Shukla injured, PSO shot himself: ‘Sorry sahab, I could not protect you’

Amid the bloodbath that killed two top Congress leaders in Bastar Saturday, besides injuring several others, at least one person died by his own hands. According to eyewitnesses, former Union minister V C Shukla's PSO Prafulla Shukla shot himself with the last bullet he was left with after the shootout. "Sorry sahab, I could not protect you," he told the bleeding Shukla.

In fact, evidence indicates that rather than an attack to eliminate top Congress leaders, the Maoists' target was only two — PCC chief Nand Kumar Patel and Salwa Judum architect Mahendra Karma. All the others probably died in the crossfire, as Maoists later let the survivors go. They even gave water to some, including Konta MLA Kawasi Lakhma, and administered a painkiller injection to Congress leader Dr Shivnarain Dwivedi.

Lakhma, who was in the same vehicle as Patel and his son Dinesh Patel (both of whom were killed), corroborated this. As firing began, he, Patel, Dinesh and the four others in their vehicle hid in a roadside ditch. "Some Maoists spotted us and asked us to surrender. I surrendered but did not reveal my identity...They took us a little inside the forest and made us wait there for nearly two hours," he told The Indian Express.

Around 6 pm, 90 minutes after the attack began, Maoists asked Lakhma and the others to leave, but took Patel and Dinesh away. "As we turned back, we heard heavy fire...I knew it was probably over," he said.

An injured Lakhma was lucky to find a bike at the spot with the key in the ignition. Another survivor drove him to Darbha thana.

The other target, Mahendra Karma, surrendered soon after his securitymen ran out of bullets. Eyewitnesses say he told the Maoists to let the others go as he was their only enemy. The rebels then took him away and beat him before killing him. "We heard slogans, 'Mahendra Karma Murdabad',"Lakhma said.

Among those asked to leave by the Maoists soon after the attack began was Bastar Congress leader Lakheshwar Baghel. "As firing began, we came out of our vehicles. They asked us to run away...We walked for 30-40 km before reaching a village around 9 pm," he said.

The tactic the Maoists employed was simple, and familiar. They first laid an ambush on the hilly, serpentine NH 221, surrounded by thick forests, on the Bastar-Sukma border, then exploded an IED, creating a crater on the ground. As the vehicles slowed down, they opened indiscriminate fire. The massive explosion completely damaged the fourth vehicle in the convoy, a Bolero, with its pieces scattered across a large area.

"We tried to drive fast, but found little space. In the hurry, vehicles collided with each other and we were blocked...couldn't move backward or forward," said Ravi Kumar, one of the drivers. "Some of our PSOs came out, took positions, but the Maoists had surrounded us."

The firing continued for over 90 minutes, till the securitymen ran out of ammunition. "We came out, hands on head. Maoists took us inside the forest, asked us to lie down, and asked us to leave after around 20 minutes," Kumar said.

On Sunday noon, he was back at the spot, fixing his vehicle.

While the state Congress's charge of a "conspiracy" may be a bit misplaced, nobody is questioning the shocking security failure that made the Maoists' task easy. Despite the important leaders that were a part of it, especially Karma, the Congress's convoy on Saturday was travelling through this Naxal-dominated area with practically nil security. Contrast it with Chief Minister Raman Singh's Vikas Yatra in the district, during which 3,000 cops were deployed at each rally point.

Besides, while the Darbha thana and a major CRPF camp are just 10 km from the spot and police got the information about the attack within minutes, it took them nearly two hours to reach. A contingent left the thana immediately but claims they were "prevented" from proceeding by a Maoist blockade after a few kilometres.

"Maoists had blocked the road by felling trees," said a policeman who was part of the team.

Bastar SP Mayank Srivastava said he had personally accompanied the contingent and they reached the spot by 6.15 pm. "The attack had ended when we reached. We did not face any resistance," he said.

The vehicle Shukla was in was in the middle of the convoy. On Sunday, behind the bullet-marked Land Cruiser lay a Hindi newspaper, among his other belongings. The front page carried a report on the recent Parivartan Yatra by the Congress in Bijapur attended by Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. It carried the details of the Congress's changing approach towards Maoists, with the headline: 'Goli ka jawab vikaas se denge (Will fight bullets with development)'.

In many ways, it summed up the story of the fight against Maoists today. Development remains elusive, bullets continue.

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