Two high profile kidnapping cases suggest that the Maoist rebels are returning to the use of hostage-taking as a primary tactic in meeting their aims.
District collector RV Krishna is one of the most respected and popular civil servants in Odisha, thanks to his work in calming religious tensions following the Hindu-Christian riots of 2008, and in implementing tribal rights and welfare schemes in some of the most impoverished areas of the state.
But last Wednesday evening, he was abducted along with junior engineer Pabitra Majhi as they travelled through the remote Chitrakond area in the Maoist stronghold of Malkangiri district.
While the abduction may have been unpopular with villagers, many of whom have taken to the streets to demand Krishna’s immediate release, the tactic appears to have born fruit for the Maoists, with bail proceedings already underway for at least one senior Maoist, Ganti Prasadam.
More cadres and Maoist sympathisers may walk free in the coming days, as the Maoists press home their advantage by adding more names to the list of those they want released.
“The government have to bend in this situation – the officer is too high profile,” said Rahul Pandita, a journalist with Open magazine who has written two books on the Maoist insurgency.
There are reports that local Maoist leader Akkiraju Haragopal aka Ramakrishna, head of the Andhra-Orissa border zonal committee and a member of the Central Committee, is attempting to secure the release of his wife, Padma, who was arrested last November, along with several other key members.
“This was a highly planned incident,” said Pandita. “It is not just that Krishna is famous. The Maoists also know that he’s a people’s man and that the media will start looking into the kind of issues that he has been dealing with.”
The Maoists have kidnapped many government officials in the past in order to secure the release of their colleagues. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the rebels carried out a series of high-profile abductions of politicians and officials, even kidnapping the highly respected IAS officer S R Sanakaran. Though effective, these brought a great deal of criticism from human rights organisations. Recent kidnappings have tended to be on a lesser scale, involving low-level police officers and business contractors. The killing of adivasis policeman Lucas Tete after a hostage crisis in Bihar in September brought widespread condemnation.
This latest incident comes just days after five policemen were released by Maoists in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh after 18 days in captivity. The release was carefully orchestrated by the rebels to gather maximum media attention and highlight the plight of tribal communities in the area. The hostages were handed over to a team of rights activists, accompanied by a large group of local media, deep in the Abujmarh forests that form the principal base of Maoist operations in the area.
“What was most striking was the scale of human rights abuses that are being carried out by the security forces in that area,” said V Suresh, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who formed part of the rescue team.
“The Maoists had gathered around 2,000 local people in the forest, and they had many people come forward and describe how their family members were being locked up in jail without charge, and their fear of police combing operations.”
Chhattisgarh has born the brunt of violence between Maoists and the state in recent years, thanks largely to the government’s decision to supply arms and funding to a brutal militia called the Salwa Judum (meaning ‘purification hunt’), which has been accused of large-scale murder, rape and the destruction of tribal villages in the process of rooting out the rebels.
A supreme court order last month demanded the dissolution of the Salwa Judum and the payment of compensation to victims’ families, but the government has so far failed to respond. Government officials could not be reached for comment, although chief minister Raman Singh has promised to launch an internal enquiry into the issues raised by the Maoists during the release.
“The Maoists were very clearly focused on industrialisation and mining policies, which are leading to the massive evacuation of tribal villages,” added V Suresh. “The leaders we met, and even the second rung of members, were very well-informed about the latest decisions on industrial projects.”
In both kidnapping incidents, the Maoists have demanded the scrapping of deals with mining and industrial firms. This has been a mainstay of their kidnapping demands for many years. Critics claim that the Maoists are more interested in extorting bribes from commercial firms than in driving them away, but industrial encroachment in tribal areas is very much at the heart of the current conflict and the Maoists are keen to place it at the centre of their rhetoric, even if they know such demands are unrealistic.
After several months of relative quiet from the Maoists, there are concerns that these abductions could be the start of a renewed campaign.
“The Maoists have been very much on the backfoot since last summer,” said Pandita. “There have been a lot of successful operations by the government in places like Jharkhand and Lalgarh [in West Bengal] and a lot of senior leaders have been arrested. Half of their Central Committee is in jail.”
“Kidnapping is very effective for them. Whether they kill or release the hostages, they put a lot of pressure on the government. I would not be surprised if they target more high-profile politicians and officers.”