April 21, Day 1‘His throat was slit’
Alex had special plans for Majhipara, a Sukma village, barely 1.5 kilometres off the highway. Surely it can’t be unsafe; not with a CRPF camp some three kilometres away. The collector reaches there at about 4 pm and eats his lunch. The sub divisional magistrate, SP Vaidya is also there — to announce the introduction of modern agriculture and horticulture techniques to boost the income of villagers. Alex also has to announce a Rs. 3 crore project under NREGS, a scheme many collectors refer to as a ‘Naxal killer’.
The villagers have gathered and are listening intently to the collector, when there is a sudden noise and a commotion in the crowd. Alex turns to his right and sees Kishen Kujur, one of his bodyguards lying prostrate on the ground, his body writhing. Alex and Vaidya couldn’t believe what they saw next — Kujur’s mouth had been gagged and his throat was being slit. Soon, there were sounds of bullets.
Amjad Khan, the other bodyguard and the Naxals, who had mingled with the villagers, were exchanging fire. Realising he had to take cover, Alex flung himself to the ground and tried to hide behind the plastic chair he had been sitting on; probably knowing that it was no guard against bullets. A little later, when silence was all there was, the villagers having fled; Alex got up and picked up his two mobile phones strewn on the ground and walked towards his bodyguard and was shocked to find him dead.
There was no sign of the other PSO, Amjad Khan and Alex and Vaidya were probably relieved that he had fled. The ‘Naxal killer’ scheme stayed on the maps and charts Alex was carrying and while he looked for his car, realised that the driver was seated in it, its engine running.
he collector and the SDM rushed to the car, and found a man sitting in the seat next to the driver. ‘Amjad survived’, was the first obvious thought but when they looked again, they saw an unknown man occupying the seat. It was important to get out of Majhipada and they drove for about 30 yards before a boy with a gun came and stood in front of the car.
The driver’s instinct said, speed up and get the hell out of here, but what if the armed Naxal opened fire? Alex told the driver to stop and the armed man had just one question, “who is the collector?”
Sukma collector, Alex Paul Menon, who almost escaped from Majhipara, had been taken hostage and was being dragged deep into the despairing jungles. Two Naxals, each holding Alex by his shoulders, wanted to handcuff the collector, but when he resisted, they tied a rope around his left wrist and raced into the thick foliage. A short distance later, he was blindfolded and the asthmatic hostage, kept tripping and wheezing.
He remembered he had a medicine box in the car and told his captors to fetch it, unless they wanted a burdensome man, who wouldn’t be able to walk. After a three-hour trudge into the wilderness, they reached a village and Alex spent his first night in a hut without a roof, with some fish curry and PDS rice thrown his way in the form of dinner. The mobile phones still with him, he managed to put them in silent mode and send a text message to his wife Asha and it read: ‘you be brave, keep the family brave. I’m alright.’
Day 2 ‘On the run’
Forever on the move and in a constant hide-and-seek game with the security forces, the Naxals could take no chance with a high-risk hostage. Alex was woken up at 5 am, when there isn’t enough light that seeps through the dense foliage, and made to walk. At some point, his captors, whose strength had grown in numbers, from three to five, took him up a hillock, from where they tried to establish satellite contact.
After hours of walking, it was time for some rice and vegetables. The food invariably came from villages in the vicinity but never was there any direct contact. Alex was running out of medicines and started rationing them; having one tablet a day instead of two. He wondered what the Naxals planned to do with him but found no answers. The thought of Kujur’s throat being slit haunted him every night, and he cried.
Day 3 ‘A local guerrilla squad appeared’
The ordinariness of day two was replaced with hectic action. The Naxals borrowed a motorbike and with the collector as the pillion-rider, they moved location frequently; every two to three hours. The captors had got news of the government having deployed UAVs to track Alex’s location.
Suddenly, the number of armed men wielding INSAS rifles and SLRs increased; a local guerrilla squad surrounded him and kept him within close sight even when he was relieving himself under the open sky. Quite by accident, he overheard a news bulletin his captors had tuned into on a radio set and he realised the government was looking for negotiators. May be they wouldn’t kill him.
Day 4 ‘Another ordinary day’
More motor cycle rides. A different set of Naxals keeping guard. Rice and vegetables and water drawn from a hand pump. The Naxals remembered his mobile phones and took both away.
Day 5 ‘The arguments begin’
Alex realised negotiations were on and he won’t be killed. Emboldened, the collector apparently started having discussions with the Naxals; which often turned into arguments. He got lectures on atrocities and human rights violations; on how villages had been razed and innocents raped and killed. Sometimes, he questioned them about their atrocities, about them killing innocents on the grounds that they were informers.
‘We warn them not once, but twice and only then do we kill,’ is their standard response, even when asked the same question by the media. Alex was a hostage and could argue only up to a point
Day 6 ‘The arguments continue’
More interactions and discussions with the Naxal sentries on guard duty around Alex. Depending on the location, during the day there were 5 to 10 and an additional five every night. Alex seldom saw the same faces and that gave him a chance to gain insights.
Why had they picked up the gun? What keeps them in the Naxal fold? Of the over 100 he spoke with, 80 percent were illiterate and the most educated — fifth class dropouts. Not very ideologically bent but in it to help the tribals. In it, also because of the Salwa Judum repression. A fresh stock of medicines arrive, as do some clothes.
Day 7 ‘A leader arrives’
A man comes with a mask and asks, ‘how are you’ in broken Hindi. The collector apparently responds, “you are holding me hostage, how do you expect me to feel.” A discourse on how the government is signing MoUs and depriving the tribals of their resources. He is given a copy of the email sent to the media, accusing him of a custodial killing in Sukma.
Day 8 ‘bannedthoughts.net’
The armed comrades give him bulletin papers that are also put up by the CPI (Maoists) on bannedthoughts.net. More conversations on violence in the name of development. Alex argues. He has not been hit by the Stockholm syndrome.
Day 9 ‘A letter to Asha’
Alex thinks constantly about his wife Asha and his slain bodyguard but is relieved that Amjad managed to escape. He sits down to write another letter to his wife, Asha. He’d written one on day 3 and the Naxals had told him it had been delivered.
Day 10 ‘The water holds clues’
Alex demands to be given a newspaper and threatens to go on a hunger strike, according to the rebels. The paper gives him hope — the negotiations are on and he asks, ‘how can you demand the release of Naxals who have been convicted?’ The food is standard but the colour is muddy, probably from a drain. Alex has probably been taken very deep into the jungle. Far from villages with hand pumps. More stories about Salwa Judum.
Day 11 ‘Amjad is dead’
Alex gets a radio set. The news hits him hard. Amjad had not escaped. The Naxals had chased him and shot him dead. He can’t control his tears. Helplessness seizes him.
Day 12 ‘Liberty is at hand’
Alex hears about the deadline and realises he will soon be free. After days, while on the move, they pass villages. The schools are burnt and he thinks — these are not ‘liberated villages’, they are as captive as he is.
Day 13 ‘The handing over’
The walk started early. There were enough indications he would be handed over to the negotiators and he is. Forty to 50 Naxals appear from different sides. He sees the government negotiator BD Sharma and heaves a sigh of relief. He is allowed to go but only after the cadre have videographed the handing over.
They return his mobile phones and the two letters which had never been delivered. His mind travels back to Majhipara. The villagers had let him down, but he will go back there, soon, he thought as he walked to freedom. Or is it?