying LMGs, AK-47s and even mortars. Most importantly, they had the advantage of choosing time and location of the battle. They had even placed sharp-shooters on trees. We were no match,” he said.
The besieged forces fought for almost four hours, retaliating till they managed to get back the personnel who were still alive. Some jawans were furious over poor planning and coordination of the operation.
The Maoists had seized a walkie-talkie from a dead jawan on January 7. A top official confides that when forces were communicating over the walkie-talkie about their missing colleagues after the attack, the audio records exposed clear audible background noises, suggesting the rebels were coordinating and repositioning their armed groups for a chase.
Could there be ‘leakage or rebel’s access to prior knowledge of’ forces strategic movements? A top Jharkhand police officer goes to the extent of admitting, “It is a result of poor ground intelligence of the police, CRPF, IB and others. Latehar is a case of double cross. Forces acted in haste.”
However IG Operation contradicts this. “We had information on the presence of Maoists in the hillocks. We were caught at the entry point,” he said.
Sources said that Jharkhand government had IB reports about Maoists movement in notorious Koel Sankh Zone long back. But amidst political instability that has been prevailing in the state over the feud between coalition parties JMM and BJP, the state home ministry ignored and neglected IB alerts.
The communication gap left the onus on the CRPF jawans on ground to get their inputs based on how the villagers in an area were behaving, looking out for footprints and other tell-tale signs. The alertness of government has once again come under question — timely intervention by the government could have saved the lives of jawans battling insurgency in the state. This is one example when political instability and government negligence cost unprecedented loss for forces on ground.
What does this mean for India’s fight against its most serious internal security threat?
Strategists in the paramilitary outfit while terming the incident “unprecedented” said the time for ‘gentleman soldiers’ is over.
“This is an asymmetrical war that calls for asymmetrical responses. This could mean not going by the rulebook in letter and spirit. We have to hit them below the belt,” said a senior CRPF officer who has served in several Maoist-infested zones.
The central home ministry has now asked CRPF to continue its offensive against Maoists in Latehar to push them out in a “fight-to-finish” war. A reinforcement of 1,000 CRPF men been sent to continue operations in Latehar and extend it to Garhwa. The ministry has also asked CRPF to launch a similar offensive in Sukma. The operations are expected to continue till June this year.
“The operations will be intensified. We will take forward the strikes. There will be no letup in anti-Naxal operations,” CRPF DG Pranay Sahay told reporters after he briefed home secretary R K Singh about the Naxal ambush.
Meanwhile the trail for Arvind alias Dev Kumar Singh is still on. 55 year old Maoist, considered among the top 10 Maoist leaders in Jharkhand has been with the outfit for 25 years and carries an award of Rs 12 lakh on his head.