For the CRPF in Dantewada, deployment has become an end in itself.
The debate over troop deployment in Chhattisgarh, always a subject of intense discussion, has acquired urgency after Home Minister P. Chidambaram suggested that the deployment pattern of the CRPF in Bastar be “revisited.”
Mr. Chidambaram's remarks were made after the June 30 attack in which 27 CRPF personnel were killed in a CPI (Maoist) ambush four kilometres from their camp in Narayanpur district. The Narayanpur ambush occurred three months after 76 security personnel were fatally ambushed 5 km from the CRPF camp in Chintalnar.
The CRPF has assisted the state police since the creation of Chhattisgarh in 2000. In 2003, a Central High Powered Committee decided to deploy the CRPF in Chhattisgarh on a permanent basis and use the force in anti-Maoist operations. At the time, Chhattisgarh was hosting about six CRPF battalions (about 6,000 men) and one Naga battalion. In 2006, the State asked for 7 to 10 additional battalions to tackle the fall-out from the rising Salva Judum-related violence.
“At present the CRPF has about 14 regular battalions and another 2 CoBRA battalions in Chhattisgarh,” said R.K. Dua, Inspector-General CRPF for Chhattisgarh, “of which four battalions are currently posted in Dantewada.”
As seen in the map, most of the CRPF camps in Dantewada are strung out along a 150 km arc connecting the township of Kukonda to the Salva Judum camp at Dornapal, via Jagargunda — perhaps the most fortified square kilometer in Dantewada.
A police station since the 1950s, Jagargunda expanded into a major government backed settlement during the Salva Judum: a controversial programme in which the state government tried to move villagers from the forests into fortified camps. Today it houses about 3000 civilians and a company of the CRPF, and provides a useful illustration of the CRPF's deployment troubles.
Although the camp is only about 80 km from Dantewada town, the Maoists have extensively mined the 20 km stretch between Jagargunda and Aranpur, the closest CRPF outpost on the Dantewada-Jagargunda axis. Thus, Jagargunda can only be accessed via a 100 km detour running south-southeast from Kuakonda to Dornapal via Sukma along NH 221. From Dornapal, one must traverse another 70 km past the CRPF camps at Polampalli, Kankerlanka, Chintagupha and Chintalnar before reaching Jagargunda.
The idea was, and still is, to complete the severed Jagargunda-Aranpur stretch, thereby creating a fortified perimeter enclosing slightly more than a fifth of the district's area. But at present, Jagargunda is at the dead-end of a broken and heavily mined road to nowhere. Supplies for troops are dropped off using helicopters. Once every two or three months, more than a thousand troops fan out along the road-side to provide cover for ration-bearing trucks moving from Dornapal to Jagargunda.
This linear arrangement of camps allows the Maoists to choke the CRPF's supply lines at will. The 10 kilometres between camps makes it difficult to send reinforcements in case of an ambush. Each camp houses between 100 and 120 soldiers. If 70 are out on patrol, the 30 remaining soldiers are necessary to protect the camp.
In an emergency, troops have to come from camps even further down the line. According to sources, a reinforcement party, travelling on foot, covers between two and 2.5 km an hour. Thus, even though the ambushes in Tarmetla and Dhaudai took place about 5 km from their respective camps, three hours elapsed before reinforcements showed up. By then, the CRPF had lost more than 100 men in the two incidents.
“Right now, instead of us choking their bases, the Maoists are choking ours,” said a senior police officer.
So what is the rationale behind the current deployment: to keep supply lines open? Protect the civilian population? Provide cover for infrastructure development? Serve as a strategic forward operating base in the heart of Maoist territory?
“To be honest, I have no definite answers,” said a senior CRPF officer involved with deployment, “There is no written record justifying the current arrangement, though my information suggests that the CRPF resisted this deployment.”
IG Dua said that the while he could not comment on deployment prior to his appointment, he is insisting that all future deployment have clearly worked out objectives.
“When deploying your troops you need to consider both logistics and strategy,” said a senior police officer who has served in Dantewada, “If you keep compromising the strategic in favour of the logistic, your deployment eventually becomes very well supplied but operationally meaningless.”
But at present, senior officers in the CRPF and the police admit that deployment has become an objective in itself.
“Commandants spend most of their time and troops on securing ‘adam' movement,” said a CoBRA officer speaking on background, “All they do is provide security for troops going on leave, or troops coming back to their companies. With the current strength, how can they conduct a proper operation?”
In the past, the CRPF has expressed its preference for a “grid-based” pattern — a troop-intensive configuration where camps are set up in a self-reinforcing network. “It means you place camps at the corners of a grid,” said Mr. Dua, arranging the pens on his desk in a series of inter-connected rectangles to make a mesh. This allows the CRPF to effectively control a large area, makes it easier to move men, materials and reinforcements from one camp to another and opens up multiple supply routes.
The deployment in districts such as Rajnandgaon and Kanker is an approximation of the grid pattern, but sources said that the deployment in districts like Bijapur, Narayanpur and Dantewada, three districts with the highest troop casualties, grew “organically” and was critically shaped by the Salva Judum. At its peak over 50,000 forest dwellers were moved into these guarded hamlets which became CPI (Maoist) targets. Areas like Jagargunda, once connected to the rest of the district via three motorable roads, were entirely cut-off by the Maoists and the CRPF was deployed to reclaim the area.
“The Jagargunda supply line was the sole purpose behind the entire deployment along this axis,” said an officer at CRPF intelligence, “later on, these same camps were converted into forward operating bases.” Setting up a camp from scratch takes about 2 to 3 months, implying that redeployment is a slow and painful process.
“In a counterinsurgency operation there is no strategic retreat,” said Chhattisgarh Director-General of Police, Viswaranjan, “that means abandoning a population that supported you and ceding territory to the Maoists.” According to Mr. Viswaranjan, Dantewada doesn't have enough troops to support a grid and that the configuration of camps shall improve “incrementally” as more troops are gradually brought in. At present, it appears that deployment may be “revisited,” but not reconfigured.