Defeating Maoists: Lessons from Sarkeguda

Counterinsurgency is akin to eating soup with a knife. That dictum was reaffirmed after last month’s unfortunate incident in Chhattisgarh where an anti-Maoist operation resulted in the death of innocents. The CRPF claims that the operation was launched on a specific intelligence input from Andhra police that a Maoist military company of the ‘Andhra Orissa Bureau’ was moving to Sukma and Dantewada. Intelligence reports further indicated that this new group could be joining the Maoists already at a training camp at Silgerh, situated in the 400 sq km ‘liberated area’ of Bijapur district.

On the night of June 28, three joint teams of the CRPF, Special Task Force and the district police moved towards Silger from three different spots — from Basaguda, at Jagarmunda (an isolated post that can’t be reached by foot, so CRPF air-lifted personnel in choppers there), and a third party was to come from the Chintalnar route. The team that set off from Chintalnar had a brief encounter at Penta in which two Maoists were killed. The second team from Jagarmunda too met with some resistance but there were no casualties. The third team, which set off from Basaguda and was led by S Elango, CRPF DIG (Ops), Bijapur, crossed River Talperu. It was on this route around 1 am that the encounter took place.

Tables turned: The CRPF was at first praised for the 19 deaths in an anti-Maoist operation at Sarkeguda; the news that three kids had been killed swiftly turned the euphoria to embarrassment

There were 19 deaths in Sarkeguda village in what was immediately claimed as “the biggest Maoist encounter” by the security forces. The state government and the Union Home Minister P Chidambaram commended the CRPF and the police for the proactive operation. It soon turned out to be an embarrassment because those dead included two school-going boys and a 12-year old girl. CRPF claims that it has confirmation that at least seven out of the 19 dead were Maoists. Others presumably died because the Maoists used them as a human shield. Six CRPF troopers were injured in the encounter, including four who suffered bullet and pellet wounds. The police were able to recover only three bharmaars (country-made firearms) from the site.

Although Mr Chidambaram has said that he is ‘deeply sorry’ for the death of innocents and the Chhattisgarh government has ordered a Magisterial enquiry, the hyper-critical commentary on the incident continues unabated. Maoists have always had sympathisers in the media, and this incident is being milked by them to stop CRPF’s anti-Maoist operations. Politics hasn’t helped matters either. The state unit of the Congress party, with an eye on the assembly elections next year, has called it a fake encounter. To worsen matters, the Union minister for tribal affairs Kishore Chandra Deo has also castigated Mr Chidambaram for defending the CRPF.

Notwithstanding the enquiry reports, a few things are evident so far. This wasn’t a ‘fake encounter’ where the CRPF planned and murdered people in cold blood to earn accolades. At worst, the CRPF made a genuine mistake at Sakerguda where on seeing a village congregation at midnight, mistook it for a Maoist meeting and opened fire. Alternatively, this was a chance encounter where the Maoist sentries opened fire and the CRPF retaliated with disproportionately high firepower leading to the death of innocents.

Whatever be the case, this calls for a review of the manner in which CRPF carries out counterinsurgency operations in Maoist-affected areas. But the CRPF doesn’t need to suspend its anti-Maoist operations pending this review. The political leadership must ensure that CRPF imbibes all the lessons from Sarkeguda. Publicly, the leadership must however support the CRPF which has more than 80,000 personnel deployed in anti-Maoist operations. While all attempts must be made to avoid the death of innocents, the harsh reality of conflict, where innocents do suffer at times, must be explained to the media and the public.

A review of CRPF’s SOP for anti-Maoist operations is already being undertaken by the home ministry. Buoyed by the success achieved in clearing Saranda and Sarju-Kone where development work has since started, CRPF has meanwhile announced plans to launch ‘big sweep operations’ to clear other so-called ‘liberated areas’ of the Maoists. These areas, where the government and police have not ventured for many years, have become the headquarters of Maoist activities.

Because security is a prerequisite for bringing development to the tribals staying in Maoist ‘liberated areas’, India has no choice but to defeat the Maoists in their strongholds. But this must be done without repeating the mistakes of Sarkeguda.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review 

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