Sixteen tribals, claimed to be innocent by no less than the Union Tribal Affairs minister, were killed one night late last month in 'encounters' in Chhatisgarh. Apparently, three Maoists were also killed in the operation, and six CRPF men sustained injuries as well. No inquiry has been ordered, with the CRPF top brass privy to the internal report convincing the home minister that none is necessary.

However, after 'fact finding', civil society activists such as Professor Nandini Sundar assert that civilians died that night even though no Maoists were in sight. In the absence of an inquiry, reconstruction of what happened can only be from news reports.

The CRPF version is that there was information of a Maoist meeting to be held in the general area. A three-pronged operation was planned from CRPF camps in the vicinity to converge on the meeting in the hope of apprehending the Maoists. A Times of India report carries mention of 400 troops being employed. The columns would likely have comprised the armed auxiliary formed by tribal SPOs, the police and armed police, with the CRPF and its better trained COBRA elements providing the muscle power. While the CRPF head would be commanding at tactical level, the local district SP, of the IPS, would have had overall control. The IG (Operations) in the state capital would have been in monitoring mode.

While procedural, operational and logistical remedial measures can be taken by the CRPF, it is a wholly different problem in both magnitude and kind to be able to create soldiers able to best the challenge of the jungle.

 •  A job for an infantryman
 •  Democracy in the deep woods

The intrepid Times of India reporter, Rakhi Chakraborty, reporting from the general area after the incident, paints a picture of the general area as one that has witnessed several explosions of improvised explosive devices along the lone road in the area. The camps of the CRPF are along the road and have been engaged in self-protection and defensive action restricted to road opening for logistics access. Beyond lies the forest into which governmental authority does not penetrate, nor does its armed police. In effect, the CRPF in the camps was unfamiliar with the terrain and not up to the offensive operations by night in the middle of the forest.

It is no wonder then that as the operation got underway they 'encountered' opposition. Arriving at the village in question in which the Maoists were said to be in a meeting in the presence of villagers, the CRPF reports that it drew fire, whereupon it was forced to fire back in self-defence. It is possible that the Maoists were surprised by the boldness of the CRPF to have penetrated the jungle. In this case, it would likely to have been led by tribal SPOs who have terrain knowledge and are adept in jungle movement. However, it is difficult for a large column moving in the jungle to maintain surprise. It is too much to expect of a motley force to tactically maneuver into cordon silently and then spring the surprise.

What might have happened is the opening of fire by Maoists to create a melee so as to flee under its cover. This would have left the villagers attending the meeting out in the open. It is unlikely that original exchange of fire would have accounted for 16 villagers, since firstly the Maoists would have first engaged in a quick reaction and then fled. The elements of the security column in the front would have returned fire and taken position. The elements in the rear are unlikely to have seen anything nor opened fire.

At this point one can expect of a trained force reassertion of command and control and fire control, beginning from corporal rank upwards. However, knowing the complexion of the force and aware of training levels of the CRPF, it is very likely the converse occurred.

It is not unlikely that the officer in charge was to the middle of the column since the front elements would have been under their respective corporals and warrant officers. By the time the hierarchy would have gained situational awareness, much ammunition would have been expended. Firings in such situations by inadequately trained troops is usually prophylactic and also to expiate their own fear. Under such firing, it is difficult for the leader to move, gain situational awareness and ascendancy over his troops once again.

The kind of leadership required for this can be expected to be missing in armed police forces. Intimate supervision by their cadre officers is absent since cadre officers who are superior to those at the frontline are divested of authority as the troops are operating in support of the police, led by the district SP from the IPS. Those supervising operations are comfortably away from the frontline in headquarters operations rooms.

Such a leadership vacuum is not without effect. SPOs, due to their local knowledge and tribal instinct for the jungle, become more venturesome. Since they lead columns and therefore bear higher risk, they cannot but be allowed greater leeway. The cost is, in a firefight they would likely adopt a 'Rambo' profile. The police and CRPF in their wake, less adept in jungle lore, is equally likely to be trigger happy, but out of funk, with the action being a form of release.

In a jungle with swaying trees, rustling leaves and varying patterns of moonlight and dark, every bush can be imagined as a Maoist or with a Maoist lurking behind it. This is how more ammunition gets 'poofed off' than warranted. This is probably how 16 bodies got lined up that night.

An inquiry would certainly not have revealed all this, by asking about ammunition and the numbers who fired. The higher the numbers, the greater the chaos, easily explaining the deaths. Even an honest inquiry would instead have looked at the information, the planning and preparation, the tactical reaction and the contingency responses. More likely it would have been to push the muck under the carpet. The psychological and emotive aspect of combat, brought out here, would certainly have been missed. The confidential inquiry after the Chintalnar episode of 2010, in which 75 CRPF bravehearts were killed by Maoists, has no doubt pointed out the gaps. These have over the past two years been equally likely to have been plugged. This has given the CRPF confidence to venture out again into the jungles, resulting in the latest Sarkeguda killings.

While procedural, operational and logistical remedial measures can be taken, it is a wholly different problem in both magnitude and kind to be able to create soldiers able to best the challenge of the jungle. This is not impossible, as the World War II mastering of the jungle by the Indian army indicates. The difference is then it was under masterly leadership and with the urgency of a grave threat. The manner in which Operation Green Hunt has been unfolding as an operation that isn't! does not inspire confidence.

This begs the question as to why the CRPF is being sent out on such duty. Is the answer at the individual level of analysis? The home minister would like to break out of the opposition's ring of allegations. The CRPF head, Vijay Kumar, has a reputation to protect, one formed on his exploits in the jungle in pursuit of Veerappan. Or is it at the organisational level? The CRPF has to prove itself as the custodian for internal security. Its dismal showing in Kashmir in replacing the BSF has resulted in the army insisting on staying on under the AFSPA. Or is it at the political level with the state government hurrying to vacate the 'liberated zones' for corporate access?

The right lesson from the episode, that no state sponsored inquiry would have alighted at, is that only the army can do the job. If it is politically inexpedient to use it, then there is no alternative to a peace process. Some good can still come out of the sorry incident.