In the early hours of August 4, a team of Koya commandos in Dantewada district chose to move ahead into the forests rather than returning to its base as instructed, inadvertently triggering off a media storm that, police sources say, stymied their operation.

A day after the Chhattisgarh police emerged from the forests after an 18-hour sojourn in which they were allegedly ambushed by Maoist cadres, before being rescued safely by reinforcements, there is little clarity over the sequence of Wednesday's events.

This account was gleaned from Chhattisgarh's security establishment. If true, the account offers an insight into the chaos underpinning the State's anti-Maoist operations. The Hindu was unable to verify these events independently.

On the night of July 28, Maoist cadres set fire to five trucks parked outside the Essar Steel plant at Kirandul. “We compiled a list of villagers from Hiroli who were suspected to have taken part in the attack on Essar,” said a source in the police. “Accordingly, we sent a team to apprehend the men.” At 3 a.m. on August 4, a team of 80 Koya commandos and 40 policemen cordoned off Hiroli to arrest the suspects. But the men were not in the village.

At Hiroli, the team was told that a company of Maoists, led by Darbha Division Commander Ganesh Uike, was camping between Goomiapal and Kutrem villages, and was expected to stop between Goomiapal and Alnar for lunch. The 80 Koya commandos, a group of fighters raised from among Chhattisgarh's Adivasi population, decided to press on in pursuit of the Maoists, while the 40 regular policemen returned to Kirandul as per prior instructions.

At 10 a.m., the Koyas chanced upon a Maoist company and a fierce exchange of fire ensued. The Koyas split further into two teams of 40 fighters each and in the course of the battle, they lost touch. One team was pinned back, while the second made it to the top of a hilly feature from where it sent an SOS via cellphone as wireless sets had stopped working in rain.

“In the present circumstances, if you lose contact you expect to lose lives,” said the source, referring to the ambushes in April and July this year in which more than 100 CRPF men were killed.

The SOS was relayed to the police headquarters, from where the national media got wind of the story. As the police struggled to locate their missing teams, rumours of massive casualties began to circulate in the electronic media.

By about noon, the two Koya teams re-established contact and took positions at the top of the hilly feature and waited for reinforcements to arrive even as the Maoists surrounded the base of the hill. “Once the reinforcements arrived, we had about 80 fighters on the dominant feature and a hundred men on the ground,” claimed a police source, “We could have turned the tables [on the Maoists] and had a big kill.”

In the past, sources have spoken of the pressure to deliver a “big kill” in response to security personnel getting killed by the Maoists. In this instance, the Koya commandos were allegedly instructed to “return safely at all costs” as further police casualties could have proved politically untenable.

Eventually, the forces scattered the Maoists, recovered the body of an alleged Maoist fighter and returned to Kirandul at 9.30 p.m. that day.

The lack of any injury or casualty among the police has however raised eyebrows within the security establishment. Some police officers doubt if an encounter took place at all.

A senior police officer implied that the supposed encounter could have been a cover-up for the killing of Kunjami Joga, a 25-year-old resident of Kutrem, who, the police claim, was a Maoist fighter killed in the course of the encounter.

“The only way to assess this ‘ambush' is to determine the exact number of rounds fired by the police,” said a source in the CRPF, but was unable to provide any further detail. “For such a long and fierce ambush, the police must have fired a lot of rounds.”

Till now The Hindu was unable to ascertain the number of rounds fired by the policemen.