‘Operation Haka’ has been dramatically projected as the storming of a ‘red citadel’. The reality could be more complex.

Between March 10 and March 17 this year, troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the CRPF's special Combat Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA), and the Chhattisgarh Police's Special Task Force entered Abujmard: a 6,000 sq.km expanse of uncharted forest described, by some, as a liberated territory controlled by guerilla forces of the Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Security forces have arrested 13 villagers suspected of belonging to the banned organisation. Narayanpur's Superintendent of Police, Mayank Srivastav told The Hindu that teams in Narayanpur engaged in “at least 12 to 13” exchanges of fire with the Maoists. A nine page Maoist communiqué sent to this correspondent accuses the security forces of burning homes, looting villages and killing at least one villager in the course of the raids. In a visit to Toke, a village targeted by security forces, villagers corroborated at least some of the Maoist claims.

“Operation Haka” (described as a hunt for wild animals in the local Mariya dialect) is the first coordinated, multi-State push into Abujmard and can be read as a new phase in the attritional battle between security forces and the Maoists.

In 2009, Central and State forces conducted a series of joint operations, described as “Operation Green Hunt” by the press, along the borders of Chhattisgarh's Dantewada district and Andhra Pradesh. The raids proved controversial after eyewitness accounts published in The Hindu claimed at least 21 presumably innocent villagers, including a 12-year-old girl and a 65-year-old grandmother, were killed in two separate raids.

In the aftermath of “Operation Haka,” like in 2009, sections of the media have amplified stories to reflect an official narrative of storming a “red citadel.” But the following account, based on interviews with senior sources in the police and central paramilitary forces, reveals a far more complicated reality.

One evening last week, children sang the Gayatri Mantra, a devotional hymn chanted by Hindus, before sitting down to a meal of rice, potatoes and soya nuggets cooked at the government residential school at Toke, one of three ‘Maoist' villages in Naryanpur targeted in the course of “Operation Haka.”

Dusu Dhurva, the school cook, said the children had picked up the hymn from two state government teachers who taught for at least two weeks in a month, and ferried government rations for the village school. The Maoists also held meetings in Toke, Mr. Dhurva said, suggesting that Abujmard could be understood as comprising zones of overlapping influence of Maoists and the State rather than hermetically sealed compartments controlled by either entity.

On the afternoon of March 16, Mr. Dhurva climbed a hill and watched as security forces appeared on the outskirts of the Toke accompanied by Udhav Ram, a middle-aged cow herder who they had caught en route. “I was returning from a wedding with my son when the force emerged from behind a forest ridge,” said Mr. Ram in an interview, “They threw me to the ground, kicked me savagely, tied my hands behind my back and marched me in the direction of Toke.” Mr. Ram said he protested his innocence, and was eventually released.

Mr. Ram said the forces moved in several batches. He and his escorts entered Toke at about 2:30 p.m. that day and were confronted by the sight of a house allegedly set alight by preceding teams of troopers. It was Keye Dhurva's house.

“We were in the fields on the day of the operation,” said Keye Dhurva's son, Sannu Dhurva, “When I came home at about 5 p.m., the house was burnt.” Mr. Sannu said the family lost two trunks worth of clothes, all their kitchen utensils, about a quintal of grain and Rs.16,000 that was the entirety of the family's savings.

“We were in the house when the force came,” said Aite Gota, another Toke resident, “I told my husband to run away into the forest, but he said ‘No, I'm going to sit in the ghotul [an open structure where villagers gather].” Ms Gota said she saw security forces surround her husband, throw him to the ground and beat him over the head. When the beatings stopped, Ms Gota said, her husband – Dunga Gota – was dead. Apart from her testimony, this correspondent was unable to independently verify Mr. Gota's death as his body had been buried, and Ms Gota said she did not have a photograph of her husband. Villagers pointed to a freshly dug grave by way of evidence.

Residents said the forces stormed the village, kicking down doors, catching chickens and piglets and seizing utensils. They camped briefly near a stream west of Toke, before leaving for Jatwar at about 6 pm. En route, resident Vatte Dhurva said, they burnt a grain store he had built on his farmlands outside Toke. “They burnt about 10 kandi of Kosara [a coarse cereal], 25 kg of paddy and 20 kg of rice,” Vette Dhurva said. One kandi is about 30 kg.

Naryanpur SP Mayank Srivastav categorically denied the villagers' allegations,

“Nobody was beaten up, this is the truth,” he said in his office, “We treated every villager we met with love. We tried to help them and we helped them.” Mr. Srivastav said he would act upon any complaint registered by villagers, adding that the absence of a body suggested that the death of Mr. Gota could be a case of Maoist propaganda. The forces also came under fire on the outskirts of Toke, he added.

Mr. Srivastav said his forces raided Toke, Hikonar and Jatwar on the basis of prior information. “We recovered some documents from Toke…the maximum recoveries were in Hikonar where we recovered two trunks of documents and plastic explosive with boosters and detonators,” Mr. Srivastav said, noting that the discovery of plastic explosive was relatively rare. Forces encountered the maximum resistance at Jatwar village where the guerillas fired on helicopter attempting to airdrop supplies for troops camped at the village.

This correspondent couldn't reach Jatwar and Hikonar, but the Maoist report claims the guerilla attacked the forces between Hikonar and Jatwar and injured two CoBRA commandoes; a helicopter was dispatched to evacuate the injured but the Maoists were allegedly “at its back like honeybees.” The report also claimed that forces burnt a home in Jatwar and damaged houses and property in villages across Bijapur and Gadchiroli but the allegations could not be independently verified.

In Abujmard, as elsewhere in Chhattisgarh, the ripple effects of State and Maoist intervention in adivasi villages has made it difficult to distinguish between guerillas and villagers, “camps” and “villages,” Maoist propaganda centres from government ashrams and ‘Maoist rations' from the subsidised rice distributed by the state government.

Apart from reports of civilian deaths and property damage, the outcomes of “Operation Hakka” are still unclear. Senior officers acquainted with the operation freely admit that the weeklong exercise is unlikely to significantly change the situation on the ground.

“Towards the end it became an exercise in endurance,” said a senior officer speaking on background. “All exchanges of fire were over long distances…the two officers injured were struck by lucky hits from well over 400 yards. Why would the Maoists attack us directly?”

The nature of the recoveries — one 303 rifle, a 12 bore, five country made shotguns, Maoist literature, samples of plastic explosive and a portable printer — belie the existence of a so-called ‘Red Citadel' that can be stormed by military action.

“The operation has busted the myth of a single Maoist stronghold if anyone still believed it,” explained a source, “The Maoists are not fighting a positional war in which they try to hold and defend territory.” Instead, the guerillas in Chhattisgarh are organised into a series of 12 fighting companies that camp as discrete units, coalesce to attack when they have the upper hand and fade away into the rolling hills when confronted by a superior force. One option, officers believe, is to expand the imprint of the force by setting up camps across Abujmard. The move could be accompanied by expanding informer networks to allow for intelligence-based strikes.

“Those inclined to view Operation Hakka as a strike at the heart of the Maoist stronghold would do well to remember Mao's dictum of guerrilla warfare reproduced in a document titled ‘Strategies and Tactics of the Indian Revolution', “When the enemy advances, we retreat; when the enemy camps, we harass; when the enemy tires, we attack; when the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

aman.sethi@thehindu.co.in

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