The Red Abduction Factory

Abductions have become the standard operating procedure of Naxal-Maoist insurgents, even as the Government flounders to formulate its own
CAPITULATION
BLEEDING HEARTS A sand sculpture in Puri, appealing for the release of the Italian tour operators held hostage in Odisha

NEW DELHI ~ Left Wing Extremists, or LWEs—the Home Ministry’s jargon to describe Naxal-Maoist insurgents—abducted one person every day, on average, between 2008 and end of 2011. Home Ministry records say that 1,554 abductions took place in 731 separate incidents from 2008 to November 2011 in the nine states that fall in the red corridor. That means, on average, two people were taken hostage in every abduction incident. One of every five people abducted was killed. It is reasonable to assume that in the rest of the cases, LWEs were able to secure the release of their cadres and supporters—and extort money in some cases—for the safe release of hostages.

The states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand account for more than half of these abductions. Such incidents are increasing at the fastest rate in Odisha. While in 2008 only one abduction was reported from the state, last year 43 were abducted in 23 separate incidents, and seven of them were killed.

For the past one week, the Odisha government has been negotiating with Maoists for the release of ruling Biju Janata Dal MLA Jhina Hikaka and Italian tour operator Paolo Bosusco. Earlier this week, the wife of top Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda, Subhashree Das, was released along with six others by a fast track court in Rayagada district, citing ‘lack of evidence’. This has brightened the chances of the two hostages’ safe release.

But Subhashree has clarified that the government had no role to play in her release. She says that it was a result of a court order, and that she was falsely implicated. In the meantime, two separate sets of negotiations are on for the release of the MLA and foreign national. The government would have probably released 27 Naxal operatives, a list that includes the likes of Chenda Bhusanam alias Ghasi. According to the latest records, Ghasi has been accused of killing at least 55 security personnel.

Odisha’s police force is against such a compromise. It has made its intent amply clear, especially on the issue of releasing Maoists like Ghasi. The Odisha Police Association (OPA) is categorical: it will oppose “tooth and nail” any move to set them free. While there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the Odisha government, the Union Home Ministry is making suggestions, asking it “not to rush [to meet] the ultras’ demands” and to “negotiate with them from a position of strength.” Also, in consultation with the state government, the Home Ministry has ordered its security forces to stop their anti-Naxal operations. This is to facilitate and initiate back-channel efforts to get the hostages released. It is a mystery just how such a move gives the Odisha government a position of strength in the negotiations.

Former Intelligence Bureau Chief Ajit Doval—India’s chief mediator when Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked to Kandahar in December 1999—is angered by the term ‘negotiating’ with insurgents. “You can’t negotiate with criminals. What will you negotiate? All their demands are against the law of the land.” The time spent in talking to them should be used to trace their whereabouts and location of hostages, to surround them and deploy infrastructure to inflict heavy collateral damage on them in case the hostages are harmed, he says. Over time, he believes, bargaining power will shift in favour of security forces and away from insurgents. Doval regrets that the opposite is happening in the present case. They started by demanding the release of five of their cadres lodged in various jails; they now want 27 out.

The list of abductions is long. Last year, in February, a nine-day abduction drama ensued when the then district collector of Malkangiri, R Vineel Krishna, was abducted along with a junior engineer by Maoists. The episode ended with the government meeting all 14 demands of the Maoists. At the end of it, Naxal-appointed mediators at Bhubaneswar—Professor G Haragopal, Professor R Someswar Rao and Dandapani Mohanty—negotiated hard for four days to make the government accede to their demands.

While the Italian hostage crisis was hogging the limelight, Naxals also abducted a national junior football player, a 16-year-old Class 10 student of a tribal community, along with his classmate Lalu Tarasi. The two were abducted at gun point from their school in Orcha, in Chhattisgarh’s Narayanpur district. The rebels later released Lalu but not the footballer, who they say is a police spy. So far, there is no news of his release. Last week a forest guard was abducted, along with three others, from Sono jungle in Jamui, Bihar. A ransom of Rs 10 lakh was demanded for their release. This is the sixth such abduction in Jamui in the past two months.

Naxals are evidently getting bolder. The Home Ministry figures make this point amply clear. Some 2,200 civilians and about 957 personnel of the armed forces have been killed between 2008 and November 2011 by LWEs. This is thrice and six times the number of people killed due to insurgencies in the Northeast and Kashmir, respectively. The number of extortion cases is rising constantly. Some 535 such incidents have been reported over the past four years. Between 2008 and 2011, a sum of Rs 2,500 crore was passed on by the Central Government to the various state governments for what is called the ‘Integrated Action Plan’. However, let alone an action plan, the government does not even have a standard operating procedure (SOP) for such situations.

Activists sympathetic to Maoists do not justify these abductions. However, they say that abductions are the only way to secure the release of women, the elderly and even kids languishing in jails. They argue that most of them are stamped as ‘Naxalites’ on false charges.

In 2010, the infamous case of Aarti Majhi swung the local mood against the government. This 21-year-old tribal was forcibly taken away from her house in February that year, during a Naxalite-flushing operation at Jadingi village in Gajapati district. She alleges that she was gangraped by the police and CRPF personnel in the police station, and has demanded a CBI probe in a petition to the Orissa High Court. To avoid being persecuted for this, the police allegedly registered fake cases against her and dumped her in Berhampur jail, pending trial. “Is it against humanity to abduct people close to the establishment to secure the release of people like Aarti?” asks a Naxal sympathiser based in Ranchi. Incidentally, he has mediated on many occasions with governments on behalf of LWEs. “Abductions are a not merely a law and order problem, it is a reaction to the denial of basic rights that the Constitution of India guarantees,” he says. The negotiator’s bias in favour of abductors is a telling comment on the state of affairs. The government’s inability to come up with neutral individuals to act as mediators not only aids abductors but also increases the threat to those held hostage.

It was in 1987, in Andhra Pradesh, that abductions were first used as a tool, when LWEs had abducted several people including seven IAS officers and a doctor to secure the release of 16 top leaders lodged in Rajamundary Central Jail.

Now, as Home Ministry data indicates, abductions have become the SOP of LWEs, whenever they want to get their cadres released from prison. The Government, however, has failed to formulate its own SOP to deal with such abductions. What the Home Ministry has are defunct guidelines that call for no negotiations with abductors, which are violated more than followed. However, the Ministry of Home seems to have finally woken up to the need for an SOP to deal with hostage situations and plans to discuss it with state chief ministers at a conference on internal security that is scheduled to take place on 16 April.