Shells of spent bullets at the site of the ambush in Sukma district of Bastar. (Pictures courtesy: Deshbandhu)
Raipur, March 12: Bleeding profusely from bullet wounds as his colleagues lay dead or badly injured, Manilal Thakur did what he thought was best.
“I stayed calm and pretended to be dead,” Thakur, one of the two survivors of the Maoist ambush in the Jeeram valley area of Sukma district in the Bastar region, told The Telegraph today. “I survived.”
It was not short of a miracle that this district police constable and another CRPF commando, Manoj Tomar, survived the ambush that killed 15 security personnel and a civilian in the same area that a Congress convoy was wiped out last year.
Recuperating in the Ramkrishna Care hospital after complex surgical procedures last evening, the two said the well-armed Maoists outnumbered them and fired at will from a very close distance. Lying in adjacent beds, they believe the rebels too suffered casualties in retaliatory fire from troopers who held their position for about an hour.
Tomar, who hails from Bhind district in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region, was certain he had shot dead at least four rebel fighters. “I could see them fall,” he claimed. He later passed out after taking shrapnel and bullets in his abdomen.
Thakur, whose intestine was bludgeoned, said he stopped breathing when a rebel came close to check if he was alive. “A Maoist hit me with his rifle and thought I was dead,” he said. “So, he left me.”
About an hour later, security force reinforcements found Thakur and Tomar alive, amid 15 dead troopers and a civilian, identified as Jagdalpur-based small trader Vikram Nishad.
The families of Tomar and Thakur were by their bedside in the hospital today, thanking providence that the duo escaped alive.
Tomar said Chhattisgarh was the most challenging terrain for a commando. “I have been part of anti-insurgency ops in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir but this is the most difficult part because we don’t enjoy powers the way we do there,” he said.
He was possibly referring to the legal shield the forces enjoy in disturbed areas.
Doctors treating the duo said their condition was stable but it would take a while for them to be totally fit. Their abdomens and intestines had been badly ruptured, the doctors said.
Thakur hails from Dantewada and has been posted at Tongpal for about a year now. Tomar too was posted there about a year ago after a stint with the special protection group guarding Sonia Gandhi.
Tomar said he was somewhere in the middle of the first party leading the road-opening patrol in the Jeeram valley area. “We started from our base camp around 8.30am,” he said. They maintained a distance of 100-200 metres between each other, walking in a file, he said.
The other party was trailing the first by some distance. “We are assigned road-opening patrol almost every day since the Jeeram valley attack last year and we would do it every day in our target area,” he said.
A source in Chhattisgarh police said the mistake the jawans made was they did not vary their drill and followed a predictable routine. “You can’t walk on the roads the way these guys did,” the officer said, trying to explain why they had got killed.
“We have asked the forces to introspect and not repeat the mistakes,” Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters in Jagdalpur after paying homage to the martyrs.
From the accounts of police officers and in view of the terrain, it appears the Maoists followed the road-opening party for some distance before encircling them, laying a cut-off between the second party and finally firing indiscriminately.
“It is almost impossible for the rebels to lay an ambush the way they did with advance planning,” a police officer with years of experience in anti-Maoist ops in Chhattisgarh explained.
“Remember these are dynamic conditions, not static ones. Of course there was a mistake on our part, lest this would not have happened.”
Had the troopers been moving in formations in the forests instead of along the road, the Maoists would not have been able to encircle and ambush the well-armed trained men, he said.
Chhattisgarh police sources said the Maoists had begun their annual tactical counter-offensive campaign, during which they try and consolidate their position and foist attacks on the forces.
Shinde said the National Investigation Agency, which is probing last year’s Jeeram valley attack, would probe yesterday’s incident in co-ordination with the Chhattisgarh SIT.
He said there was intelligence that the Maoists could attack the forces and disrupt the general election. “But there was no specific input about Tuesday’s attack.”