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India: Bihar police in no mood to fight the Naxals

No comfort The  Kajra Police Station in  its dilapidated glory

Operation Green Hunt is in disarray. Bihar’s forces are in no mood to fight the Naxals

BY VK SHASHIKUMAR

Broken will -- Members of the Bihar Special Auxiliary Police look desolate while taking a break from Naxal ops

YOU DID nothing for me. The police and the government did nothing to rescue me. My family negotiated with the Naxals for my release. I am pleading with folded hands, please let me go home. I will not accompany you to the police station. I don’t want to be in the police.” –Sub-Inspector Abhay Yadav to Lakhisarai Superintendent of Police, Ranjit Kumar Mishra, after the Maoists released him on 6 September.

Eventually Lakhisarai’s new SP forced Abhay, Rupesh Sinha and Mohammad Ehsan Khan, the three surviving policemen from the abductors, to take a detour to the police station for a debrief session. These policemen survived an eight-day ordeal as captives of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) in Lakhisarai, Bihar. The PLGA is the armed wing of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), popularly known as Naxals.

It is unlikely that Abhay will give up his job. Employment in the government service, especially the police, is coveted because it brings in unaccounted wealth. “I want to leave my job. But my family will decide,” he says. “Dheeraj Rakhiye” (Please be patient). These words were used every time a police officer spoke to those in the lower ranks. But each expression brought despair and a sense of inadequacy to the policemen in Lakhisarai, Jamui, Munger and Banka.

In some areas of the dense hills connecting these districts, several teams of the Bihar Police and the CRPF staged short bursts of combing operations to trace the kidnapped policemen. Some, like Jawaharlal Singh, assistant sub-inspector, Jamui Police Station, berated curious villagers: “Your netas are responsible for Naxalism. They create the problem, they use Naxals for political one-upmanship and we have to face the brunt of it.”

Several policemen, overwhelmed by the killing of Lucas Tete, admitted that the writ of the government runs dry across a large swath of Lakhisarai. Tete was killed when the state government refused to release eight imprisoned Naxal commanders.

‘What am I doing here? I ask this question to myself. I feel like leaving the force. But what will I do if I leave?’ asks SI Prasad

“What am I doing here? I often ask this question to myself. I feel like leaving the force. But what will I do if I leave? How will I earn? My family wants me to quit police service. But when I am jobless and unable to provide for my family, will they treat me well?” asks SI Rajendra Prasad of Kajra Police Station. The post is barely 15 km from the spot where four policemen were kidnapped after a skirmish with the Naxals on 29 August. Seven policemen were killed and 10 injured.

With the state government failing to put a rescue plan in action, Abhay’s father, Indu Prasad Yadav, contacted his caste brethren linked to PLGA commander and self-styled spokesperson for Naxal operations in eastern Bihar, Avinash alias Arjun Yadav.

“The appeal made by all political parties, including Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad and the pressure mounted by the Yadav community on caste leaders within the PLGA led to the release of Abhay, Rupesh and Ehsan. The government did nothing,” says Sambhu Yadav, Abhay’s uncle, who received the three captive policemen at 6 am in Simra Rari, a Naxalheld region of Lakhisarai.

POLICEMEN IN Bihar don’t want to fight the Naxals. They have AK-47 and INSAS rifles but aren’t trained for jungle warfare. They are not led by officers who lead from the front. They admit that the Naxal tactics are superior to theirs. “Why would a policeman want to die in the line of duty? I joined the police because it gives me power, influence and prestige. These villagers come to me because I am a bada babu. I joined for law and order duties, not engage Naxals in combat,” confesses Atul Kumar Mishra, the SHO of Chanan Police Station. He was waiting for the Banu Bagicha village chowkidar to return from the Morve Dam area, a stronghold of the Naxals, after they announced they would free the hostages.

Every rural police circle in Bihar has 23 village chowkidars who are paid Rs. 1,200 and used as informers and spotters. Mishra, camping at Banu Bagicha’s defunct Block Office, felt insecure in spite of 25 well-armed Special Auxiliary Police (SAP) accompanying him. “India can win the Kargil war but not this war, not this way,” he says.

No comfort The Kajra Police Station in its dilapidated glory

Policemen in Naxal-dominated areas have an informal standard operating procedure (SOP). First, stay out of areas that have Naxal presence. Second, after 6 pm, ensure that the station they are holed up in is well protected from a Naxal attack. The idea is not to fight back, but ensure that they don’t lose their lives. “I have trained 30 stray dogs. They don’t allow anyone inside the premises after dusk,” a policeman says. After 6 pm, any crime within a police station’s jurisdiction goes unattended till daybreak.

Meanwhile, Prasad can’t shake off his gloomy, introspective mood ever since 29 August. “We have no comforts. We don’t have a place to stay. Several police stations in Naxal-dominated areas are functioning from dilapidated, rented buildings. This police station used to be a Congress party office. We built our barrack by raising funds from local residents.

Our welfare must be taken care of for us to get mentally attuned to combat duty,” says Prasad.

Besides, they are trained for regular policing duties, not for combat operations. “I went through police training 25 years ago. Since then I haven’t had the chance to retrain and re-skill. I can aim and shoot, but don’t know what to do in a combat situation. I am not trained for jungle warfare. How can I survive an encounter with the Naxals in the jungles?” asks Prasad.

BIHAR POLICEMEN are seething with anger. “We will lose our jobs because service rules prohibit us from telling the truth,” says a policeman. There are a lot of uncertainties to be afraid of. “What if we are ordered into combat without planning? Death is certain.” The sight of their dead colleagues provoked the BMP personnel to thrash former Lakhisarai SP Ashok Singh for pushing them into a Naxal ambush. Senior officials, including IG (Operation) KS Dwivedi and ADG (Headquarters) PK Thakur denied that Singh was assaulted. Denials notwithstanding, he was transferred out of Lakhisarai three days after the incident.

“For 10 days prior to the 29 August encounter, we were alerted almost every day by intelligence reports of a Jehanabad- type attack in Lakhisarai. There are several Naxals imprisoned in the Lakhisarai jail. We were told that Naxals would attempt a jailbreak, attack the District Magistrate’s office and the CRPF camp at Kajra,” says Rajendra Prasad, a distressed sub-inspector of Kajra Police Station. This was corroborated by the commandant of CRPF’s 131 battalion, Bidhan Chandra Patra. “SP Ashok Singh told me that he received an intelligence input of 30 Naxals moving in the Lakhisarai forest. He said there was no specific input, just a generic alert and that he was putting together a team to conduct area domination exercise and get back. There was no intimation of the possibility of a gunbattle. So I passed instruction to assemble a team of 34 CRPF soldiers.”

Singh put together a force of 43 policemen, 20 from the SAP and 23 from the Bihar Military Police to launch combat operations. “Our intelligence input said that there were at least 500 Naxals in the hills. But the SP, in an unusually strange decision, put together a small combat force,” reveals Prasad. SI Bhulan Yadav, who was killed in the encounter, was inexperienced in counter-insurgency operations. Yet, he was deputed as the leader of the combat unit. Mishra, a close friend of Bhulan, was the last person to receive his call. “Bhulan called asking me to inform the SP to send reinforcements. Then his phone disconnected abruptly. I repeatedly called back but could not get through.”

Mishra and Prasad revealed that Singh did not follow the SOP laid down after the Dantewada massacre. “A detailed strategy is formulated, GPS coordinates are set before the force begins its movement. But Ashok Singh did not make a plan,” Mishra says. “He knew that we were operating in undulating, hilly forest terrain. He knew the topography. He should have been aware, going by the recent ambushes in Chhattisgarh that the Naxals will occupy higher ground and lure the policemen into a trap.” CRPF commandant Patra concurs. “The SOP was not followed. Once force is assembled the commanders discuss the terrain, topography and intelligence. This is explained to the troops using sand models and Survey of India maps,” he says.

Bhulan’s inexperience in combat operations resulted in splitting in the team splitting in two different directions. He asked the CRPF contingent to move towards the right and patrol the Ghaghar Ghati area and Morve Dam, while he moved in with his men towards Kanimai and Sitala Kodasi villages.

As the police party moved into the villages, they came under heavy fire from both sides. Bihar Police officers claim that when their men were ambushed, the CRPF troops withdrew instead of retaliating and providing cover fire to rescue the trapped men. “Our men regained higher ground to provide cover fire, which enabled 36 men to escape,” asserts Patra. That the Bihar Police surrendered is barely mentioned. “After we came under heavy fire, the Naxals kept announcing we should surrender or everyone would get killed. We surrendered because the CRPF withdrew,” says Abhay.

Bihar Police claim that when their men were ambushed, the CRPF troops withdrew instead of retaliating and providing cover

“They treated the injured personnel, bandaged those who were wounded, gave water to those who asked for it and asked them to leave. They collected all the weapons and asked four of us to accompany them into the jungle.” Later, the Naxals informed local journalists that they had seized 35 INSAS and AK-47 rifles.

The Bihar Police is facing a severe crisis of confidence. According to protocol, a deputy commandant of CRPF is equivalent to the rank of an SP. Yet, it is rare for a SP to go out for combat. “Officers don’t lead, they just pass orders. If senior officers can’t lead us on combat duty why should we put our lives in danger?” asks Yadav.

Naresh Kumar, who teaches at the Janta Mahavidyalaya, Surajgarha, emphasises his primary identity is that of a farmer. Surrounded by friends and villagers of Alinagar, Naresh, loses himself in a tirade against Bihar’s politicians. His list of complaints is long.

“Ration cards are not issued to people living below the poverty line in Alinagar; the widow pension scheme is on paper and not being implemented by the babus; those who can pay 60 percent commission to the gram sabha are availing subsidised housing loans through the Indira Awas Yojana; there are no free medicines either in public hospitals or primary health centres as promised by the government,” he says.

“If the bank manager is paid a bribe of Rs.5,000, he will process the land owner-ship certificate and promptly issue the Kisan Credit Card worth Rs 50,000; the Asha scheme for pregnant women with the objective of decreasing the Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Rate is not being implemented as well,” he says.

‘Senior officers just pass orders. If seniors can’t lead us during combat, why should we put our lives in danger?’ asks Abhay

THE ALINAGAR locality in Lakhisarai is a microcosm of people’s sentiment in rural Bihar. They are sympathetic to the Naxalites. They don’t trust the State. The angry voices from the ground explain why the Maoist insurgency is expanding in Bihar. Nobody in Alinagar has benefited from the employment guarantee scheme, though it is officially under implementation. “All politicians work for those with money. The bureaucracy is always looking out to loot us. There is no equality. So why is everyone surprised by the growth of Naxals?” says Naresh.

Perhaps, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has sensed the mood of the people. “The pace of development has to be accelerated and corruption removed in execution of development schemes to uproot Naxalism,” he said at the Patna Medical College Hospital after meeting policemen injured in the 29 August encounter.

Perhaps, he should visit Banu Bagicha village, which is barely 5 km from the spot where captive policemen were released by the Naxals. The villagers have been waiting for eight years for the fully constructed Block Office to begin functioning. The district administration built an office complex but locked it up for “security” reasons.

In fact, four days before the 29 August skirmish, Lakhisarai DM Manish Kumar visited Banu Bagicha and told the villagers: “Hand over five Naxals and I will ensure the Block Office is made functional.” Banu Bagicha villagers walk 15 km to Mananpur Block Office for official documentation like land registration and securing caste certificates for jobs and educational purposes.

Phakira Yadav, a leading opinion maker of the village, quipped: “If the DM demands five Naxals to be handed over, isn’t it better if we join the Naxals? How can we hand over Naxals to the police? We are caught between the two gunwielding groups.”

PHOTOS: SHAILENDRA PANDEY

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 37, September 18, 2010