Held hostage to the State’s indifference

Ordeal over Engineer Majhi who was abducted by the Maoists
Ordeal over Engineer Majhi who was abducted by the Maoists. Photo: Ratnakar Dash

A REMOTE DISTRICT located 600 km from Odisha capital Bhubaneswar, there are many reasons why Malkangiri could have caught national attention. The first President inaugurated the Machkund power project here; the first PM unveiled the Balimela dam. It was here that 151 villages were cut off from the mainland when the reservoir waters of both the projects submerged their huts. Electricity never reached them. Decades later, the only way to access these villages is on a motor boat, which ferries the villagers to the mainland they once belonged to.

Malkangiri caught national attention last week when Maoists abducted Collector RV Krishna and a junior engineer, Pabitra Majhi. On the day he was kidnapped, Krishna had inaugurated a rural electrification project. It brought power for the first time to Ralegada panchayat.

On 16 February, Krishna was on his way to the area not only to bring electricity, but also to distribute pattas, a certificate that establishes land rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Some months ago, posters had appeared in Malkangiri warning against it. Though the Act is considered pro-people, the Andhra-Odisha Zonal Border Committee of the Maoists opposes it. Perhaps because they believe that it creates rifts between the landless and landowners— instilling individual ownership into a society driven by the collective.

‘They had been catching small fry. They decided to go for the big one,’ says a source

Krishna chose not to be deterred. “The media is always exaggerating the Naxal threat,” he told a journalist days before his visit. Ironically, that is perhaps the reason he was abducted — to counter the ‘exaggeration’ or the portrayal of the Maoists as ruthless terrorists. That is why it seems the abduction is also an exercise in public relations, intended to send out a message: we are not demons; our aim is not to kill.

In July 2010, assistant sub-inspector Umesh Marandi was abducted by the Maoists, only be released unharmed and without condition. His abduction did not bring IAS officers out to protest, spark Facebook campaigns, or generate enough furore for the OB vans to trickle in.

“They had been catching small fry,” says a source close to the Maoists. “They decided to go for the big one. This is a tactic to expose the State before the people and extract some gains in the process. If the government refused these demands, it would be the one shame-faced.”

Ordeal over Collector Krishna who was abducted by the Maoists
Ordeal over Collector Krishna who was abducted by the Maoists
Photo: Ratnakar Dash

SEVERAL THINGS complicate the decoding of this abduction. The list of 14 demands presents a curious paradox. On the one hand are the development demands — irrigation canals, fair compensation to farmers, tribal rights, compensation for custodial deaths. These demands hold the government accountable to its own Constitution, in line with the larger goals and the public image the Maoists want to portray. On the other is the call to release a top leader’s tribal aide, another leader’s wife — the personal gains, the private victories that are also part of their battle.

Then there is the internal discord that is inevitable in any such party. When the release of Odisha Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda’s wife did not find mention in the original list sent by the Andhra unit, he dispatched another letter demanding her addition to it. There is the role of the media, which is selective in the injustices it chooses to report. And perhaps linked to that, there is legitimate need to unmask the State and to undemonise itself.

But that intention will probably never be met. The exposé of the State would only unfold if you went into the fine print: if you knew that one of the 629 prisoners is Arti Majhi, a tribal woman who was raped and jailed on false charges, if you were willing to accept her arrest as an abduction too, her imprisonment as a hostage crisis as well. That exposé would only unfold if you looked into the judicial inquiries the Maoists had demanded — into 17 fake encounters in Tamka, Kashipur and Kalinganagar in the past two months, where both Maoists and anti-mining activists have been allegedly killed by the State.

That intention will probably not be met because it means returning to the basic questions: Who is a Maoist? Should being a CPI (Maoist) member or subscribing to its ideology be grounds for getting arrested or killed? Does that amount to waging war against the State? And if it does — if the State won’t differentiate between the Maoists — how can we expect the Maoists to differentiate between Collectors?

When professors Haragopal and Someshwar Rao arrived in Bhubaneswar to negotiate talks, they were surprised to find the third mediator missing. The Odisha government had refused to accept the inclusion of Dandapani Mohanty. He’s a former Naxal and convenor of the Political Prisoners Release Committee and also represents the Daman Pratirodh Manch, a banned outfit. The professors insisted that Mohanty’s presence was critical to verifying ground realities and threatened to leave. The government relented.

As the negotiations proceeded, their success perhaps rested on one key incident — the arrest of five people in Semiliguda Police Station Case No. 78. Another motive in this abduction appears to be the withdrawal of this case. Perhaps because it involves Maoist Martyrs’ Relatives Committee chief Ganti Prasadam, who was shifted from Koraput jail to Bhubaneswar to negotiate on behalf of the Maoists and Sirisha alias Padma, wife of Ram Krishna, a Central Committee member and head of the Andhra-Odisha Zonal Border Committee.

SINCE THE 1980s, Padma has been working at an orphanage in Hyderabad. Her 16-year-old son wanted to meet his father. Late last year, he left the city and trekked into the jungles. While he was gone, the police slapped four cases against him. In order to avoid arrest, he was forced to remain underground. Padma decided to go in search of her son. She was intercepted close to Semiliguda with three others — Iswari, Rosa Madangi and Gokul, a truck driver, who was helping them. During their interrogation, the police learnt of Ganti Prasadam, who had helped organise the trip. They caught him a few days later.

It is these five “Maoists leaders” who might have been swapped for the two hostages. According to the government, they are all Maoist cadres. According to Mohanty, except Prasadam, none qualify as Maoists themselves. Though the final statement leaves it open to “due process”, TEHELKA has learnt that Odisha did agree to release Prasadam on bail, and to withdraw the case against the others. Prasadam has chosen not to accept bail until the cases against the tribals are looked into.

Middleman The Odisha government didn’t want Mohanty (right) to be a mediator but relented later
Middleman The Odisha government didn’t want Mohanty (right) to be a mediator but relented later
Photo: Purusottam Singh Thakur

At the end of Day 3 of negotiations, the government announced it had resolved all 14 demands. The mediators expressed satisfaction and declared that the Maoists would release two hostages within 48 hours. However, at the time of going to press, sources say new complications could hinder the immediate release of Krishna. The Maoists may ask for an unconditional release of prisoners, a physical swap.

TEHELKA has a copy of the agreement. Before we can decode the abduction, before the accusations of a soft State, it is imperative to read the fine print, to see what exactly the government has agreed to. (The entire list of demands and the government response.)

Declare Nookadora Konda Reddy communities as Scheduled Tribes
The Odisha government had already recommended this to the Centre in 2007. The matter will be placed in the next Tribal Advisory Council Meeting for consideration.

Issue pattas to tribals whose lands have been illegally possessed
This demand relates to the Land Reforms Act, 1956, according to which it is illegal for the government to take over tribal lands without the gram sabha’s consent. The Maoists allege that this Act has been violated in several districts. The government has agreed to work towards restoring the legal tribal rights.

Stop Operation Green Hunt
There will be no coercive action by the security forces as long as Maoists don’t indulge in any unlawful activity

Withdraw cases and release tribals and Chasi Mulia workers in Koraput and Malkangiri jails
The Odisha government has agreed to review the cases and says the process will start in 15 days.

Release Central Committee member Ashutosh Sen and members Sriramulu Srinivas, Gananath Patro, Tapan Mishra, Ganti Prasadam, Padma, Iswari, Rosa Madangi and Gokul
The government will “take steps for withdrawal of the police case against Ganti Prasadam, Padma, Iswari, Rosa, and truck driver Gokul following due to process of law. Regarding the others, the matter shall be examined on merit.”

A lot rests on one key incident — Case No. 78 and the release of five arrested persons

Meanwhile, the judicial inquiry into fake encounters that was earlier stated as a demand by the Maoists curiously doesn’t figure anywhere in the signed statement. When asked, Mohanty said it was decided that the affected families should approach the National Human Rights Commission.

Some implausible demands, some vague answers, and yet the two warring parties tried to come to a mutual agreement that works for both. The many contradictions and confusions over the past week reveal two warring parties who continue to be unsure how to deal with each other. That is why the larger battle and the longer crisis remains.

“Until the government rethinks its model of development and provides relief to the social base of the Maoists, the tribals,” says professor Haragopal, “the crisis will not be resolved.”

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