In the deep pockets of Narayanpur district, Chhattisgarh, eight cars speeding on dirt tracks leading to Abujh Marh forests is not a common sight. Add to that a satellite van, five camera persons, and a man dressed in saffron, head to toe, especially in an area dominated by the colour red and you have a curious spectacle on your hands.
Social activist Swami Agnivesh, his associate Manu Singh and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) activists Kavita Srivastava, V Suresh, Harish Dhawan, and Gautam Navlakha were leading the convoy into the forest to free five constables held hostage by the Maoists for 18 days.
Following the abduction of Ranjan Dubey, Tarsus Ekka, Manishankar Dubey, Raghunandan Dhruv and Ramadhar Patel on 25 January, the State police and Special Forces had launched a manhunt and combing operations that yielded no results.
A week later, the Maoists sent an 11-point list of demands to the government through a local journalist.
Some of the key demands included scrapping the plan to set up an army base near Abuj Marh forest, release of innocent villagers and halting Operation Green Hunt.
Agnivesh volunteered to lead the group of mediators and thus, the plan for an activist and media convoy was devised. For Agnivesh, it was another opportunity to be with the Maoists after the shooting of Cherukuri Azad in Adilabad, Andhra Pradesh, last year.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh promised Agnivesh that the state would not intervene. The stage was set. Relatives also travelled along to meet their loved ones.
Around 120-130 kilometers into the journey, which started from Jagdalpur, the convoy took a turn to Bayaner. Dust, hot winds, suspicious looks and a chase by a local intelligence unit ensued. Agnivesh sent the intelligence unit back after arguing with them.
Soon, some members of the local press realised that the convoy had taken a wrong turn. Panic set in. This was near the forests; there was no mobile phone network. Amarbati and Seema Ranjan, mother and sister of Ranjan Dubey, sat sobbing in their car, without hope and fatigued.
Another banner said, “We have released you since you too are poor, the citizen’s court deemed it right to set you free.”
They got out and stood under a tree. Seema spoke, “My brother was down with malaria and he was coming back on sanctioned leave for a month. Look what happened.”
On the way back to the wrong turn, the activists made contact with the Maoists. The journey was back on track but, the surprised had not ended.
After riding on the Dhaudia-Orcha road for two hours, the convoy reached a road washed away with a steep incline. The last lap of the journey would be on foot. After hours of dust and confusion, the travelling party had found sudden purpose again.
The release of the hostages was finally in sight.
Amid the silent but gigantic mountains of Abuj Marh forests, a motley crowd of 50 walked quietly through thick forests adorned by tamarind trees.
After walking around 8-10 kilometers, one could see a stream of villagers going into the forests. Someone pointed to a green uniform stealthily watching the visitors trudge along.
We had arrived at our destination. A uniformed Maoist, Kalashnikov slung around him, greeted us and asked us not to start recording without permission. Agnivesh stepped forward; hugs were exchanged .
A file of cadre, all armed, stood to shake hand with the visitors. This correspondent, camera in tow, hesitated to shake hands at first, but joined fellow journalists soon.
The place had the smell and feel of a grand welcome. Red banners questioned the job of the policeman, appealing them to contemplate their duties.
Another banner said, “We have released you since you too are poor, the citizen’s court deemed it right to set you free.” Posters condemned Operation Green Hunt; villagers sat quietly.
Suddenly, the loudspeaker belted out a song – “Lal Salaam, Lal Salaam, patrakar bhaiyon ko Lal Salaam”. (Red Salute, Red Salute, Red salute to journalist brothers)
The constables were summoned, in a file and stood with their hands folded back. The place went silent. Nobody except the journalists moved. One comrade asked the families of the jawans to step forward. Agnivesh and the PUCL activists too stepped forward.
This was the moment. In a flash, the relatives were crying profusely, unable to believe their sons, brothers, fathers were unhurt. They leapt at each other.
Agnivesh consoled the relatives saying, “Thank the Maoists brothers and leaders, they have kept their word.” As the reunited family members settled on a tarpaulin sheet, Agnivesh raised his fist and chanted, “Bharatiya Communist Party Maowadi lal salaam”, the whole place echoed, “Lal salaam, lal salaam”.
There was an expression of surprise on everyone’s face as Agnivesh chanted ‘Lal Salaam’, but the focus then shifted to the jawans who were called one by one to speak about their release.
The jawans’ non-fussy speeches were similar in tone and content. Eighteen days was a long time they had spent with the Maoists, they were happy to be alive.
Comrade Prabhat, a member of the North Region Committee, told TEHELKA, “We did not hurt these jawans because they were not our main targets. The message was for the government to stop crushing innocent adivasis, abandon Operation Green Hunt and stop the installation of an army base in Maoist territory. The locals have pardoned the jawans.”
On a question about the large media gathering he said, “We decided that the whole world should get a direct message from us, loud and clear. The fight to own Jal, Jungle and Zameen (Water, Jungle and land) will continue.”
Comrade Prabhat added that the Maoists have started mobile general schools and mobile political schools to teach science, math, Marxism, Leninism, political science, and economics.
On our way back, Ramadhar Patel (51) recounted the experience and said, “We were almost sure, we would be killed. But apart from tying our hands on all days, the Maoists never hurt us. We were made to walk for long hours every day. But, they would serve tea and snacks, the moment we halted. I was amazed!”
Ranjan Dubey chipped in, “They chatted with us, we sang songs together and the most touching thing were the way they took care of me. I was down with malaria, and upon knowing this they gave me food, medicines and injections on time.”
Tarsus Ekka ended the conversation saying, “These eighteen days, I did not sleep a wink. But we never expected such treatment from the Maoists; we had always demonized them in our minds. These eighteen days were like eighteen years”