Editor: Read Chapter I here.
The wireless operator who burst into Rajesh’s tent was panting so much that his words were barely coherent. Rajesh looked up from his laptop with a jerk, a small frown on his forehead, his heartbeat quickening – there had to be a reason for such excitement and in the jungles of Gadchiroli, it was unlikely to be of a good sort.
‘What is it Pradeep?’ Rajesh asked quickly, his voice almost a shout, fighting down the urge to jump up from his uncomfortable chair, with its wobbly arm rest.
‘Sir, Inspector Gawde’s jeep was fired at. They returned fire. Coming back from Chimparli, they…’
‘No Sir. I don’t know Sir. Sir, let me ask them Sir. Sir, let me…’
‘Wasn’t Inspector Gawde meant to return much earlier? Why did he wait so long to turn back?’
Pradeep did not bother to answer. Instead, he ran back to his post and screamed into the receiver, ‘Tango Two, any casualties? Over.’
After making contact with Gawde’s team, Pradeep hollered back. ‘No casualties sir!’
Rajesh ran out of his tent, only to bump into Pradeep at the entrance. It was no longer raining and was even more humid as a result. Rajesh’s boots sank a couple of inches into the muddy ground. The camp was situated in a clearing in the middle of the forest, by the side of a small lake. Thanks to the lake, their backs were covered and they only had to cover themselves from three sides.
Rajesh snatched the wireless handset from Pradeep and bellowed, ‘Tango Two, where are you? Over.’
‘Sir, we left the village ten minutes ago. The windscreen’s shattered sir. We are now driving fast. Send us some reinforcements, Sir!’ Inspector Gawde was speaking so fast that Rajesh could barely understand what he was saying, especially since he was speaking in Marathi.
After close to six years in the Maharashtra cadre of the Indian Police Service, Rajesh was reasonably fluent in Marathi, but most of Inspector Gawde’s words screeching out from the wireless handset escaped him.
For heaven’s sake man, don’t sound so frightened, he wanted to scream. Instead he said, ‘Tango Two, just keep driving. Don’t stop. Over.’
‘Roger, Sir. Please send us some support. They can meet us on the way.’
‘How intense was the firing? Over.’
‘Two shots sir.’
‘That’s it? Just two shots?’ Rajesh was perplexed. A Maoist ambush usually meant a volley of fire from both sides of the road as the two jeeps drove back from the village to the camp. If they had the right intelligence and sufficient notice, then there were chances of a landmine or two as well.
‘Yes Sir. We did not stop Sir. Please send us some support sir,’ Gawde repeated.
‘Only your jeep was hit?’
‘Yes sir. My windscreen’s shattered.’
‘Keep driving. Over.’
‘Sir, there will be more of them waiting for us.’
Rajesh didn’t wait to conclude the conversation. Instead, he handed the wireless handset back to Pradeep and went back inside his tent. It didn’t make sense. Should he order a team of policemen and special C60 commandos to head towards the two returning jeeps? The bulk of his men had left on a combing operation early in the morning and were scheduled to return just before sunset, which was four hours away. There were only ten men left behind.
Rajesh considered consulting the SP, but then decided against it. All senior officers had gone into a huddle after the early morning incident in Mumbai in which an entire building had been blown up. The SP Saab as the Superintendent of Police was called, was incapable of making any decision on his own. He would ask Rajesh to hold on till he spoke to the DIG Saab, the Deputy Inspector General of Police, who coincidentally was in Mumbai to attend a conference of senior police officers and was now most probably cooling his heels and trying to be of some help to those investigating the blast. No one would have any time today for this small affair in Gadchiroli when a big building in Mumbai had been blown up. No, it was going to be his own decision and if anything went wrong, there would be no one to cover his arse.
‘Where’s Inspector Makarand?’ he asked Pradeep, who held the rank of Naik, senior to a constable, but below a head constable.
As if on cue, Inspector Makarand entered the tent.
‘Makarand, Gawde and his men were fired at just now, on their way back from Chimparli. They seem to have been delayed. They ought to have got back by now, but they are still out there. Two shots were fired as they drove back.’
‘Two shots? Just two shots?’
‘Yes, just two shots at Gawde’s jeep. Broke his windscreen. I don’t think the other jeep was hit at all. Most probably a small group of Maoists saw our men driving back and couldn’t resist the urge to fire a few shots.’
‘Sir, we’ll drive towards Chimparli and escort them back.’
‘And run into another ambush? The moment a SUV leaves the camp, the Maoists will know.’
‘So, what do we do now?’
‘If you are the local dalam head and you have been told that two police jeeps are returning to camp from Chimparli, what would you do?’Rajesh asked, his shoulders hunched forward and fists clenched. A mosquito fluttered above his head, but Rajesh didn’t notice it.
‘I would ambush them.’
‘Yes, I know that. But where would you lay the ambush?’
Makarand caught on. ‘Sir, if I were them, I’d put the landmines somewhere before the Bandikunda hamlets. There the road runs through a narrow defile. They’d have plenty of time for digging. And then position shooters on top of the defile, on both sides.’
Rajesh thought for a moment. It made sense. The Bandikunda hamlets were around five kilometres away from the camp, far enough to prevent help from reaching on time. Also, it gave the Maoists enough time to plant the mines.
‘Okay, here’s what you should do. Radio Charlie Company and ask them to return to camp immediately. It’s possible they are trying to draw us out so that they can attack the camp. Makarand, I want you and two of your men to come with me. We will proceed towards Bandikunda. We can get there in 30 minutes if we are quick.’
Rajesh went back into the tent and picked up his rifle, a Colt M4A1 5.56 mm carbine, from the corner where it was propped up. His sidearm, a reliable Glock 19 compact 9 mm, was in his holster, fully loaded and did not require checking. Opening a rucksack kept on the ground, he also took out four compact telescopic sights and suppressors each, which could be fitted to the M4 Carbines. He gave three of the telescopic sights and suppressors to Makarand. ‘Have you chosen your men?’
‘I’ll take Ashok and Guna. They are good and they know how to use these.’ Makarand nodded at the Trijicon ACOG telescopic sights in his hand.
‘Gentlemen, ready for a stroll in the park?’
Rajesh ran his fingers through his thinning, sweaty hair. A lanky, six-footer who never excelled in sports while at school or college mainly because he had never made any effort, he had managed to grow a small tyre around his middle when he finished his engineering degree from ITN, despite being otherwise skinny. However, Rajesh had used his time at the Police Training Academy to good use. All the accumulated fat around the middle had disappeared, his shoulders had broadened, thigh and calf muscles hardened and most importantly, Rajesh could now comfortably run a dozen kilometres and end up on two steady feet, unlike many of his contemporaries at the Academy who found themselves squatting or lying on the ground to regain their strength at the end of a long run. He had started enjoying long distance running though he was not a natural athlete. If in the previous two years he hadn’t started losing a noticeable amount of front hair, he could have easily passed for a man in his early twenties.
Rajesh led the way, and the four men walked leisurely till they were past the clearing and well inside the forest, after which they broke into a gentle run. Hopefully, the Maoist lookouts keeping a watch on their camp wouldn’t suspect anything. Once they started running, Guna took the lead and Rajesh brought up the rear. Within a short while, all the men were sweating profusely.
‘I wish it would rain,’ Rajesh said. As though the rain gods had been listening to his prayers, rain drops started to fall.
The forest was verdant green, full of tall trees, big bushes, creepers, vines and dense undergrowth. If they hadn’t been in a state of war, Rajesh would have enjoyed the run. But today, they ran with all their senses fully alert, aware that the slightest mistake could result in all of them getting killed. They followed a thin trail which went uphill and came downhill, disappeared in places, only to reappear again after sometime. Guna was a Madia Gond from nearby Aheri and he knew the terrain like the back of his hand.
After close to twenty-five minutes of running, Rajesh put up his hand and called a halt. He looked at his watch and said, ‘We are almost there, aren’t we?’
‘Yes sir, the Bandikunda hamlets are just ahead,’ Guna pointed with his finger. ‘If we keep moving at this pace, we will be there in around three minutes.’
‘Í want to bypass the huts. I don’t want anyone to see us and sound the alarm. We’ll get to the defile quietly and hopefully, take the ambush party by surprise.’
He took out his wireless receiver and called the base. ‘Tango One, How is Tango Two doing? Over’
‘Papa One, Tango Two and his men are alright. They have made further progress and there have been no other incidents.’
‘Tango One, Ask Tango Two how far he is from the defile before the Bandikunda hamlets? Ask him to radio me. Over and out.’
They started running again, Guna leading the way once again. As they ran, Rajesh’s radio beeped once more. When the call was over, Rajesh put away his wakie-talkie. ‘They are ten minutes away. Let’s get there in five minutes,’ he said.
They dawdled around for a couple of minutes before they were on their way once more. This time, Rajesh was in front and their weapons were at the ready.
All of a sudden, the rain stopped. ‘Just when we really need the rain, it lets us down,’ Rajesh muttered. If it were raining, they would have a greater chance of getting close, undetected.
When they were almost on top of the defile, the men stopped running and fell to the ground. As they crawled through the muddy ground, in between the trees, Rajesh muttered, ‘I’m glad we are going home tonight. If I have to wear these clothes any longer, I will faint from the smell.’
The men grinned and continued forward. For many weeks, they had been living in mud and dirt, in constant fear of ambushes by Maoists and wild beasts, eating horrible food and suffering the rain and the dampness, but none of the four men would have opted to be anywhere else in the world at that point in time.
‘Can you see anyone?’ Makarand asked Guna.
‘They are over there,’ Guna said without any hesitation, though nobody could see a thing.
‘On both sides?’ Rajesh asked.
‘Not sure if there are any on the other side, but they are surely here on this side.’
‘We have to assume they are on both sides of the defile. They are bound to be. We need to clear them from our side and then from the other side. Let’s go.’
Rajesh wished he could provide the men with detailed instructions and a map drawn on the ground, but there was no possibility of such luxury. He would have to trust the men to perform well, guided by their instincts and the minimal orders he gave them.
Rajesh, Makarand, Ashok and Guna spread out and moved forward on their haunches. As Rajesh sheltered behind a hirda tree he felt something slither past. Gingerly, he moved a little to one side and felt the slithering move away. Heaving a sigh of relief, he looked up to see that Ashok had halted and put up his hand. Rajesh moved forward slightly and looked in the direction Ashok was pointing. A lone Maoist was manning a lookout post on top of a rock, looking a bit lost. The ambushers would be further beyond, waiting for the two jeeps to drive by.
Rajesh knew that he had to decide quickly. Should they try and bypass the lookout and attack the main body of ambushers or should they neutralise the watchman before moving on? The rock on which the man perched was at least six feet high. The chances of one of them getting close enough to knife him was not very good. On the other hand, the Maoist, a short teenager, no older than seventeen, wasn’t alert and it looked as if they had a good chance of getting past undetected as he inspected his nails and day dreamed.
He crawled up to Ashok. ‘Stay here and keep that idiot in your gun-sights. If he sees you or hears us or if he is about to raise the alarm, shoot him. Otherwise, wait till we fire to bring him down. Try not to kill him, I want him alive. The rest of us will move forward,’ he whispered.
They didn’t have to move any great distance before they saw five Maoists, gathered around a machine gun which was pointing towards the road which the police jeeps would take. A similar group could be seen on the other side of the defile. Each Maoist carried a gun; some of them had AK47 rifles and some had Lee Enfield .303s, most probably looted from the police. All of them had leafy twigs struck in their red headbands and they were talking and laughing loudly. A walkie-talkie crackled and someone spoke. The subservient tone suggested that he was receiving orders from someone senior. Makarand and Guna stopped moving and looked to Rajesh for instructions.
Rajesh stabbed his finger forward, first at the Maoists on their side of the defile and then to the ones on the other side. He put his M4A1 carbine on full-auto, took careful aim and held his breath, aware that Makarand and Guna were following suit. A rainbow could be seen in the distance and Rajesh forced himself to look away. There would be time for rainbows much later, once the current situation was sorted out. Rajesh fired, letting rip with his carbine, and letting out his breath at the same time. As soon as Rajesh fired, the other two followed suit. The three M4A1 carbines fitted with suppressors made a soft rattle, like a deathly cough, as the five Maoists crumbled and fell at the very spot where they had been standing till a few moments ago. From behind them, they heard a single three shot burst and a few moments later Ashok joined them.
‘Got them,’ Rajesh muttered under his breath. ‘Move, move, move, now let’s get the others,’ he urged everyone as they took a few steps forward and took up positions behind the few trees that stood near the edge of the defile. The Maoists on the other side had recovered from the sudden attack by then and they opened up with their guns. They didn’t know exactly where the shots had come from and they fired in fear as much as in anger. If they had retreated even a little and taken cover behind the trees, that stood on their side of the defile, they could have caused endless grief for Rajesh.
Even as they pressed themselves into the tree trunks, Rajesh and the three men with him fired long bursts in quick succession, the rapid fire from the four carbines decimating the ranks of the Maoists. One of them managed to retreat and disappeared into the forest. Rajesh realised that his magazine was now empty.
‘One got away. I hope he doesn’t have a radio with him,’ Rajesh told Makarand as he replaced the empty magazine.
‘Should we chase him?’ Makarand asked as he too pulled out an empty magazine from his M4A1 and fit in another.
‘No way. We don’t have enough men to do that. Gawde should be here soon.’
‘Do you think they’ve planted a mine?’
‘They would have. Did you kill him?’ he asked Ashok.
‘No, I don’t think so. He must be still alive. All three shots went into his legs.’
‘Go, get him here,’ Rajesh ordered. He then radioed Gawde, ‘Tango Two, this is Papa One. Where are you? Over.’
‘We are almost there. Another two minutes I think. Over.’
‘Slow down, we need to defuse a landmine.’
Ashok and Guna brought the Maoist watchman to Rajesh, supporting him on their shoulders. When they let go, the young Maoist slumped to the ground.
‘Where did you plant the landmine?’ Rajesh asked him. Now he realised that the Maoist was a boy, no older than fifteen. A feeling of pity washed over him as he looked at the whimpering kid. Most probably, he had no choice but to pick up the gun. He hardened his heart. This was war and someone who chose the wrong side did not deserve much sympathy. Tough luck for the boy, but I’ll try not to kill him, he promised himself.
‘If you don’t tell me where you planted the landmine, I will kill you and throw you down,’ he told the petrified, young boy. ‘Or maybe throw you down without killing you.’
‘How many mines did you bastards plant?’ Makarand asked, aiming a kick with his boots.
‘Where is it?’
‘In the middle, below, over there,’ the boy said, wincing.
‘Pick him up, take him to the edge,’ Rajesh ordered.
Once again, the wounded fighter was lifted up by Ashok and Guna who took him to the edge of the defile.
‘Over there, can you see that mound?’ The boy gasped with pain as he spoke.
‘That place does look disturbed. Shall I go down and see if I can diffuse the mine?’
‘No stay here. There’s got to be an easier way.’ Rajesh walked over to the dead Maoists and took out two hand grenades clipped to one of the bodies. He gave one to Makarand.
‘Here we go, keep your heads down.’
They tossed the grenades from the top of the defile to the bottom. Rajesh’s grenade landed two feet away from the disturbed earth, while Makarand’s throw landed his grenade right on top. The two grenades exploded simultaneously and immediately thereafter, a big roar followed. A large plume of acrid black smoke rose into the air.
The men got up, grinning from ear to ear. The crater created by the explosion was almost four feet deep and equally wide, bang in the middle of the road, leaving barely enough space for a vehicle to go past. Rajesh was all too aware that there could be another Maoist party on the way to attack them. The premature explosion before the vehicles came through would have made it clear to them that something was wrong.
Rajesh quickly got on the wireless to Inspector Gawde.
‘Tango Two, come fast, road clear. Over.’
‘Papa One, we heard a blast. We are coming forward. Over.’
‘Tango Two, it is safe, but come fast. Over.’
Makarand went down the defile first as Rajesh and Ashok covered him. Guna took care of their rear. Rajesh considered leaving the wounded Maoist behind, but he knew he couldn’t do that. The boy would die almost certainly, even if his comrades found him in the next few hours. A sling held by a pole wouldn’t work when climbing down the defile.
‘When was the last time you had a piggy back ride?’ he asked the wounded boy.
As he gingerly made his way down using small trees growing on the sides as handholds and toeholds, the weight of the wounded boy on his back constantly threatened to topple him over. Thank god it was just a skinny teenager and not a grownup man. He could smell the boy’s fear, just as he could smell his rancid breath and the odour from his wounds. Finally, as he reached the bottom of the defile and sank to the ground gratefully, he saw the two jeeps come towards them, moving forward cautiously rather than fast. The one in front had a bullet hole in a corner of its windscreen, with a spider’s nest of cracked glass spread around it. Inspector Gawde and three others were in that jeep.
They covered Guna as he climbed down, almost tripping over in his haste to get to the jeeps. Rajesh and Makarand got into Inspector Gawde’s jeep and Ashok and Guna climbed on board the second jeep, taking the wounded Maoist with them. Just before he climbed on board, Rajesh tossed a small first aid pack to Guna. ‘Try dressing that boy’s wounds. He’ll need to go to hospital once we reach the camp,’ he said.
Rajesh’s wireless receiver crackled.
It was Pradeep, calling from the base. ‘Sir, there has been another incident in Mumbai.’
Everyone in the jeep froze and held their breath.
‘What happened?’ Rajesh demanded.
‘Sir, one more building has been blown up!’
‘A building under construction at Kandivli East.’
‘What else do you know?’ Rajesh asked Pradeep.
Many parts of Gadchiroli, especially the jungles, did not have mobile connectivity and normally Rajesh did not mind the lack of access, even welcoming the privacy it afforded him. However, he now wished he could whip out his phone and call a friend in Mumbai and get more details. He shrugged, thinking that there wasn’t much he could do to help from where he was. Everyone had gotten so used to receiving news instantly that any delay in being informed was considered a big handicap, even when it didn’t really matter personally.
When they reached the base, they saw that Charlie Company had returned from their combing operation. As Rajesh busied himself making sure that the wounded Maoist was despatched to a hospital, Pradeep, conveyed to him further details of the second attack in Mumbai, sounding as much excited as he was upset.
‘It was an unfinished building in Kandivli, near Thakur Village. They drove a van into the compound and walked off, dropping The Red Spark pamphlets as they left. The van exploded and brought down the entire structure!’
‘Do you know what explosive they used?’
Pradeep didn’t know. Must be something fertiliser based, Rajesh thought.
‘They found the watchman. Apparently, he had gone to a nearby tea shop. He was used to having tea every day at around five-thirty. On hearing the explosion he went running back to find a heap of rubble in place of the building he was supposed to have been guarding.’ Pradeep almost chuckled as he spoke. Rajesh gave Pradeep a wan smile and looked away.
Featured Image (Cover): Nisha Joseph
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