Brutal assault

The death of 15 police personnel – eleven of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and four of the state police – and a civilian in a Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district underscores the continuing capacity of the rebels to inflict heavy damages on the security forces.

The police were part of a road opening patrol and were fired upon by some 200 Maoists. The death toll could rise as several personnel are missing. Why the security forces were caught off guard is as yet unclear. A probe will have to establish whether they were following standard operating procedures.

The attack took place in Tongpal, which is close to Jheeram Gathi, where in a major operation in May last year the Maoists ambushed and killed several senior Congress leaders including V C Shukla, Mahendra Karma  and Nandkumar Patel. Sukma district has been a Maoist stronghold for long but robust counter-insurgency operations there were believed to have broken the back of the Maoists there.

The attack on the police patrol at Tongpal reveals that such assessments are flawed. Not only were the Maoists able to assemble at the ambush point hundreds of rebels without alerting the security forces but also, they were able to inflict heavy losses on the state. Their capacity seems very much intact.

The attack at Tongpal lays bare enormous gaps in the government’s intelligence gathering capacity in Bastar. Clearly, it is still to establish contacts among the local tribal population. Whatever little support the state may have had among the locals is likely to have been eroded by the anti-Maoist military operations.

 Little seems to have been done to win the confidence of the locals. In the circumstances, they do not feel the need to share with the police any information.   

The Moaists’ continuing capacity to unleash violence is a matter of concern, particularly since general elections are round the corner. While Chhattisgarh will vote in three phases, the Bastar region is scheduled to vote on April 10.

The Maoists can be expected to call for a boycott of the elections and they will do their utmost to disrupt the polls. The possibility of more attacks to intimidate voters cannot be ruled out.

While security in the area must be improved, the Election Commission must put in place a robust plan to ensure that voters can exercise their franchise without fear of Maoist retribution. But also, security forces should refrain from forcing voters to polling booths.

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