Beginning today, a four-part series from the heartland of Maoist insurgency, described by the Prime Minister as the biggest internal security threat.
“Baburam Bhattarai and Prachanda were trained at Jhumra,” claims Ranveer Singh, the commandant of the 72nd battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), entrusted with the task of holding on to the small village on top of a range of hills bearing its name.
“We are certain because the villagers are not only familiar with the names but they have also recognised the two Nepali Maoists in photographs,” points out the commandant.
With Bhattarai and Prachanda now part of the national government in Nepal, there is anxiety that out-of-work Maoists from the neighbouring country could pour in to train comrades here.
“It will be worse if they start inviting Indian Maoists to Nepal and start training them officially,” says the deputy inspector-general (coalfield), Anil Palta. The Bokaro superintendent of police, M.S. Bhatia, concurs — both have long experience of dealing with the Naxalites.
Surrendered extremists have spoken of regular visits by people from Nepal, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and even by “white” people to Jhumra, used as a sanctuary and a training camp by the extremists. Security forces stumbled last month on a lathe machine and a hand-drill, indicating a factory to produce firearms. An even more deadly recovery was a mortar, crafted locally and capable of firing 90 rounds a minute.
The tough terrain of Jhumra hills, covered with dense forest, had provided the extremists the perfect place to set up a training base. They occupied the commanding heights and could spot movement of security forces from afar, giving them ample time to disperse and disappear.
The sparse population of poor people had fled the plains to escape the clutches of money-lenders and were initially grateful to the extremists who extended them “protection”.
After remaining an impregnable fortress for over two decades, Jhumra fell a year ago when the CRPF and Jharkhand police jointly launched an assault.
Six months later, the CRPF battalion was asked to establish a permanent station on the hilltop. Now there is a proposal to set up a jungle-warfare school there.
“A permanent camp at Jhumra means that security forces can control the entire 900-sq-km expanse and reach different corners of the hill faster.
“Earlier, it took us nine hours to mobilise forces at Bokaro and rush them to the hilltop,” explains Bhatia.
The strategy, other officials hinted, is being replicated elsewhere. The presence of a large security camp in the heart of Naxalite territory upset the rebels’ movement and also boosted the morale of the people.
“Some villagers have actually thanked us for our presence because, they said, now they don’t have to provide shelter and food to the extremists or attend long classes on Maoism,” recalled an official with a chuckle.
Indeed, villagers now sell vegetables, milk, chicken and mutton to the CRPF camp at higher prices than they received earlier. What’s more, they had to spend five hours in commuting every day, first climbing down the hill and then climbing up again.
“Jhumra is like Siachen but far worse,” claims an officer. The men are, therefore, replaced every three months. Fighting an invisible enemy can take a toll of your nerves, says Ashok Kumar, the assistant commandant who led the post for the past three months.
The constant vigil against snipers, landmines, pressure bombs, Claymore mines and ambushes lurking round the corner, he adds grimly, is a tough call, often tougher than in the Northeast, from where the battalion moved to Bokaro.
“There is no road and even climbing the hill is a nightmare. When you climb the hill, you tend to bend forward and look down,” explains Ranveer Singh, “but our men are not yet used to looking up while climbing and they could be sitting ducks.”
But there is little that can be done to calm nerves. “We cannot even provide them with television sets because that could turn out to be a fatal distraction,” he adds.
But, Ashok Kumar says, “we have served in Kashmir and the Northeast and realise that in order to survive, we have to constantly think like the extremists.”