The first collector of the newly-formed district of Sukma, Alex Paul Menon, clearly hadn’t read how his senior in the IAS, Vineel Krishna in Malkangiri district of Odisha was kidnapped last year. Following pretty much the same pattern of sending Maoists dressed as villagers, Alex, a 2006 batch IAS officer, was kidnapped when he was in the middle of a Gram Suraj meeting at a village, some 400 km south of Chhattisgarh capital Raipur. In the gunfire that followed the attempt to kidnap him, two of his security guards were shot dead.
Incidentally, Alex’s abduction happened less than 24 hours after an attack on the life of a collector and MLA in neighbouring Bijapur district. The duo were lucky to escape. But three men in uniform who were travelling in the vehicle behind were killed.
It would seem Maoists have struck terror in Chhattisgarh with a vengeance.
Alex, like Vineel, has a good name as a development-oriented bureaucrat in Chhattisgarh. In Odisha, in the face of public outcry and support for Vineel in mainstream media and social media, the Maoists pegged their demands high, starting with the release of top Maoists. Vineel Krishna was subsequently released, even as doubts persist to this day if money was paid to get the Maoists to let him go.
In March this year, the kidnapping season returned to Odisha when two Italians were abducted on March 14. Another group of Maoists struck by taking away Biju Janata Dal MLA Jinka Hikaka on 24th. In situations such as these, the state is nothing but a helpless spectator, neither having the power to strike to free the hostages, nor having the political will and authority to agree to unreasonable demands. With Maoist sympathizers entering the scene as mediators, the state watches from the sidelines in silence, the tick-tock of the clock, logging minutes in hours. A state that is committed to the safety of every citizen of India can only be embarrassed at how the Maoists expose its vulnerability. A gun is all it takes for the state to go down on its knees.
Police officers working in anti-naxal operations in Andhra Pradesh say they have found politicians and IAS officers in Odisha and Chhattisgarh not very careful about their movements. “In Andhra Pradesh, no politician or IAS officer working in a naxal area would step out without the police in the loop and proper security. Only when the police would clear the area as free of any naxal dalam movement, would they step in. They are much more aware of this perennial threat. In Odisha and Chhattisgarh, they seem to take it more easy,” an officer explained.
As journalists were trying to figure out the where, how and what of a so-called praja court that was to decide on Hikaka’s fate, subtle political games were taking place, with the Centre reportedly being told by the Odisha government to keep its distance from the hostage drama and not intervene. That may however change in the case of Chhattisgarh, with an IAS officer abducted and Home minister P Chidambaram monitoring the situation directly.
For all the hype about being the greatest internal security threat, and despite the seeming helplessness of the state vis-a-vis left wing extremism, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind about who is the mightier of the two. Right now it may seem like the Indian State is hostage to Maoist blackmail because this is psychological warfare and it is easier to have the upper hand when you indulge in unreasonable and unjustified acts of terror rather than if you follow the rule of law of the land. Not suggesting that the state forces always do.
Former DGP of Andhra Pradesh, M V Bhaskara Rao was IG (STF) when Andhra Pradesh faced its biggest and most dramatic hostage drama. Twelve IAS officers were abducted on Christmas eve in 1987 and in exchange, the state was forced to release 16 naxals, some of who faced up to 40 charges of murder. (Read T S Sudhir’s blog : Kidnapping the state’s authority)
“It is never an easy decision to take but then you cannot bring back lost lives but you can always catch a prisoner you released under duress once again. Some of the senior IAS officers we got released are now holding senior positions in government. You may have to give in. But there is something like stooping to conquer. Once the hostages are released, there should be no pussy-footing. Must go the whole hog and go after them. That is the only way out,’’ says Bhaskara Rao.
But it is not a view the entire police establishment agrees on. Most officers are loathe to give in so easily. Another former DGP Swaranjit Sen, under whose stewardship, Andhra Pradesh for all practical purposes, bid goodbye to Maoism, feels having no policy on dealing with hostage situations makes a mockery of the law of the land.
“There will be no end to this if you are going to give in every time. After all, you have lost precious lives because of these very people who you are now being forced to set free. And they may go and kill more innocents. That is why setting free people who should stay behind bars in exchange for hostages sets the wrong precedent. Politicians should not be given the powers to set free and release prisoners who have been charged. If the state government and central government are unwilling to formulate law on this, the Supreme Court must intervene and lay down guidelines. That those charged with heinous crimes cannot simply be set free because Maoists are threatening to kill or holding the carrot of the release of a hostage,’’ explains Sen.
But as we have seen in the case of the Kandahar hijack, it is not an easy clinical call to take. With families involved, the emotional quotient cannot be wished away. Can the state cope with the outcry that is bound to take place if the Maoists choose to send a chilling message to India by killing any of the hostages?
What worked for Andhra Pradesh in 2004-2007, the period when Maoists were virtually vanquished, was the political will, effective local intelligence and infiltration of Maoist ranks by the police. Add to this the firepower the state police had at its disposal, along with a committed and well trained Greyhounds commando force.
If India’s greatest internal security threat is to be neutralised in the `Red corridor’, there cannot be any half-hearted measures. Unless the State wants to hop from one hostage negotiation to another.
(pic courtesy : gulfnews.com)