The finest police guide in the crack team plunged in the dark into the grave-sized hole, camouflaged by twigs and grass. He groaned in pain, his right leg gored by sharp iron spikes jutting from the soil.
The six-feet deep booby trap – the kind often laid for American soldiers by Vietcong rebels during the Vietnam War – had delayed by hours the Oct. 23 jungle operation against Maoist guerrillas in the remote Chhattisgarh forest. Even before the policemen faced the first Maoist fighter, even before the first bullet was fired, the battle had begun.
“We gave him an injection but he began to faint. `Saheb, I need to go back’, he said,” recounted Sub-Inspector Naresh Chauhan, who commanded 168 men in the Oct. 23 jungle raid.
Thousands more such traps have been laid, and numerous other guerrilla warfare tactics await soldiers across the 40,000-sq km Bastar region of southern Chhattisgarh – soon to become India’s main theatre of insurgency conflict.
Paramilitary soldiers are pouring in from Kashmir and elsewhere, and they have much to adapt to apart from their ongoing training in tribal customs and manners.
“In an operation on October 29, they put cows in front of us. They often hide behind cows. They take advantage of our (Hindu, cow-worshipping) mentality,” said Satwant Singh Yadav, an assistant commandant of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Yadav was nearly killed in a June 8 operation he led – he had even recorded dying instructions for his men on his mobile phone’s video recorder. He just got back to work.
“They have small detonators fixed to arrows. Children grazing cattle aim them at trees and shoot – it creates a small explosion. A signal for others as we approach their positions,” said Yadav, playing with a glass paperweight at his canopied office in a camp at Cherpal village. “They have poison-tipped arrows.”
The operation is also witnessing rare political unity.
“Chidambaram is 101 per cent positive,” Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, a BJP leader, told the Hindustan Times. “Politics doesn’t matter. At least he is showing will power. He is working in the right direction.”
Fear of a violent flare-up is sweeping across villages amid reports of the arrival of troops.
“We hear the forces are coming. God knows what will happen,” said Lekam Lakhmu, 36, of Jangla village, as he stood by the roadside, his right foot playing with the edge of his axe.
“My relatives are about to come here from their villages in the interior, before operations begin,” he said. “We are scared. Police say we have links with the Naxalites.”
To address that, a new, lucrative cottage industry has popped up. Touts and agents are getting ID cards made for villagers from village headmen – to prove that they are not Naxalites.
“We have been hearing that if we don’t have identity cards, we will be killed,” said Chhanu Kadli, 39, of Munder village, as he held up his new card.
Across the vast hinterland draped in dense Sal and teak forests, thousands of children have grown up without ever having seen the face of a teacher or a doctor or a local official. There are no police stations for hundreds of kilometres, no telephones, no electricity and no roads.
The dirt tracks are laced with land mines, which cause 90 per cent of the average of 100 police deaths ever year.
“This is many levels more difficult than Kashmir,” said Bijapur’s 29-year-old Superintendent of Police Avinash Mohanty.
“All operations are on foot. In the jungles there are no roads. You could have 15 men surrounded by 200 Naxalites in a forest with no reinforcements for hours, its just you – on your own,” said the Oriya electrical engineer who grew up in Hyderabad and has witnessed Kashmir operations.
“I know one thing: my men are true heroes.”