Ranchi, April 25: A last-minute change of plan by Dumka police and district officials that went against CRPF instructions led to yesterday’s Maoist ambush at Shikaripara block, killing eight poll personnel and injuring a dozen others, claimed survivors admitted to Apollo hospital in Ranchi today.
Eight persons are admitted to Apollo. Six were flown from Dumka by chopper, while three came by road from PMCH, Dhanbad. One person was discharged after check-up.
Those able to speak said the tragedy could have been averted if policemen and officials had followed CRPF advice of walking with election paraphernalia, including EVMs, to the nearest “cluster” 4km or 5km away. Instead, a mid-level poll official, referred to as the sector magistrate, insisted they follow his van in a bus to deposit all election materials to a strongroom in Dumka town, 40km away.
In a sensitive pocket, poll duty officials walk to a cluster — a place to deposit election materials for booths within a certain radius — to minimise Maoist attacks. Then, an armoured vehicle carries materials from the cluster to the strongroom via a thoroughly sanitised road.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is safer for poll officials to walk than board a vehicle. If on foot, Maoists can only target individuals and not a group, minimising casualties.
Yesterday, if poll duty officials and armed escorts carried EVMs and other materials to the nearest cluster on foot, the ambush might have not taken place, argue survivors. Instead, they alleged, the poll team was forced to set off for Dumka in two vehicles — the van followed by the bus.
Schoolteacher Subodh Kumar Mistry (43), presiding officer at booth No. 100 in Shikaripara Assembly segment of Dumka parliamentary seat, said: “In the morning, CRPF personnel escorted us to the booth on foot and camped there till 4pm. They were ready to walk us back to the cluster. But, the patrol party with the sector magistrate insisted EVMs of different booths should be taken to Dumka town strongroom. So, we boarded a bus to follow the official’s van.”
Subodh, who said his booth recorded over 81 per cent polls, went on.
“I gave my relieving certificate to the CRPF personnel and boarded the bus with my team at 4.15pm and was trapped in the ambush within 15 minutes.”
Head constable Hiralal Pal (58), seated behind the driver on the fateful bus, said he also insisted the poll team should walk back to the cluster. “My colleagues in the sector magistrate’s team insisted on vehicles. They argued there was nothing to worry about since they knew the area like the back of their hand,” he said.
He added armed police did open fire against the rebel attack but were no match.
An injured constable who did not want to be named said he pretended he was dead when rebels boarded the bus. “I held my breath as they took away my weapons and belongings,” he said.
Bus driver Niranjan Prasad Yadav, who said he was told to follow the sector magistrate’s van, added: “Rebels flattened tyres of both vehicles with gunshots. I jumped out of the bus, hid in bushes and ran 2km to Shikaripara thana.”
Van driver Alamgir Saeed said he was too stunned to make out if tyres had punctured or hit by bullets.
“As I turned back to find out what happened to my van’s rear wheels, rebels started firing. All I remember is a policeman dragged me to a nearby trench and saved my life,” the grateful man recalled.
Saeed was taken to Shikaripara community health centre, then to PMCH in Dhanbad and finally to Apollo hospital in Ranchi. Apollo hospital medical superintendent P.D. Sinha said his patients were “stable”.
Additional chief electoral officers K.K. Soan and Himani Pandey called on the injured at Apollo.
Former director-general of police and BJP MP hopeful from Palamau V.D. Ram also visited the hospital.
Chief minister Hemant Soren and former chief minister Babulal Marandi, also an MP hopeful from the constituency, had visited the injured in Dumka.