The that killed 22 security personnel in the forest of Tarrem, Chhattisgarh, on April 3, was the deadliest in recent years. It revived memories of the 2010 Tadmetla attack in which 76 CRPF personnel were killed and the Jheeram Ghati of 2013 which wiped out the entire leadership of the Congress party in Chhattisgarh. The forces targeted in Tarrem were commanded by Sundarraj Pattilingam, inspector general of police, Bastar.
Pattilingam spoke with Newslaundry about the attack and the security situation in Bastar.
It’s said Naxals used unverified intelligence to lure the security forces into a trap. Was that the case?
No, our forces were not lured into a trap. We got a specific intelligence input that there was a selective gathering in the area and based on that information forces were sent out. The input was about the presence of People's Liberation Guerrilla Army’s Battalion 1 and its commander Madvi Hidma. Around 1,800 men from Cobra battalion, District Reserve Guard, Special Task Force, and Bastaraiya Battalion from the camps of Tarrem, Minpa, Narsapuram, and Pamed were sent into the core area of Naxals. Battalion 1 mostly operates on the border of Sukma and Bijapur. So, it was our conscious decision to go to that area.
If we have to tackle the Naxal problem we can’t do it sitting at the district headquarters. We need to venture into these areas in order to neutralise them. There are three ways to neutralise anti-democratic forces in the area – if someone wants to surrender they are more than welcome, the second way is to arrest them, and the third way is to eliminate them. We can't allow Naxals to dominate the area.
This was one of the deadliest Naxal attacks in recent times. While the security forces suffered 22 casualties, Naxals say they lost only five fighters. What went wrong?
Six hundred of our men went to Tarrem where the action took place. The battle started around 12 pm, with 53 of our men engaging around 300 Naxals in a gunfight. In the end, 22 of them were martyred and the rest suffered injuries. Naxals also suffered casualties in double figures. They generally hide their casualties so as not to demoralise their cadres.
As per our information they suffered 12 casualties and 16 to 18 of their cadres were seriously injured. The media has reported that our forces fell into a trap, but I don't accept this point of view.
It was reported that the security forces were ambushed while they were returning from the forest? What exactly happened?
It’s very difficult to explain the tactical part of it but for general understanding it was not an ambush where our men couldn’t react. It was not like Tadmetla where our men were washed out before they could do anything. It was totally different this time. It was a pitched battle.
What do you know about Madvi Hidma and his Battalion 1?
Hidma comes from Poovarti village, which is hardly 6 km from where the gunfight took place. He has led Battalion 1 for the past 10 years and was also responsible for the Jheeram Ghati attack on Congress leaders. Battalion 1 is actually the only battalion of the CPI Maoist and is based in South Bastar. It is one of the most formidable extremist groups in the country, more formidable than insurgent groups in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. Militants in Kashmir engage in combat in small groups or carry out suicide attacks, insurgents in the Northeast fight in groups of 40-50 and lay ambushes. But the PLGA Battalion 1 is like a CRPF company and is equipped with sophisticated weapons. Engaging with them is like proper warfare. Generally, an armed forces battalion has a strength of 1,000 people, Battalion 1 has only 180-200 people but it also relies on the support of small platoons of Naxals during combat who take its strength to 300 and more.
These people know the terrain like the backs of their hands, and they have a strong information network because of their jana militia. Battalion 1 operates out of an unadministered area, it’s one of the most neglected areas of the undivided Madhya Pradesh. All these factors combined with their strength and weapons make Battalion 1 formidable. They have significant firepower. They have modern weapons which they have looted from security forces over the years. We found an INSAS rifle on the body of a female Naxal who was neutralised in a gunbattle on March 3.
Why have the security forces not been able to arrest Hidma?
This recent operation was also an attempt to capture him. We received input about him and his group. It wasn’t the first we had ventured into that area. Sometimes we achieved a small success, sometimes we came back empty handed, and sometimes we suffered casualties. To make you understand the situation I’d like to give you the example of Veerapan. He was a forest brigand with 40-50 people under him but it took 20 years to neutralise him. Veerappan was just a smuggler while Hidma is a Naxal commander with a battalion at his disposal. And he is more tactical and influential than Veerappan. But this isn’t an excuse, we will get hold of him soon.
Hidma has a strong information and jan militia network. He’s a commander and is always guarded, as all top Naxal leaders are. If the situation gets bad, the leader is the first to retreat. Naxals can’t afford to lose their leaders since there are very few of them, and if an influential leader gets killed it damages the morale of the cadre.
Whenever we enter their territory, our presence gets noticed. We can't hide because it is their core area and we can be spotted easily. Information reaches them about our arrival through their militia and couriers. Once they receive this information, they try to ambush us. But the days are gone when they could attack the security forces using IEDs placed along the roads.
You said Battalion 1 is a formidable force based in South Bastar? Does it operate across states affected by Naxalism?
South Bastar was an unadministered area when Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh. An area of about 4,000 sq km in South Bastar and South Sukama was kind of administered by Naxals. After the formation of Chhattisgarh, we gradually tried to reclaim that territory. Although it is not some international territory, “reclamation” is the right word. We have managed to get back around 3000 sq km but 1,000 sq km is still under their influence. This area stretches from Basaguda to Bheji, and it’s this area along the interdistrict border of Bijapur and Sukma that’s the base of Battalion 1. In its early days, Battalion 1 used to operate out of this area and launch attacks such as the one in Jheeram Ghati. But for the last five years we have restricted them and they have not been able to move out to carry out operations.
Six months ago, we established a base camp at Tarrem and laid a road from Basaguda to Tarrem. Other development projects will follow soon.
An between the government and Naxals was in the works in Bastar. After this recent attack, will there ever be peace in Bastar?
Naxals no longer follow their ideology and operate like criminal gangs. The cadre of the Dandakaranya Special Zonal committee still have some ideology unlike the Maoist Communist Centre of Bihar, but gradually they are becoming like their counterparts in Jharkhand and Bihar. In a narrow view, it may look like they have a strong hold on the area and can inflict damage on the security forces but the actual situation isn’t like that. They are losing the battle and are now restricted to a 1,000-sq km area in South Bastar. They do have to engage in talks with the government.
They still have places such as Abhujmad but those are only for hiding. They extort money from local villagers and so people support them only out of compulsion. South and West Bastar will slowly slip out of their hands. Basically they are not on a strong footing. Even a cat can pounce on you in a dark room, but she knows very well that she can do this only in darkness.
To release the captured CRPF man Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, Naxals have said the government must first name mediators. What do you make of this?
We are going through the proposal and will do the needful. They have said the jawan is in safe custody.
The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.