Kidnap as strategy
|Maoists strike again, this time in Chhattisgarh, by taking a District Collector in the Bastar region hostage.|
ALEX PAUL MENON, Collector of Sukma district in Chhattisgarh.
A GROUP of armed Maoists kidnapped Alex Paul Menon, the first Collector of the newly formed Sukma district in Chhattisgarh, on April 21, confirming the fact that the rebels are able to strike at will wherever they have a presence. The abduction took place even as a beleaguered Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha was trying to ensure the safe release of Jhina Hikaka, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) legislator representing the Laxmipur Assembly constituency, by acceding to the demands of the Maoists, and close on the heels of the release of two Italian citizens who were abducted by another group of Maoists in Odisha's Kandhamal district in mid-March.
Alex Paul was kidnapped in a manner similar to the kidnapping of R. Vineel Krishna, the Collector of Odisha's Malkangiri district, in February last year. A few weeks after Krishna was released, his services were sought by a Central Minister.
The abduction of Alex Paul, the fourth major abduction carried out by Maoists in the region in a little more than a year, came at a time when a number of battalions of Central paramilitary forces were engaged in anti-naxal operations in both Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
Alex Paul was taken hostage when he was returning from a farmers' meeting in Kerlapal village on National Highway 221, along with administration officials. (The farmers' meeting had been organised as part of the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan, a village contact programme under which officials and people's representatives hold meetings with rural residents to assess the progress of the government's welfare schemes.) The Left extremists gunned down two of his personal security guards who tried to intervene.
The Maoists ascertained the identity of the 32-year-old Collector before they took him away into the nearby forested area. The other officials were spared.
ITALIAN NATIONAL BOSUSCO Paolo posing with tribal women at an undisclosed location in Odisha. A file photograph.
Alex Menon was kidnapped just a day after suspected Maoists struck in Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh. Three persons, including two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists, were killed when the rebels triggered a landmine blast as an official convoy passed through the area. A BJP legislator, Mahesh Gagda, and Bijapur District Collector Rajat Kumar escaped unhurt, but one of the eight vehicles in the convoy was blown up. Interestingly, the attack took place when the officials were monitoring the implementation of the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan project in the rural areas of the district, indicating that the Maoists are against official teams gaining entry into the areas where they have a strong presence.
The abduction of Alex Paul came soon after the release of the two Italians who were abducted on March 14, Bosusco Paolo and Claudio Colangelo. The Maoists reportedly demanded that the Odisha government stop Operation Green Hunt, a combing operation by Central paramilitary forces in the naxal-affected areas of the State, and initiate a dialogue with them. They wanted the Odisha government to act on long-standing demands such as the release of political prisoners.
The Maoists first released Claudio Colangelo on humanitarian grounds. They set free Bosusco Paolo, who had been running an adventure travel agency for the past 19 years in Puri, after the Naveen Patnaik government accepted some of their demands.
The Italians were freed after the Odisha government agreed to release several persons who had been jailed for their alleged links with the Maoists. The government accepted the Maoists' demands for the release of the hostages after negotiations were held between three government officials and two social activists, B.D. Sharma and Dandapani Mohanty, whose names were suggested as mediators by the Maoists.
The 37-year-old tribal leader Jhina Hikaka was kidnapped in the dead of night on March 24 when he was returning home from the district headquarters town of Koraput. The Maoists released Hikaka on April 26 although no negotiations were held between government officials or any interlocutors named by the Maoists. In fact, no dialogue was held between the government and the Maoists for Hikaka's release as right from the beginning the abductors had refused to hold any talks. While the government did keep the media informed about its stand, the Maoists released information about their demands through the media and through Nihar Ranjan Patnaik, a Koraput-based lawyer who had been fighting the cases of Maoist cadre as well as activists of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS). The Maoists finally released Hikaka on the outskirts of Balipeta village in Narayanpatna block of Koraput district after extending the deadline for the release of 29 political prisoners.
Before Hikaka's release, the Andhra-Odisha border special zonal committee of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) had said that the legislator would be released as per the decision taken at a people's court held at an undisclosed location in the district. The Maoists had said that the decision to release Hikaka had been taken after he had given an undertaking before the people's court that he would try to get their demands fulfilled and that he would resign from his post if he failed to keep his promise.
JHINA HIKAKA, A BJD MLA in Odisha. He was released by the Maoists in Koraput on April 26 after 34 days in captivity.
It may be recalled that the Maoists had organised a similar people's court before releasing Collector Vineel Krishna.
The abductors of Hikaka had demanded the release of 29 prisoners, but the government agreed to facilitate the release of 25 persons. But none of the 25 prisoners has been released so far despite the government reiterating that it is taking the necessary steps to facilitate their release.
The Odisha government had not made any commitment to release the remaining four persons, including Gananath Patra, adviser to the CMAS. Interestingly, the different groups of Maoists who abducted Vineel Krishna, the two Italians and Hikaka had demanded the release of Patra. The Patnaik government faced severe criticism from the opposition parties for its alleged failure to handle the twin cases of abduction.
In the case of Alex Paul, the Raman Singh government acted promptly and started the process of negotiations to facilitate his release. First, it sent essential medicines for the Collector, who is an asthma patient, to the Maoist hideout through former Communist Party of India (CPI) legislator Manish Kunjam, when negotiations were about to begin between Nirmala Buch and S.K. Mishra, the former Chief Secretaries of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh respectively who acted as the government's negotiators, and B.D. Sharma and G. Hargopal, the two mediators named by the Maoists. Sharma is a former Chairperson of the National Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Commission, while Hargopal, a social activist, was one of the three mediators who held talks with the Patnaik government for the release of Vineel Krishna.
The abductors of Alex Paul have demanded the release of eight of their jailed leaders, including two women prisoners; a halt to Operation Green Hunt; and the withdrawal of the paramilitary forces from the Bastar region.
The immediate fallout of the recent abductions is that the anti-Maoist operations in the three contiguous States of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have been hit badly. While the combing operations were carried out in the forested districts of Koraput, Malkangiri, Ragayada, Gajapati and Kandhamal in Odisha, the exercise was affected in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, one of the major hotbeds of Maoist activity.
The development works started in recent months have come to a grinding halt as administration officials hesitate to venture out into rural areas. People's representatives are also equally scared of visiting their constituencies in the forested regions of the three States.
According to highly placed sources, when anti-naxal operations were put on hold, Maoists operating in Odisha and Chhattisgarh got a chance to regroup in the tribal-dominated regions where they were growing in strength despite differences between the various divisions of the CPI (Maoist).
The presence of a large number of tribal people in the people's courts, organised for the release of hostages at different times, has indicated that the tribal people support the Maoists in inaccessible areas where the Left-wing extremists have been growing in strength despite the efforts by the Central government and the States that have been facing the menace. In fact, the Maoists are gaining control over newer areas despite the fact that many of their senior leaders have been killed in encounters and many others have surrendered before the authorities in recent years.
The Maoists have been gaining strength in the tribal regions, primarily because the fruits of development have not reached the local people. The extremists are taking advantage of the situation by making inroads into areas where the tribal people have been agitating over issues such as land rights, displacement and the mining of iron ore or bauxite for the establishment of industries.
In the absence of dialogue between the administration and the agitators, the tribal people's agitation for land rights or against mining operations is seen by the police as a pro-Maoist action. The Narayanpatna block in Koraput district where Hikaka was released has been witnessing an agitation by the tribal people for land rights for nearly two decades, but the Odisha government has not been able to sort out the issue to this day. The tribal people have alleged that their land has been taken over by non-tribal people by various means.
As the Maoists continue to resort to kidnappings to get their demands met, the law and order machinery in the naxal-affected States is now facing a serious challenge. In such a situation, many right-thinking people have started arguing that the Centre and the State governments concerned must start thinking of holding talks with Maoist leaders during normal times instead of starting negotiations only after someone is taken hostage. Civil society should also be involved in the exercise to check the growth of the Maoists and ensure the development of backward regions.
At a time when the States fighting the Maoist menace are feeling helpless, a change in approach seems to be the need of the hour to save the tribal people who continue to suffer owing to the presence of both the Maoists and paramilitary forces in their areas.