On the surface, it appears that the Odisha government came out relatively unscathed from the month-long abduction episodes involving two Italians and an MLA. Only a handful of the prisoners were released in exchange. In Chhattisgarh too, with pressure on the Maoists increasing even from their known apologists, it is quite possible that the abducted collector too would be released without the state having to concede too much. Just like the tunes of Ram Dhun marked the release of the MLA in Odisha attempting to depict a peaceful resolution of the episode, Chhattisgarh too would find reason to boast about its methods of negotiating differently. So does it mean that it’s back to normal till one more high-profile abduction takes place? Or do the states have to introspect what these episodes have cost them?
It would be a double whammy for the Maoists in Odisha. In February 2011, Maoists demanded release of 627 prisoners in exchange for abducted Malkangiri district collector R Vineel Krishna. The state government released five Maoists. Also released subsequently were 200 tribals against whom the courts found no evidence, in which the state government had very little role to play. Human rights activists allege that at least 430 people are still behind bars which include only a handful of hardcore Maoists, even though the Maoists released the collector. Demands for the release of 29 people were made by the Maoists in the twin abductions in March this year. Only five people — wife of Maoist leader Sabyasachi Panda and four Maoist front organisation CMAS members — walked out of the prisons.
So with a success rate that hovered in the range of less than 1 per cent in the first episode and 17 per cent in the second, it would appear that use of abduction for seeking releases of its cadres and leaders is not exactly an effective instrument. An MP from the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) proudly argued on national television about the “absolute ease” with which the releases of the abducted persons were secured. How tenable is such argument?
The projected “ease” is at best a political description of necessity for the BJD which found itself embroiled in difficult situations, twice in the last 13 months. It surrendered on both occasions, agreeing not only to release Maoist cadres but also to “sympathetically consider” demands that were clearly outside its authority. For obvious reasons, the Polavaram irrigation project in Andhra Pradesh could not be scrapped and Maoists jailed in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand could not be freed.
These were raised again by the Maoists during the recent abductions and strangely enough, the state government agreed again. This depicted weakness and desperation and was certainly in no way a pointer at the so-called “ease” with which the entire episode was managed. Not fulfilling demands one has acceded to cannot be interpreted as a demonstration of strength. It feeds into the Maoist discourse of the state being dishonest and has the potential of making negotiations in future cases of abductions — both in Odisha and other states — much more difficult. Lest this not be construed an argument supporting the releases, but against a negotiation process that accommodates such demands to begin with.
Irrespective of whether abductions secure some immediate advantage or not, it is the Maoists who could end up amassing a large chunk of the popular sympathy in the long run. Consider, for example, the feelings such releases of Maoist cadres arouse among the security forces. Odisha cops had raised valid objections to the proposed release of the Naxals saying that their sacrifices should not be frittered away. Considering the forces as dispensable is common to almost all the states. In the abduction episode in Chhattisgarh, hardly any debate focused on the two Personal Security Officers of the abducted collector who were killed by the Maoists.
A negative ramification of this trend could be the growth of a “kill and don’t arrest” mindset among the security forces. As the number of abductions grow across the states, leading to steady releases of Maoists to secure the safety of the abducted, the probability of extra-judicial encounters may increase, further reinforcing the Maoists’ allegation that the state is out to eliminate the tribals. To incite state oppression in order to widen its support base is a fairly well established strategy in Maoist dictum. A national debate over and conclusion of a counter-Maoist strategy that applies to all the states is of critical necessity. The MHA cannot afford a hands-off approach.