Lessons for security forces from a successful counter-ambush against Maoists

How security forces broke a lethal Maoist ambush in the jungles of Chhattisgarh in April 2019 and saved lives

Two years ago, Maoists ambushed 25 BSF (Border Security Force) troopers in the jungles of Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district, killing four of them. The ambush could have been far worse but for the fact that the security forces carried out a determined counter-ambush—that is foiling an attack and forcing the Maoists to retreat. What happened in the ‘Mahla encounter’ is critical to understanding the weapons profile, equipment and training required to defeat the most lethal tactic in the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA)’s arsenal—the ambush.

An ambush allows over a hundred trained guerillas concealed in the jungle, arrayed in a ‘U’ formation around the security forces. The U is then looped like a net with withering fire being brought down onto those trapped in the kill zone and the guerillas gradually closing in to finish off the trapped troopers.

On April 4, 2019, men from the Alpha company (around 125 troopers) of the BSF’s 114th Battalion were deployed on an area domination and road protection party in north Bastar. The security forces were alert to attempts to disrupt the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. The party of 25 troopers, led by inspector Gopal Rong, had divided itself into three groups and were moving in a ‘Y’ formation, approximately 200 metres away from the road. Two groups were on the right and left flanks and the third ground was on the road in the rear. They were just a kilometre away from their Company Operating Base (COB) in the dense jungles of Abhujhmad. The COB had been established in 2018 to disrupt the activities of the Maoists and had already beaten back four attacks over the past year.

As the 25-man party began moving ahead that morning, their left flank came under heavy fire from the Maoists. They had walked into an inverted ‘U’ ambush in a box of 700×700 metres. It was an elaborate trap. Their guerillas were dressed in ‘ghillie suits’ (a netting of leaves and rags usually worn by snipers) to merge into the forest. They triggered Radio-controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (RCIEDs) and lobbed shells from improvised mortars, fired ‘arrow bombs’ and tossed Molotov cocktails, which set the dry leaves on the forest floor ablaze.

Three BSF troopers from the left flank and one from the right flank were killed in the initial round of firing. But what happened next is instructive. One BSF trooper, constable Kajal Saikh, took position behind a tree and opened fire with his INSAS light machine gun. Over the next hour, he fired over 400 rounds at the Maoists, changing a dozen magazines to keep them at bay. His action bought the security forces enough time to bring in reinforcements from their COB. Thirty two troopers rushed to the rescue and fired on the Maoists, lobbing 25 high explosive rounds from their 51 mm mortars. A Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) was rushed to the spot with additional ammunition and took back the casualties. The Maoists retreated, taking their dead with them.

Top security officials who analysed the encounter recorded the ferocious fightback by the BSF despite being heavily outnumbered, the timely arrival of reinforcements and the heavy volume of fire from the troopers—a total of 1,299 INSAS rounds including those from the LMG—as being key to breaking the ambush. The soldiers also fired 772 AK-47 rounds, 49 9mm rounds and 10 UBGL rounds at the Maoists. But the saviour of the day undoubtedly was the LMG gunner Saikh who had kept his wits about him.

“Significantly, the Maoists were not able to come near the bodies of our soldiers, not to speak of snatching their weapons,” says a senior officer who investigated the firefight. Key of course was the weapon itself. The INSAS LMG has the same rate of fire as the INSAS rifle—around 650 rounds per minute—but its barrel is made of denser steel, which means it can fire thousands of rounds without overheating. An overheated LMG barrel can also be quickly changed with a spare barrel in a few minutes, making it even more reliable as a fire support weapon. The availability of heavy firepower is, of course, only one of the reasons that makes the April 2019 Mahla counter-ambush an example which merits closer study.

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