Hostage to the politics of peace

Life in balance MLA Jinna Hikaka was abducted by Maoists on 24 March
Life in balance: MLA Jinna Hikaka was abducted by Maoists on 24 March,  Photo: AFP

TWO ITALIANS, one MLA, a group of mediators, a pamphlet of 13 demands, and bickering between the Odisha chief minister and Union home minister: for the past week, Odisha’s hostage crisis has caught the nation’s attention.

“It was not a pleasure to meet you,” 61-year-old Italian tourist Claudio Colangelo told a Maoist commander, “but thank you for treating us well.” Colangelo was one of the two Italian hostages kidnapped by the Odisha state wing of the banned CPI(Maoist) on 14 March. He was released on 21 March after an appeal from mediators. Paolo Bosusco, an Italian tour operator and Jinna Hikaka, Laxmipur MLA, remain in Maoist custody.

Decode the events of the past week, and Odisha is perhaps a test case for the predicament of peace, the quagmire of temporary negotiation. There are factions within the CPI(Maoist). There are factions within the Indian government. Each incident, its instant gains, its own life span, only to be forgotten until there’s another. Last year in February, Malkangiri Collector R Vineel Krishna was kidnapped by the rebels and released after a 14-point agreement between the Odisha government and the mediators. The CPI(Maoist) alleges that none of those demands have been fulfilled. Besides asking for the release of Maoist cadres, the demands last year included: Declare Nookadora Konda Reddy communities as Scheduled Tribes. Issue land certificates to tribals whose lands have been possessed in violation of the Land Reforms Act. Withdraw false cases and release tribals in Koraput and Malkangiri jails.

In the aftermath of the kidnapping, TEHELKA had met Gasi, Maoist divisional spokesman, part of the Andhra-Odisha Zonal Border Committee (AOB) responsible for the abduction. “This was a political strategy,” he said. “The decision to capture, demand, release, and negotiate are based on people’s issues, which are also Maoist issues. We use kidnapping as a tool to further our political aims and publicise our goals.” (See Inside the War Theatre; 19 March 2011)

Some of this may be mere posturing. One could deduce from the kidnapping last year, that there is the personal within the political. Last year, TEHELKA had reported a rift between the Oriya and Telugu cadre of the party. While the AOB had demanded the release of senior cadres, a key name was missing from their list: Subashree Panda, wife of Sabyasachi Panda, the present Odisha state secretary of the CPI (Maoist). In contrast, the kidnapping of the Italian hostages from Kandhamal this year was spearheaded by the party’s Odisha state wing. Subashree’s release is now one of the key demands. In a twist, while negotiations were on to free the Italians, sudden developments at the Andhra-Odisha border halted talks abruptly. A sub-inspector was killed in Malkangiri, an MLA was abducted from Koraput. In a written statement, the AOB took responsibility for both. This was perhaps the first overt confirmation of the internal rift. The next day, one hostage was released as a “goodwill gesture” by the Odisha unit. It was perhaps more a public relations exercise.

The Maoists have threatened to kill the MLA if the government tries to deceive them

Yet, whatever the motive of each abduction and release, every such incident presents an opportunity for the government to come out stronger, to represent its own people. Yet each time, such crises are seen only in their immediate contexts, only in local gains. Each time, it is the rebels who are seen to be speaking for the tribal people. Perhaps that is why two review committees appointed last year to meet Maoist demands are yet to make any substantial headway. “We did not receive permission to meet the prisoners. How will we review their cases?” asked former journalist Sudhakar Patnaik, part of the government nominated committee to review cases against 600 tribals in jails across the state. The goverment claims 83 cases have been withdrawn. The Maoists say several of those tribals have been rearrested.

The second committee to review issues related to the illegal transfer of tribal land has not yet submitted its recommendations to the government. “I was chairman for the first three months only,” says senior IAS officer Arvind Behra. “We had combined the views of various NGOs and academics. There was a change in the committee. A new officer had come in. I am back now as the Chairman. We expect to submit recommendations soon.”

At the time of going to press, negotiations were still on between the Odisha government and Maoist nominated mediators to free the second Italian hostage. The key demands from the Odisha faction include: Prosecution of police officers involved in fake encounters and custodial deaths of Lalit Dehuri, Junesh Badaraita, Pradeep Majhi, and in the gangrape of Arati Majhi; release of at least 18 tribals rearrested after being acquitted from the courts, the release of cadres, including Subashree Panda, and central committee member Asutosh Soren.

MEANWHILE, THE AOB unit has endorsed the demands of its Odisha counterpart, attributing the disconnect to “problems of coordination faced by an underground party”. For the release of the MLA, the AOB has demanded: “Operation Green Hunt be stopped. Demands accepted during the release of Collector Krishna be implemented. All political prisoners in Malkangiri and Koraput jails be released.” Significantly, it has refused to name mediators. “Political prisoners in Koraput and Malkangiri jails should be handed over to us as soon as possible. The government should announce its acceptance through radio and newspapers. There is no need for mediators. Then we will announce the time and place for the swap. Instead, if the government tries to buy time and deceive us, we will surely kill the MLA.” The Odisha government has confirmed the receipt of this statement. “Our team is not involved in the release of the MLA. We are only negotiating for the Italian hostage,” said Odisha SC/ST secretary Santosh Sarangi, one of the mediators. He added the agreement during Krishna’s release was complied with. “The home secretary has stated he will furnish the details,” he said.

As negotiations go on, new issues have been presented to the CM by mediators.“We have identified issues which need the CM’s intervention,” said mediator BD Sharma. “The issues are related to policies and basic problems of the tribal people.”

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.

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Special Correspondent

Tusha Mittal has been with Tehelka since March 2008. She was educated at La Martiniere, Kolkata, and has a bachelor’s degree from Depauw University in Indiana. While in the US, she worked as a reporter and a special sections editor for a local newspaper in Boston. She also interned with CNN Internationalin Atlanta and NBC Universal in London. In her final year in college, she studied the idea of peace journalism and the role of the media in covering conflict.

She travelled to Kashmir for her graduation thesis, which dissected the role of the Indian and Pakistani media in shaping public perception of the Kashmir conflict. Her journalism interests include reporting on environment, human rights, and conflict. She has recently won The Press Institute of India award for best articles on humanitarian issues published in the Indian media. AtTehelka, she has written extensively on land rights and displacement struggles. She is based in New Delhi.


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