Saturday, April 10, 2021

30 years on, notes from another Naxal hotbed


As we were preparing to fight the Naxals, the other challenge that we had to deal with was the trust deficit among locals. Whenever our teams went to villages, we found only old men and women, the others would flee.


Security force personnel patrol after an attack by Maoist fighters in Bijapur in Chhattisgarh (Reuters)

Written by KP Raghuvanshi

IN 1989, Naxal activity was at its peak in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district. Many sarpanches, policemen and local Adivasis had been killed. Alarmed, the Maharashtra government came up with a ‘Special Action Plan’ to counter Naxals and a sum of Rs 100 crore was sanctioned for it. But despite the comprehensive strategy, the Naxal menace continued unabated.

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Around the same time, in 1990, when I was serving as DCP Mumbai, I was transferred to Gadchiroli as Superintendent of Police. The shift from a metropolitan city to a gram panchayat was a big one for me and my family. When we arrived at the only guesthouse in the area, the temperature hovered around 45 degrees, and it was the promise of ice-cream that kept my restless children in check. Unfortunately, we were told at the guesthouse that much like treats such as bread, cake and cream biscuits, ice-cream too had to be ordered in advance and brought from neighbouring Chandrapur.

Since summer vacations were on, the children soon left to spend time with their grandparents, and I got the opportunity to travel around the entire district, 80 per cent of which was covered in thick jungles, without worrying about the family. (At the time, Naxals had been burning down government buildings to threaten locals). It didn’t take long for me to spot the lack of synergy in the action plan we had adopted.

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As a first step, we began discussions with the local police, revenue officers, teachers, reporters, and families of victims of Naxal violence, who were reluctant to speak up. Fear among these sections, we soon realised, was the biggest hurdle for us.

That is when we came up with the idea of creating a special force. Most locals felt that government officers were posted to the region for a short period and had no major stake in their struggle. So we thought of inducting local Adivasis as they were the ones who faced the actual threat. That is how ‘Crack-60 (C-60)’ was created. I visited the Greyhound (special anti-insurgency unit) headquarters and the Inspector General there agreed to train our boys. Of the 100 boys who were selected, 60 were marked for round-the-clock operation.

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As we were preparing to fight the Naxals, the other challenge that we had to deal with was the trust deficit among locals. Whenever our teams went to villages, we found only old men and women, the others would flee. Language was a big barrier too. The locals feared they would be branded police informants and killed.

So we changed our strategy. Our teams now started speaking to villagers about problems related to water, health etc. Our Adivasi constables helped. The teams also delivered medical kits and salt, both hard to find in the region, to the locals. Slowly, the gap was bridged. The rate of engagement increased, flow of information improved, and our teams were ready to take on Naxals.

In my two-year tenure, I experienced moving and high-risk situations as well as incidents that made me smile. Once we received information about a Naxal group camping on a hill-top. After travelling all night, when we arrived at the spot, there was no one. We had exhausted our dry ration and there was no water left to drink. Shortage of water was common, and many a time we would drink stagnant water mixed with potassium permanganate when we ran out of supply. One of the Adivasi constables in the group took us to a nearby village and asked a woman for food. She scooped off some ant-like insects from a tree, roasted them and mixed them with salt and offered it to us. Although I am non-vegetarian, I stuck to the rice water, but the insects provided the much-needed protein to my team.

The incident also alerted us about another challenge — dealing with false information. As security officers, we can never ignore any information, but it may be incorrect and expose our teams to threat. That is among the reasons why we are seeing so many casualties these days, particularly in Chhattisgarh.

The dense foliage of Gadchiroli also made patrolling difficult. Half of the district is cut off during monsoons because of overflowing rivers and lack of bridges. During my tenure, Head Constable Tara Chand was kidnapped by Naxals and we received intel about his whereabouts. To get to the spot, we had to cross the Bandi river. We got an inflatable boat but there was no trained sailor to row it. I knew how to swim and asked my team if they would want to proceed. Eventually, six jawans and I got into the boat and went ahead. When we were only 200 metres from the bank, the boat just wouldn’t move forward. We somehow managed to return to our base. Retrospectively, I think it was a foolish step. If Naxals were present on the other side, we would have become easy targets.

There were also incidents that still send waves of grief through me, like the time when one of our platoons was blown off by Naxals near Bhamragad. When I reached the spot, there were bodies strewn all over, some writhing in pain. Sending 13 coffins with security personnel to their villages is among the painful memories of my tenure.

I was transferred out of Gadchiroli in July 1992 and, soon after, Naxal commander ‘Santhosh Anna’ was killed by the C-60 force. It was a big achievement.

A few years ago, I visited Gadchiroli again and was thrilled to see the infrastructure that had come up in the region. The C-60 force had neutralised a majority of the Naxal groups in the area and there was hardly any fear among locals. But it took years for the team to show results; it didn’t happen in one day or one year. We must invest in similar efforts to resolve the insurgency issues of today.

K P Raghuvansh, former ATS chief, set up C-60, tasked with countering Maoists violence in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/30-years-on-notes-from-another-naxal-hotbed-7268259/


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