India is raising an unnamed jungle commando outfit of young tribal men in Chhattisgarh's Bastar to counter Maoist guerrillas.
Cobra, the most elite commando unit of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), has so far trained and absorbed 300 men aged 18 to 30.
six-month gruelling course at CRPF's Lanjhi forest camp in Bastar is perhaps the world's longest training module in jungle warfare. The Ranger School at Fort Benning, US, has a similar but shorter, 61-day course.
The driving philosophy: Locals know their habitat best. In Bastar's dense saal forests where one of the world's bloodiest guerrilla wars is fought, stealth is precious.
In the war that is fought behind trees, darkness, glowworms and birdcalls, and where sniper bullets lurk, the local tribals' instincts and familiarity with the terrain are an asset.
"There's no foolproof strategy in this war. You have to keep trying new things," says Zulfiquar Hasan, inspector general, CRPF, Chhattisgarh.
The commandos are trained to pick up Maoists' tracks, identify fake animal calls used by the enemy as signal, survive for a week or more without carrying food - eating animals and plants and extracting water from spongy roots - and using a range of guns.
They use naptha balls to light small, hard-to-detect fires which don't emit smoke of odour.
They can tell a poisonous berry from an edible one.
"Their local expertise and intuitiveness is proving to be a huge asset against the Naxalites," says Uday Divyanshu, commander of the 204 Cobra battalion.
The tribal commandoes are being used mainly to track down Maoists from the faintest clues and to evacuate injured soldiers.
At the Cobra headquarters in Karanpur, HT met five members of the new elite jungle force last week.
Their favourite diet in the forests: Instant noodles.
"But when it gets over, we make do with what the forest offers," says a 22-year-old freshly-trained commando from Bastar's Gond tribe.
His next mission after joining the force: To get married.
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