With semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders, these soldiers are more than just patrolling arterial village roads. They are in the midst of full-scale battles in which several people, mostly non-combatants, are getting killed. Forces have been mobilised in their thousands; dehydrated soldiers are getting evacuated by the Indian Air Force; corpses are removed in huge tractors meant for transporting farm produce; and Maoists are intensifying coordination at villages.
South Bastar villagers believe that the current spell of violence, which has caused several deaths, cannot be sporadic action conducted by either the police or stray Maoist squads of 20-year-olds.
Perhaps they are right. There are two battles going on in two patches. One is the battle to take control of Pidiya, a rugged terrain spread over 15 km on the south-eastern border of Bijapur district. The other is in Minappa, further south. The battle for Pidiya has been intermittent since January. And it is going to continue.
“We are targeting Pidiya as it is a strong base of the Maoists,” Additional Director-General of Police (Naxal Operations) R.K. Vij told The Hindu earlier.
Explaining the importance of Pidiya, senior officials said two out of 10 military companies of the CPI (Maoist) are based upland of Pidiya, which is ringed by mountains on three sides. “[The companies] 02 and 08 coordinated the 2010 ambush that killed 76 soldiers,” said a Home Ministry official. The militants also have a “signalling centre, printing press, arms dump and training schools” in Pidiya.
In January, the joint forces raided the area and claimed to have seized a huge cache of arms and ammunition. However, after visiting the area, social scientist Bela Bhatia wrote to the Chhattisgarh police, saying that “17 houses and 14 huts were burnt,” and “belongings destroyed” in several hamlets. In January, however, no one was killed.
This time though, at least seven villagers were killed in Edesmeta village, eight km from Pidiya. While officials are unsure how the villagers were killed, they admit all of them were “innocent civilians.” “[The] force bypassed Edesmeta and followed the standard operating procedure of avoiding villages at night. But the route they had chosen was where the villagers were cooking. Someone fired, and the force retaliated. Unfortunately, innocent civilians got shot,” said a senior officer. Perhaps, that is why Chief Minister Raman Singh was quick in extending condolence to the families of the victims, a gesture not extended to the Naxalites.
What is important is the size of the force deployed to win the battle for Pidiya. Six teams of the joint forces, with 150-200 men, were converging on the area. The distance each team covered were 20-25 km from their stations at Cherpal, Basaguda, Sarkeguda, Jagargunda, Kirandul and Ganglur. More significantly, seven gunfights took place between the Maoists and the forces in the last four days at and around Pidiya.
Police sources said Team V, coming from Kirandul, killed a rebel. “Two members of the armed forces were injured at a place near Parangal,” said an officer. Team III from Sarkeguda waged three small fights. Another big operation was reportedly conducted on Sunday further down, at Bhejji, near the Andhra Pradesh border.
Pidiya villagers called The Hindu up to inform that the Maoists conducted a condolence meeting soon after the forces left Peddapara, one of the villages within Pidiya, and offered compensation to the families of the deceased.
The State police have set up a makeshift camp at Minappa, south of Pidiya. Minappa is sited between Dornapal and Jagargunda, a 50-km stretch that already has 8-10 paramilitary camps and an equal number of police camps. Each camp houses 200-300 personnel. This means roughly 5,000 personnel are guarding the stretch from the eastern border of Chhattisgarh to Jagargunda. Experts reckon the number of personnel deployed to be very high for an internal conflict. In addition, over 1,000 personnel have been stationed at Minappa to “sanitise” the area.
A senior police officer was a bit cynical. “If not full scale, a half-scale battle is on at and around Pidiya.”