A week with the CRPF in the jungles of Chhattisgarh gives BRIJESH PANDEY a first hand view of what the forces are fighting in India’s bloodiest internal conflict
THE RAIN is coming down in uneven patterns, making an irregular rhythm in the middle of the jungle. It’s been three hours and we have been walking warily. Looking here, there, waiting for the enemy. Ramesh Kumar Singh, now a veteran with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), one of the world’s biggest paramilitary forces, hasn’t said a word for three hours. I’ve been trying to get him to talk; I now walk behind him, wondering. Oddly, the rain helps us focus. We are in the heart of Maoist territory in Chhattisgarh, where fierce Maoist squads have been slaughtering CRPF men. There are 16 men in Ramesh’s detail. We have walked 15 km through slush and we head for the shelter of a tree as the rain gets heavy.
Suddenly, Ramesh turns to me. “You can see the terrain for yourself. All of a sudden, a tribal comes before us and we don’t know if he is a Naxal. If we open fire and an innocent is killed, we are doomed and if we don’t open fire and let that person go, he could jolly well turn out to be a big Naxal leader who will plot our death and even then we are doomed. It’s not death per se that we are afraid of, but the ignominy after death, which hurts us. A Naxal’s death is covered properly and people want no Naxals to be killed. But what about us? We are the expendables, like 25 and 50 paise coins. We count for nothing, at least not in Delhi,” he says.
It’s my first moment inside the mind of the CRPF. For days, men like Ramesh have been written about, spoken about, trashed at length, and generally ridiculed for the beating they’ve been taking at the hands of the Maoists. Now it comes. Ramesh says he’s been in Kashmir, a sort of gold standard for the services. He has a wife, a son Shubh and a daughter Janki, barely 18 months old. “She was so soft that I was afraid I might hurt her when I hold her,” he says, breaking into a toothy smile. Many years ago, he applied to serve in the CRPF because his best friend was selected in the Indian Army. Both wanted to serve India.
“It was a very volatile in Kashmir but we knew who we were fighting. Most importantly, we knew that New Delhi was behind us. Here, in Chhattisgarh, it is different. We were dumped here. We are treated as if we are fighting a personal battle with the Naxalites.” Estimates suggest there could be a thousand militants in the Valley. There are several more in the Red Corridor. In Kashmir, the CRPF has 70 units on law and order duty. In Chhattisgarh, the CRPF has about 18 units. That is like 18,000 men to fight the Maoists and 70,000 to keep peace in Kashmir.
Almost always, Ramesh has to walk. Here, a walk can be risky. But using a vehicle could be deadly. The Maoists have been blowing up many CRPF vehicles and the force is wary of driving around its men. So they walk. And they brood. Their enemy hasn’t backed off yet. In the telling and retelling of the stories, the legends of the Maoists get bigger and the CRPF has fewer victories to talk of. “They don’t leave battles halfway. Once the fighting starts, they never back off,” says an officer who doesn’t want to be named.
We have by now got back to a camp because the rain is heavy and won’t allow a long patrol. It is dark. The camp is fortified by Concertina wires, a type of barbed wire. There is a check post at the entrance, manned by four commandos, each armed with an assault rifle and finger on the trigger. A 32-year-old jawan is passing by. He too has served in Kashmir. “We never felt that we are the unwanted children of India. Here, in the jungles of Bastar, we are like destitutes,” he says.
It’s strange. The CRPF has three lakh personnel but it may be allowing the Maoists too much mindspace already. There’s a sense of resentment. The spirit appears to be low, not a good state to fight a war. “You tell me what I should concentrate on. Should I fight for the flag, or worry about food and water? I don’t know when I could be shot. I know that I earn my livelihood from the force and I should not talk like this, but tell me, what should I tell my wife who has become paranoid after the Dantewada massacre? Every time she knows I am going for a patrol or an area domination exercise, she goes hysterical.
“Seventy-six members of the 62nd unit died and all we heard was how incompetent we were. How we were not trained properly, how we didn’t know a thing about road opening drills and how we violated standard operating procedures. Do the higher-ups living in Delhi even know what they are talking about? Are they even remotely aware of the ground reality? The country is not behind us.” By now he is shouting with rage. He says the force doesn’t have enough units to secure a stretch of road once it has been cleared.
The jawans have heard of the report submitted by EN Rammohan, former Director General of the Border Security Force, on the “leadership failure” and “lack of coordination between the CRPF and the state police” that led to the massacre. “We are here to assist the administration, but there is no reciprocity on their part.”
RAKESH CHAUBEY, 27, from Bihar has spent six years in the force and was posted in the Northeast before this. His father died when he was 14 and he has since been responsible for his mother and two younger brothers. He says he would have quit a year ago if he didn’t have to feed his family. A year in the force can mean a lot. Now, the basics are haunting Rakesh. In sorties, it’s like he is in a zone. He has a sharp instinct for danger. His mates say he is like an animal, sensing threat a mile away. Curiously, all that vanishes when he reaches his camp. He can’t get a hang of how pathetic it can be. “Often, we drink water from a pond used by animals. We wouldn’t advise it to anyone. Half the time, our jawans are vomiting.”
“Have you ever seen a war being fought like this? We don’t know if we are here to assist the state police on law and order or to flush out Naxals, or merely to oscillate between troubled territories, getting our jawans killed for no fault of theirs. If this is a war, please tell me why the whole of Bastar range has not been declared a war zone? If it is a disturbed zone, please declare so. If the Bastar region is not that, then please stop calling Naxalism the biggest challenge the country faces,” he says.
Fear stalks the CRPF. Small Naxal groups ambush whole CRPF units, using surprise to strike at a vulnerable target and then disappear into the jungle. It’s not as if the CRPF is not aware of the nature of combat: units deployed in Chhattisgarh undergo a two month “preinduction” or “conversion” training. They are taught the topography of the place and situation, jungle warfare, and how to survive in the terrain.
But no amount of training can work without adequate backup. Senior officers are angry that, even though a whole company was wiped out in Dantewada, the DG did not deem it fit to station another unit there. It would have come as a major morale booster and conveyed the message to the lowest rung that future strikes will lead to strong retaliation. But nothing of the sort happened.
Unlike Maoists, who have a precise conception of the political goal of war, the CRPF jawans are supposed to be apolitical, obeying orders without question. But whispers about political games being played and corrupt practices do infiltrate through the concertina wire that surrounds their camps. They know there are factors beyond their control that are not officially acknowledged. Like connivance between the local administration and the Naxals. They cite an incident when an MLA went to a Naxal-dominated area, which was heavily mined in his black Scorpion without security, and returned unscathed. Even when the Naxals declare a complete bandh, vehicles of the forest department move freely because they apparently help in exploitation of forest resources.
“One incident will best define how good our morale is and how powerful we feel while operating on the mined roads of Chattisgarh. We were posted in Chintalnar .There is only one bus which plys once a day. That bus was carrying ration for the whole camp. The bus starts at 6 am. Just 5 km before our camp, the Naxals put up a check post and took away the ration. The whole camp depended on that ration, but we couldn’t do a thing. When we can’t save our food, imagine the kind of morale we will be in, when it comes to saving our life,” Rakesh says.
The feeling is strong that the CRPF is discriminated against. For instance, the CRPF moves directly from one conflict zone to another, meaning that 90 percent jawans have spent entire careers in combat zones. In the army, three years of tough posting entitles one to a family station.
Then, before the army moves into position, proper barracks, mess and other facilities are prepared. Army supply corps move in to make proper arrangements for food and other essentials, which is not the case with the CRPF. A commanding officer of a regiment would identify much more with the welfare of his unit than the IPS officers posted as commandants of CRPF unit for three-year terms. Typically, they keep contact with CRPF jawans to a minimum.
IN A force known for its discipline, speaking your mind can lead you into serious trouble. But Mahesh Prasad, who has seen action in two other war zones, blurts out this is the worst he has seen. “For the last one and a half years, we have been dumped here with bare minimum facilities,” he says bitterly. “Several times, we had to eat rice with tamarind juice. Is this how we fight a war? Would they treat the Army the same way?”
“Even if my father dies today, I will not be able to move out of my camp for several hours and the agonising wait can extend up to four days. Where is morale after that? When you hear about the way the survivors of the Dantewada massacres were treated, you become all the more aware that nobody cares if you live or die. When these kinds of news circulate, it hurts. Even if I have to go on leave, there is no facility that I can be dropped to in Raipur, safe and sound. I am fighting with Naxals but when I go on leave or when I am on my way back from home, I travel that distance at the mercy of God or the Naxals. What morale are you talking about?”
More damningly, CRPF jawans feel expendable because they think Naxals are killing them only to exert the “right amount of pressure.” This is why, goes the thinking, Naxals are not targeting senior officers — no IG, DIG or DM — although they have the firepower and reach. “Even they know that killing us would not warrant a deadly reply. You start killing IPS officers and see what happens.” Such gloomy conclusions are incubated in despair. “By God, the layman reading newspapers or watching television must surely think a bunch of bumbling idiots have been sent to fight highly motivated and efficient Naxals,” says Prasad. The last straw, he says, was a DGP telling the world he can’t teach us how to walk.
“For the last one and a half year, the theatre of war has changed considerably, but no fresh assessment has been done”, says a senior CRPF officer. “Nobody asks how much additional force is required. No concrete plan is on board.” He says they need better communication system and an excellent intelligence network because the Naxals are becoming better armed by the day. It was still raining when I left for Raipur to catch my flight to Delhi. I couldn’t help a last thought: the CRPF might never win a war like this.