Fire and the Forest | An encounter with the Maoists

Group Photograph with the Team Members at Adhaura after the Soli Encounter with some of the Recoveries Made

I can never forget the early morning of 3rd September, 2008, when I had one of the closest encounters with the Maoists near a village school located on the top of the Rohtas-Kaimur Plateau. This village named Soli was at a distance of about 10 kms from the Dhansa valley junction, where one reached on the plateau after travelling uphill on unmetalled road laden with probable landmines for about 22 kms from Rohtas Police Station downhill. In those days the road to Rohtas itself at a distance of 45 kms from the District Police Headquarters was in a pathetic state of disrepair, and consumed not less than 3 hours of body shaking journey by road. The next 22 kms of unmetalled forest road to Dhansa took about 30 minutes, and then the forest road took about 40 kms to reach Adhaura on the other side of the plateau, where one had access to metalled road and means of communication. For about 40 kms from Dhansa to Adhaura, one was literally left with no communication even in 2008, since the wireless sets could not communicate with the district headquarters and further since there were no mobile towers in the hilly territory about 1500 feet above sea level, which was also thus understood as a liberated zone by the Maoists. The only Police Station on the hills was at Adhaura reaching which from the side of Rohtas was not easy. We found a solution for communication using satellite phones during later operations on the hills, but on this morning we had none. The biggest weapon and strategy that we had was surprise, which I was quite confident to be safe.

I was then new to the district having joined on the 4th August, 2008. As a new Superintendent of Police in the Maoist affected district, my first priority was to properly understand the area and its difficult terrain. I needed to look for safe bases where forces could camp and from where operations could be launched into the forests. I had the experience of having worked earlier in the forests of Bagaha on the Nepal border, where I had been quite successful in containing the Maoists by a mixed strategy which included both planned operations as well as involving the community in policing. But the terrain of Rohtas was much different from that of Bagaha. While Bagaha had not yet witnessed an IED blast on the road, it had been repeated several times in Rohtas resulting in heavy casualty of the forces. Though both the places did not have concrete roads in the operational areas, the danger of IED’s was real in the case of Rohtas. Further, to launch any operation one had to travel uphill into the den of the Maoists having no police presence and using the same mined roads for not less than 22 kms from any access point. Travelling on foot could not advance one daily for more than 10 kms in the hostile territory, and I as a new Superintendent of Police wanted to do it fast in order to see the jurisdiction I had been entrusted with along with its share of problems. The tactical operations could be conducted only after the leader had well understood the area. For the same purpose I extensively used the weapons of surprise and courage, and reached points uphill using vehicles in the wee hours of the night in order to be present in the operational area for not more than 2 hours after daylight, extensively photographing the terrain and always on the move. Never did we use the same route during the return.

The Forest Road from Rohtas to Adhaura near the Village of Soli in the Monsoons – Photograph from another visit

Vehicles moving up the Dhansa Valley could be clearly seen by those uphill – Photograph from March, 2009 from the Top. Thus night travel had the Surprise element !

The area domination and understanding exercises were proceeding well as I was about to complete a month in the new district. I had made 3 good vehicular trips to the hills in one of which I could locate a road once planned by the British government which could lead the tourist directly on vehicles to the Rohtasgarh Fort. I had taken photographs of places which had probably never earlier been photographed. I had seen the school buildings at Dhansa and Budhua on the hills along with the blasted Forest Rest House at Rehal. I had also made two camps at Rohtasgarh Fort. The views atop the hills had been mesmerizing and continuously motivated me to visit again. I wanted to visit the school at Soli which I was told could accommodate more than 200 persons during an operation. I had this in mind when I met Kamaljit Singh from the Indian Forest Service who had just joined as the Divisional Forest Officer of Rohtas. We had moved around together in the forests of Bagaha where Kamaljit was then being trained and shared a great rapport. He wanted to see his forests but was concerned about the safety of moving in a forest where one had earlier during 2002 witnessed the killing of the then Divisional Forest Officer by the Maoists. I offered him to join the movement planned for Soli since with the Police he could safely see the forests the conservation of which he was entrusted with.

Thus an operation was planned at around 8 pm on the night of 2nd September, 2008. To retain the surprise, I called for a contingent of the Special Task Force to report at my Residence in Dehri-on-Sone at midnight and also asked the Sub Divisional Police Officers of Dehri and Sasaram for the same. Mithilesh Kumar Singh, then SDPO, Dehri, was a seasoned officer having led many successful anti-Maoist operations and was always confident and ready for more. P Kannan, then SDPO cum ASP of Sasaram was new into the service and was very enthusiastic and sincerely always ready for the next operation. The operation as planned began with a small briefing around midnight. The aim was to reach Dhansa before light in order to maintain the surprise till we reached uphill. For the Maoists, it was difficult to distinguish police vehicles from a distance in the night when their scouts were normally asleep, and we had often used this time. The rain God was also in our favour as he blessed us with slight rain which made our move till Dhansa almost unnoticed by anyone.

The Dhansa Valley Top – Waiting for a Head Count as Vehicles drive uphill – Photograph from another date

As we reached Dhansa from Rohtas, we could meet some tractors going both uphill and downhill who were looking at us with surprise since they had not seen the police indulging in such risks frequently. As planned we reached Dhansa around 4.30 am and after counting the heads advanced ahead. I along with the DFO and ASP, Sasaram were seated in a civilian Tavera vehicle often used as a tactical mislead for the Maoists in such areas, while SDPO, Dehri moving in the front was seated in a regular police jeep. The forest road we were moving upon was seen like a patch of red between lush green forests with routes into villages quite clearly marked by the absence of patches of vegetation and tire marks. The school of Soli was about a km from the main Rohtas-Adhaura forest road. As we approached Soli, Mithileshji, SDPO, Dehri, having visited the village much earlier got confused and turned into the wrong road. My driver Indradeo Yadav, hailing from a village near Adhaura noticed the mistake and being very familiar with the terrain took the lead bringing my civilian vehicle into the front. A Bullet Proof Gypsy with young constables of Bihar Military Police 1st Battalion were just behind my vehicle followed by the SDPO, Dehri and his escort vehicle. The STF was behind along with the SAP contingent which was seated in an Anti-Landmine vehicle. The STF was moving in about 4 vehicles which included an Anti-Landmine vehicle. With the contingent of these 9 vehicles and about 60 men, we were moving at good speed on the forest roads as we took a turn for Soli.

The Soli School Photographed on a Later Date – The Maoist Sentry was standing across the boundary near the Tree as our Vehicle approached the Gate of the School.

The time was about 5 am with clear light as we entered the village and noticed routine activities going on with some people freshening up in the fields and others collecting water or engaged otherwise. The school was in the middle of the village with houses around at a distance. As my vehicle took a turn to approach the main gate of the school from its boundary, it reached the gate within no time and I could notice a man standing with a 7.62mm Self Loading Rifle (SLR) pointed at us. The distance between him and our vehicle was hardy 6 to 8 feet and had he fired we may not have survived to share the experience. But destiny had it otherwise. We were deep inside the so called liberated zone of the Maoists with virtually no communication with the outside world for a distance of not less than 20 kms on either side and had met them. Seeing the armed Maoist cadre looking at us unaware at such a close distance came like an unexpected surprise since it was a school building that was planned to be visited, and Maoist presence in a School was unthought of. For a fraction of a moment on seeing the SLR, I felt as if it was a police constable on sentry duty guarding the premises. But it did not take much time to realise that we had encountered the hostile enemy and had to immediately take recourse to tactics if we were to survive.

Fire started from the Terrace on the Left as we took cover and the sentry rushed inside. I was lying just near the gate on the left taking cover of the wall while the fire was continously going on in different directions

As the driver screamed, the Maoist sentry realized that it was the police which had reached the school in those early hours in that civilian vehicle, and taken by surprise he too probably got very afraid and instead of firing at us started running away from us inside the school to alert his companions. In no time, we jumped out of the vehicle and took cover under whatever seemed like a cover and the fire started from all sides virtually. A Maoist sleeping on the top of the school terrace started firing with automatic weapons to keep us under cover and to probably allow his cadres to escape. We took positions around the school boundary and started firing. Fire was coming from all sides since out of the about 50 Maoists in the village, about 25 had stayed in the school building for the night while the others were staying in different houses of the village and all simultaneously started firing randomly to confuse the police. As everyone got out of the vehicles to take cover, the vehicles were stranded on the only approach road at the locations where they stood at the time when the fire started. The vehicles behind in the carcade included the precious Anti Landmine vehicles which could hear the sounds of firing but could not proceed ahead to reinforce us due to the pathway being blocked with the stranded vehicles. There was almost a sort of total confusion for about 10 minutes with hundreds of rounds being fired from either side and as the Maoists were at times noticed escaping into the nearby forests starting just behind the school.

Not being familiar with the school terrain, we were not aware about the gate behind the school which led into the forests. I could see some Maoists jumping down the terrace to escape bullets of which 2 seemed to be injured in some way. As the firing continued, the drivers of the Anti Landmine Vehicles found their way to the school using the fields. Seeing the armoured vehicles approach, the Maoist who had been rallying continuous shots at us also jumped down on the other side and continued firing till he could find his safe retreat into the jungle. After about 15 minutes it could be realized that it was time to barge into the school where about 100 young students were seated huddled with tremendous fear in their eyes in the main compound. These young lots had witnessed all the firing at such close quarters. It was due to these students that we could not use grenades or other automatic burst fire directed at the Maoists retreating from the School in order to avoid collateral damage. One Maoist sympathizer who had hidden himself behind a pillar suddenly emerged and was immediately overpowered and arrested. His interrogation later helped us to understand that the Maoists had been organizing a medical camp at the school building since the last week or so and had been regularly using the school for their activities as a shelter and meeting point.

Soli Village – Photograph from March, 2009

As the sound of bullets silenced, a hurried search was conducted in the school premises from where about a tractor trolley load of items was seized which included 2 looted 0.303 Police Rifles, other weapons, lot of ammunition, medicines, syringes and documents. I ensured that we did not stay at the school for more than 15 minutes after the seizure since our surprise had been lost after the close encounter, and since staying for longer would have given the fleeing Maoists an opportunity to regroup and lay ambush at another place in the probable direction of our retreat. Thus by around 5.40 am we left the place and started for Adhaura, cautious all the way and with full speed possible in the terrain. We reached the village of Lohra at a distance of about 25 kms from Soli where the mobile towers were accessible and I could inform the Police Headquarters about the recent developments. 

Soli Village – Photograph from March, 2009

I was glad that all my forces were safe and that we had actually returned with a booty after attacking one of the safest dens of the Maoists in what they understood as their liberated zone. All the while during the encounter as we could hear bullets speeding away inches from us, we had been continuously looking at our bodies to see that no damage had been done as yet. Miraculously enough, despite the flow of hundreds of bullets at close quarters none of the about 60 men accompanying me had been injured. The surprise had ensured safety and the Maoists who could have damaged us at close quarters were forced to retreat in their own stronghold suffering huge losses in terms of both resources as well as psychology. After all in such hostile territory, the war is fought not just physically but is also a game of mind and wits. We had won this round for sure as we safely arrived at Adhaura at about 8 am accomplishing the Mission of Visiting Soli. 

With Kamaljit and Kannan at Adhaura after the Encounter

The Memories were to remain forever in our hearts. After having some breakfast and tea at Adhaura we travelled to the Ancient Site of Mundeshwari Temple and thanked the Almighty for helping us in the most difficult circumstances. The surprise was retained on account of the timing and the slight drizzle as we had reached Soli. The encounter though very dangerous and sudden had served as a morale booster for the forces who had reversed the recent history of the encounters in the district when the Maoists had been on the offensive while the forces caught by surprise suffered losses. In the month of the preceding July, 2007, the Police Stations of Rajpur and Baghela in the plains of Rohtas had been attacked by the Maoists, resulting in severe damage to the buildings and in heavy casualties. 2 CRPF personnel had also been killed in a landmine blast near Dhansa in the first week of the preceding June during the ascent uphill. The Rohtas Police had lost the DSP of Bikramganj in April, 2006 in an encounter with the Maoists in the plains of Rohtas. The Story in Rohtas so far had been one tilted heavily in favour of the Maoists who were using the terrain to their advantage. The Maoists had been using the Hills as a stronghold to launch attacks on the police in the plains. But this encounter had a different flavor. It was on the Hills and with the reverse results.

At Mundeshwari Temple with Kamaljit after the Encounter – Clothes bearing the marks of the crawling to take cover

But as it happens in war, the euphoria was shortlived as we lost a SAP Jawan Kanhaiya Singh on 24th September, 2008, after a landmine blast on the main Rohtas-Adhaura road also near Soli in another operation. But that is the subject of another story since it later led to one of the the biggest operations carried out till date on the Kaimur Hills which then had been named as ‘Operation Vidhwansa’ having been carried out with meticulous planning in several phases with a large number of forces camping on the Hills for days together with all equipments including Satellite phones starting from the 4th October, 2008. This offensive was also followed by an exercise of involving the community in the policing activities which was named as Sone Mahotsava. The Community Policing Project which drew its inspiration from the rich history and heritage of the region was especially popular with the local population who later took it upon themselves to fight the influence of the Maoists with the assistance of the Police. 

Another Landmine being dug out near Soli – Picture from March 2009

Anti Landmine Vehicle damaged near Soli on 14th September, 2008 – Photograph taken in March, 2009

The Stories from Rohtas will be continued…