A motorcycle belonging to a civilian who was killed. (Pictures courtesy: Deshbandhu)
Bastar, March 15: Village children and their families apparently knew of the impending attack but the police and the CRPF didn’t.
More than half the pupils failed to turn up at the government-run school in Tongapal on the morning a Maoist ambush killed 15 security personnel and a civilian motorbike rider 4km from the village.
The CRPF, which has a camp in Tongapal, has learnt that school staff have confirmed to their higher-ups at the Sukma district headquarters that no children from the surrounding villages came on Tuesday.
The central force and Sukma district police — who lost 11 and four men, respectively — are probing whether these children’s families had been alerted by the village militia who support the rebels.
But the “clue”, if it is to be seen as one, came too late. The staff noticed the mass absenteeism at 10.30am, the opening time. The ambush on National Highway 30 began between 10.15 and 10.30, two survivors told The Telegraph.
“Had it been possible to read the clue in real time,” a senior CRPF officer said, the troops would have launched a combing operation instead of a road-opening patrol that turned them into sitting ducks.
Yet what the “clue” also suggests is that the Maoists had been very close to Tongapal to be able to strike at such short notice — and the forces knew nothing about it.
The patrol had left Tongapal police station, near the school, at 8.30am. The rebels would have had to warn all the schoolchildren’s families in half-a-dozen villages by 9.30, chalk out the operation quickly and strike in less than two hours.
“What does that point to?” the senior CRPF officer said. “If we can’t know the rebels were that close, it’s a serious lapse.”
What makes the intelligence failure starker is that the forces in the area had just concluded a six-day (March 3 to 8) search either side of National H30, up to the Odisha border in the east and Dantewada in the west.
There had been reports of a Maoist build-up for their annual “tactical counter offensive campaign” that starts in the first week of March coinciding with the beginning of the tendu leaf-plucking season.
Yet, broad intelligence inputs mean little in a difficult terrain where a centimetre on the map can indicate miles of deep forests on rugged land and, sometimes, uncharted hills.
“Yes, there was intelligence and we too knew about rebel movement in the area. But you’ll appreciate that they move fast and this is a kind of territory where real-time intelligence matters more than general inputs,” a district police officer said.
It’s this real-time intelligence that troops deployed in the Maoist stronghold of south Bastar rarely get. That advantage lies with the rebels. And this is where the central paramilitary forces feel that the state police, responsible for local intelligence-gathering, have been weak.
The CRPF believes that at least 200 Maoists took part in the action, aided by the local militia.
“If they were present in such large numbers and we got no hint, it tells us where we stand,” a CRPF official rued.
“Unless local intelligence-gathering is strong we are a target every time we go out patrolling. That’s what we tell our troopers – there is no margin for error.”
A local mole must have tipped the Maoists off when the foot patrol --- 34 CRPF and eight district force jawans — set off an hour after being assigned the task at 7.30am.
Their job was to sanitise a stretch of the highway ahead of troop movement from the CRPF’s Jeeram Valley camp, 11km to the north of Tongapal (and 7km from the ambush spot).
The rebels have been watching the highway, which is being widened --- a project that would hurt the Maoists by speeding the movement of troops and materials in their territory.
A showdown was a certainty, sooner or later, officers say. The forces knew that a huge contingent from the rebels’ nearby Darbha division was moving on a 35km stretch of NH30.
It was the Darbha division that led the attack on a Congress convoy last May, at a spot where the CRPF’s Jeeram Valley camp has now come up, almost wiping out the party’s state leadership.
Tuesday’s attack spot is on a relatively flat and open stretch, unusual for an ambush. But the efficiency of the guerrillas’ battlefield positioning suggests they had meticulously selected and studied the spot, perhaps for an attack on an unspecified date.
Tuesday’s opportunity arrived by chance.
The way the Maoists had planted “tiffin bombs” under a culvert with only small amounts of explosives suggest they had not had much time.
They stopped four tipper-trucks, laden with road construction material, around 9am and burnt the vehicles on the road, at a spot 2km north of the ambush site, to cut off traffic.
On either side of the road are low-lying paddy fields, dry at this time of year, punctuated by 3 to 4 feet tall sand mounds on which other cereals and pulses are grown. The rebels hid behind the mounds.
To the south, from where the patrol came, the road winds up and down, which means the troops could not see what lay ahead.
Just to the north of the spot is a canopy of trees under which the Maoists installed their LMG-wielding cadres, who were invisible to the troops but could see them clearly. The first seven or eight jawans had no chance to retaliate.
The theatre was small: just 400 metres separated the first body from the last. The rebels probably fled across the hillocks on either side.
The troops had been divided into two groups --- the second patrol that was trailing the first by about 1km had no idea what was happening ahead, their vision blocked by the road’s undulations.
Only two among the 17 in the forward patrol were alive when the rear party of 25 arrived much later.
A senior CRPF officer denied that the troops had deviated from the standard operating procedure. He said the decision to split the patrol had kept the toll down.