Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) constable Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, who went missing in a deadly encounter with Maoists in Chhattisgarh last week, was feeling unwell and sat down during the operation, Kuldiep Singh, the force’s director general, said in an interview.
Singh did not rule out the possibility that Manhas suffered injuries in the fierce gunfight in a remote village at the borders between Sukma and Bijapur districts on 3 April. The top CRPF official said that “maybe he was feeling unwell because of some other reason like heat”.
A jawan who was with Manhas told officials later that he “moved ahead fighting while Manhas sat down”, Singh said. “Manhas could not move from there,” the jawan told officials.
The five-hour gunfight led to the killing of 22 security personnel. Maoists are believed to have suffered heavy casualties too.
When the fighting ended, the forces counted their men. “It was then that we found out…our boys were missing. Eight from DRG (District Reserve Group), six from the Special Task Force (STF) and seven from CoBRA (CRPF elite anti-Maoist unit). It was quite late in the evening…So next day, early morning around 4 AM, an operation was launched to find the missing personnel,” Singh said.
Two days after the incident, a mystery caller made phone calls to at least two local journalists in Chhattisgarh, claiming that Manhas was in the captivity of Maoists. A communique released by them on 6 April made a similar claim.
Manhas’s wife has appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah to ensure his safe return.
“We still do not have the confirmation that he is hostage. We have launched an operation. We have also contacted civil society groups to get some information. I don’t know right now what condition he is in and how he can be retrieved, but all efforts are on,” Singh said, hours before the Maoist communique was released.
Singh said he was aware of the distress and anxiety in Manhas’s family, who has appealed to “bring him back like you brought Abhinandan back” — a reference to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman who was captured and then released by Pakistan after an aerial dogfight in February 2019.
“We have requested the chief minister to put all machinery at his disposal to verify what is being said (about Manhas’s whereabouts) and to make all efforts to get him back,” he said. Singh added that he had “no information” if Manhas could be used by Maoists as a shield to get some leverage.
“You see, right now we don’t know if he is in their custody. We don’t know what kind of intelligence is going to come, but as soon as we get some intelligence…we will plan operation accordingly,” Singh said.
He pointed out that strategies to deal with such situations have evolved over the years, when asked about the likes of Alex Paul Menon; the Indian Administrative was held captive by Maoists for 12 days in 2012, and then released after negotiations.
“…the passage of time will definitely lead to some strategy evolving. Now, so long as we don’t have concrete information, we can’t plan anything,” he said.