In 1988, Ravula Srinivas paid Rs. 100,000 for an AKS series Kalashnikov rifle with a light-wood finish and a folding metal shoulder stock. On April 6 this year, the same rifle was used in an ambush that killed 75 members of the Central Reserve Police Force and one head constable of the Chhattisgarh police in Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district.
In the intervening years, Ravula had grown up from being a young student in Warangal to Ramana, secretary of the South Bastar Regional Committee of the CPI (Maoist). He was the chief architect of the April 6 attack; the rifle never left his side.
On April 14, this writer was offered access to Maoist leaders Ramana and Ganesh V.K. in the Jagargunda forests in Dantewada. The visit offered a rare, though by no means comprehensive, insight into how the CPI (Maoist) sources, maintains and distributes weapons among its cadres.
The armed wings of the CPI (Maoist) are clearly stratified, with cadres carrying weaponry commensurate with their rank.
“Ninety per cent of our [lowest ranked] militia platoons carry bows, arrows and traditional weapons,” said Ramana as he tied an LED bulb to his rifle muzzle to fashion an improvised torch. “The rest carry a mixture of muzzle-loading rifles, country-made revolvers and the odd INSAS rifle.” Militia platoons are the equivalent of panchayat level groups of about 30 fighters that are raised from village-level Jan militias.
“Once a year, 10 per cent of all the weapons seized by our state committee is distributed to our panchayat-level militia platoons,” Ramana continued. “The committee also distributes gelatin, raided from mining companies, and teaches militia members how to plant improvised explosive devices [IEDs].”
Jan militias and militia platoons are a part-time army of villagers who rarely wear uniforms and assist the so-called main-force of the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army, which comprises regular companies staffed by professional fighters.
“Professional revolutionaries are always uniformed and armed with 12 gauge shotguns, self loading rifles (SLRs) and AK series rifles,” said Ganesh V.K., commander of the Darbha division, CPI (Maoist), “Each company is also supposed to carry three light machine guns, but at present we have a shortage of LMGs.”
“Usually, the professional fighters attack first,” said Ramana. “Once the opposition is neutralised, the part-time fighters help in raiding weapons, ammunition and explosives.” In February 2006, for instance, a company of Maoist fighters attacked the National Mineral Development Corporation depot in Hiroli in Dantewada and made off with tonnes of gelatin-based explosives intended for the mining industry.
“Once our company killed the eight CISF guards, over one thousand villagers helped us carry away the explosives through the night,” said Ramana. “The gelatin raided in the Hiroli attack was used in the IED that blew up an armoured truck in the April 6 attack.”
With 90 men to the company, Maoist formations are slightly smaller than the 125-130 man companies assembled by Central paramilitary forces like the CRPF. However, since the Maoists do not adopt trade divisions like cooks or doctors, and revolutionaries are not expected to go on leave, the number of fighting men per company on both sides is similar. Depending on how you view them, a Maoist company is either a collection of fighting cooks or cooking fighters, all fiercely attached to their guns.
The INSAS, SLR and AK series rifles distributed among senior fighters are lethal and accurate weapons, but it is unlikely that the muzzle-loading shotguns (locally called bharmars) wielded by the lower cadres are of much use in battle.
High-powered, commercially manufactured shotguns are reasonably accurate up to 100 metres; the locally manufactured smooth-bore, short-barrelled, revolver style shotguns used by Maoists are unlikely to be accurate beyond 30 metres. Bharmars often have shortened barrels and lack a solid shoulder stock that could check weapon recoil. The short barrel length reduces the accuracy of the gun.
These ‘country-made' weapons are probably used as the equivalent of military epaulets — a means of distinguishing promising fighters and raising militia morale among lower-ranking cadres. Lower cadres probably make most of their kills by means of IEDs.
A short slight man with busy fingers, Chandu (not his real name) carries a strange collection of curios in his knapsack: empty syringes, camera flashes, and torch batteries jostle for space with hair clips, detonator caps, cordex wire and gelatin. Since he joined the Party five years ago, Chandu has focussed on fabricating IEDs.
Unlike Ganesh V.K. who studied mathematics in college and contemplated an M.Sc. degree in Chemistry, Chandu never attended school. He has, however, understood the guiding principle behind a successful explosion.
Gelignite, or blasting gelatin, is a stable substance that can be transported with relative ease; when paired with a detonator cap, however, the nitro-glycerine compound is highly explosive.
“You need a way to build the circuit to send electricity to the detonator to trigger the blast,” says Chandu, as he fills a steel container with a mixture of rocks, iron shards and gelatin. The detonator is slid into a hole at the bottom of the container. The hair clips and syringes are used as pressure switches in anti-personnel IEDs - they depress when stepped upon. The camera flash is used for bigger blasts.
“The flash sends out a surge of power in one go,” explains Chandu. “This way you can connect up to four IEDs to the same flash and trigger the bombs from a safe distance.”
Perhaps the most ingenious device is the exploding arrow, probably used like a grenade: a heavy wooden arrow mounted with a detonator cap affixed a to coiled-up length of cordex wire. When it strikes a hard surface, the detonator cap bursts, triggering the cordex explosion.
As it mulls the use of air-power and UAVs in its battle against the Maoists, the Indian state is confronted by a strategy surmised on black-market Kalashnikovs, stolen LMGs, home-made bombs and most importantly, the element of surprise which shall long remain the prerogative of the guerrilla.