Increasing security forces losses to gunfire suggest improvement in Maoist weaponry and ammunition.
In the opening skirmish of the ambush, Head Constable P. Bhai leapt for cover, and landed on an improvised explosive device (IED) with a feather-touch trigger. The ensuing explosion flung him through the air; he landed on another IED that exploded on impact.
The crackle of automatic fire continuing overhead, constable Balbir stepped on a third pressure bomb that blew away his legs and genitals. He bled to death. In the fourth and final explosion, Constable Mukund Gayari lost his leg and a fellow soldier was burnt severely. In all, two men died and two were injured on March 18 this year when the Maoists ambushed the 168th Battalion of the CRPF in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district.
As the Indian government continues to intensify anti-Maoist operations across Central India, paramilitary forces are confronted by a rigorously drilled guerilla force capable of orchestrating sophisticated operations with considerable accuracy.
The remoteness of the contested territory and the near absence of information from battle sites make it difficult to analyse the dynamics of military operations; however fatalities figures sourced from the Chhattisgarh police impose a helpful, though by no means comprehensive, pattern on the fluid violence surging through Chhattisgarh's hilly forests.
According to police figures, IEDs account for about 40 per cent of the 408 troop fatalities in Chhattisgarh since 2007 and nearly 70 per cent of all injuries sustained by security forces from January 2008 to March this year.
“IEDs are the one of the biggest challenges facing the troops in Chhattisgarh,” said Inspector General R.K. Vij, spokesperson for the Chhattisgarh Police. The devices are easily assembled and consist of the bomb itself — which could be a metal tiffin-carrier, or bucket, filled with fertilizer, a detonator cap sourced from the mining industry, torch batteries and a trigger to complete the circuit. The devices are often used when regular ammunition is hard to come by.
“Maoist IEDs are usually cheaply produced from indigenously available materials,” said an intelligence official, “commonly used explosively include urea mixed with diesel, potassium and ammonium nitrate.” It is the trigger devices however, that best illustrate Maoist innovation.
Pressure bombs, as the name suggests, are IEDs that work like anti-personnel mines — exploding when someone steps on the trigger.
Explosives experts showed this correspondent a piece of bamboo about six inches in length — split halfway along its vertical axis to resemble a device not unlike a pair of kitchen tongs. A piece of wood, no thicker than a toothpick, served as a fulcrum — holding apart the two ends of the tongs that were wrapped with exposed copper wire.
Once planted, the bamboo trigger is indistinguishable from the brush, bramble and leaves that litter the jungles where the battles are fought. When stepped on, the ends of the tongs make contact and complete the circuit that triggers the bomb. Another popular trigger is a medical syringe with electrical contacts on the plunger and a point lower down the syringe's cylindrical body. Stuck face-down in the ground, the device explodes when someone steps on the plunger and completes the circuit by bringing the contacts together.
“In the Bijapur ambush, the Maoists had worked out our route in advance,” said a CRPF officer, “Instead of planting IEDs on the path where the bombs could be detected, they placed them where the force was most likely to take cover if ambushed.” Once the CRPF reached the designated spot on the Basaguda-Avapalli road, the Maoists opened fire; the force took cover, stepping on carefully camouflaged triggers: the IEDs did the rest.
Apart from their obvious lethality, the mere threat of IEDs is almost as effective in crippling troop movements. “The psychological impact of IEDS goes far beyond the fatalities,” says P.V. Ramana, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, “Troop morale is severely affected by the possibilities of being permanently handicapped by such an attack.”
In 2008 for instance, 21 policemen were killed in Malkangiri, Orissa, when Maoists blew up a police vehicle. Since then, all patrols and company movements are conducted on foot. By scattering troops across an area, rather than confining them to vehicles, security forces hope to reduce what they call the “kill-ratio” of an IED blast.
While the fatalities caused by IED blasts have hovered between 40 and 45 per cent of total police deaths each year since 2007, the high percentage (about 60 per cent) of deaths caused by Maoist gunfire is much higher when compared with guerilla groups around the world.
In Iraq for instance, gunfire accounted for only 20 per cent of US military deaths with IEDs accounting for 63 per cent of deaths since October 2001; in Afghanistan, gun fire accounted for 25 per cent of U.S. military deaths with IEDs accounting for 53 per cent of deaths.
Speaking on background, intelligence said they expected gun-shot fatalities to rise even further in the coming months due to what intelligence officials refer to the “Nayagarh effect.”
In February 15 2008, Maoists attacked a police armoury in Nayagarh, Orissa, killed 13 policemen and made off with nearly 1200 weapons including 400 INSAS rifles, 20 AK-47s, three light machine guns and huge supplies of ammunition. The successful raid altered Maoist tactics.
“We lost 49 men last year, all due to gun-shot injuries,” said S. Jaikumar, Superintendent of Police, Gadchiroli, a district on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border. Jaikumar's team defused at least 15 live IEDs last year; however, Maoists have changed to a stand-and-fight strategy that has been rarely witnessed before.
“Maoists are showing a greater tendency to engage security forces in prolonged encounters, suggesting a steady and reliable source of ammunition,” confirmed Jaikumar, “Their fighters are better armed than before and each company carries at least one light machine gun.”
“The reliance on either IEDs or gunfire is part of the lifecycle of any guerrilla operation,” said a serving Army officer, “While IEDs are an essential part of guerrilla tactics, sustained gunfire exchanges are necessary to assert the physical and psychological presence of both sides in the minds of the civilian population.”