Ambush in Bijapur: Why aren't we still learning lessons?

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                                                                                 Maj. Gen. (retd.) Dhruv C. Katoch
In one of the most serious incidents causing fatalities to security forces, the CPI (Maoists) gunned down 22 personnel from the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and local police, and injured 31 of them. This has been the most serious loss of lives since the dastardly attack on CRPF personnel in 2010, in which 76 personnel were killed. The recent incident was sparked by a search operation launched to flush out Madvi Hidma, a Naxal commander wanted for his involvement in many deadly attacks on the forces. Intelligence reports had indicated that he was in the area for over two weeks along with people from the Maoist No 1 PLGA (People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army).
Media reports indicate that a search operation was launched with about 1700 personnel to flush out both Hidma as well as the Maoists from No 1 PLGA battalion. Later reports indicated that the security forces operation was launched with about 400 men on the evening of 3 April. Next day, 4 April, at about 11.45 am, when the troops were returning to their camp, they were ambushed by Hidma and his men, believed to be about 400 or so in number. The security forces were fired upon from three sides which resulted in the heavy casualties sustained.
Of the security forces killed in action (KIA), eight were from the District Reserve Guard (DRG), seven were form the CRPF’s Cobra (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) Battalion, six were from the Special East Force and one from the Bastariya Battalion of the CRPF. In terms of rank, of the 22 KIA, one was a sub-inspector, two were head constables and the rest were constables. According to the Director-General of Police, Mr Kuldip Singh, there was no intelligence failure or operational failure. In a statement to ANI, he stated: “There is no point in saying that there was some kind of intelligence or operational failure. Had it been some intelligence failure, forces would have not gone for the operation. And if there was some operational failure, so many Naxals would have not been killed”.
The entire incident throws up some very troubling questions. Mr Kuldip Singh, the DGP, is right when he says that there was no intelligence failure. It was intelligence inputs of the presence of Madvi Hidma along with persons from the PLGA which led to the operation. In any case, this area is a known stronghold of the Maoists, so there should not have been any surprise in the fact that Hidma and his men were present there. But Mr Singh stating that there was no operational failure, certainly raises many eyebrows. Unless operational issues are dissected with brutal honesty, we will continue to have a repeat of such instances in future also.
The logic given by the DGP was that since many Naxals were also killed, it means that there were no operational lapses. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Only one dead body of a terrorist has been recovered, so in the absence of evidence, it would be difficult to take the DGPs statement at face value. On the other hand, the Maoists, after ambushing the police personnel, had total control of the battlefield. They not only made away with the weapons and equipment of the dead policemen, but in some cases also made off with their shoes. Command and control from the point of view of the security forces had evidently collapsed as there were no reserves to be brought into play, which would have prevented, at the very least, the loss of weapons and equipment. Even worse was the fact that the dead and injured were recovered for the most part, only on the following day. This indicates poor leadership and loss of command and control.
There is a serious leadership deficit in the CAPF, when it comes to the actual conduct of military operations. In the instant case, it is doubtful if any officer of the rank of IG or DIG police was present to conduct the operations. It is doubtful if even any officer of the rank of Commandant was present to lead the troops. We still do not know if any persons above the rank of inspector was present in the area of operations, to lead the composite force.
The training of personnel employed in such operations also leaves much to be desired. How could the Maoists, if they numbered over 400, not be detected in an area which should have been under the domination of the CAPF? This again points to poor leadership and weak tactical skills. The area should have been under domination, both by day and night, through own surveillance patrols, which would have enabled the early detection of the Maoists, before they had gone into their ambush sites. More emphasis needs to be given to basic battle drills, and fieldcraft training. As of now, there is an excellent training academy at Kanker, Chattisgarh, but a large number of personnel trained in this establishment, find themselves posted to units involved in VIP security!
Organisationally, it would be better if the CAPF personnel deployed in the area, function in a grid system on the lines of the Army in J&K. CRPF battalions should not be split, and they must function as a composite whole, under their own commanding officers. They must be trained as units to enable them to fight a coordinated battle.
We must remember that an additional 80,000 personnel were recruited for the CRPF, as they were made the lead force to fight the Maoists. We need to carry out an audit of how these 80, 000 men have been employed since then. The personnel of the CAPFs are well motivated and imbued with great fighting spirit. All that they need is good leadership and training along with good communication means and surveillance devices to weld them into an unbeatable force. This is what we must do with immediate effect. We cannot keep relearning lessons after the blood of our soldiers has been shed.
(The author is a retired Major General who has served in active operational areas in J&K, North East India and in Op Pawan in Sri Lanka. He is presently Director, India Foundation.)