In the last 14 months, the Maoists have conducted five high-profile abductions: in February 2011, they kidnapped the then Malkangiri (Orissa) collector R Vineel Krishna; this year, they have already struck twice: in March, they kidnapped two Italian citizens and a BJD MLA, again from the forests in Orissa. Then in April, the Red Army abducted Sukma (Chhattisgarh) collector, Alex Paul Menon.
After the abductions of the two Italians and the MLA, Orissa agreed to the Maoists’ demand and promised to facilitate the release of 27 undertrials. This move was criticised in many news reports. They talked of how the Orissa government has bowed to the pressure of the Maoists and agreed “to release hardened criminals”. Across the state’s border, for Menon’s release, the Chhattisgarh government, too, has agreed to set up a high-powered committee to review the cases of all prisoners languishing in the state jails, including the cases demanded by the Maoists.
To be fair, Orissa had refused to free the jailed eastern military commander of the Red Army as well as another rebel, who is accused of killing 55 policemen. Despite repeated demands by the Maoists for the release of more people and their threats to decide the fate of the hostages in kangaroo courts, the government stood its ground till the hostages were freed.
But the Orissa government is yet to release most of the “27 hardened criminals”. While it is difficult to ascertain whether they are criminals or not, one thing is for sure: they are impoverished tribals — in fact, hundreds like them get caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and security forces and end up staying in jails for years because they are too poor to afford a lawyer or bail.
Tribals get arrested by the forces because they are not conversant with any other language except their own dialect and so they fail to properly answer questions during interrogations. Moreover, security personnel engaged in anti-Naxal operations often arrest tribals because of their frustration due to mounting work pressure. This reality — of many tribals languishing in jails as they had been booked under false and fabricated cases — dawned on the Orissa government while it was negotiating for Krishna’s release last year. But after Krishna’s release, the list was buried in the labyrinths of bureaucracy. It surfaced again after this year’s hostage crisis.
While it is a matter of debate, whether the government had given in to Maoists or not, there is no doubt that the media-savvy rebels managed to score a political point by triggering a debate in the media on the State’s neglect of the tribals. The Maoists have exploited these issues to consolidate their base and challenge the State’s authority and bring a sizable chunk — definitely not the majority — of tribals into their fold.
In the last two years, the security forces have decimated the top Maoist leadership and inflicted heavy casualties on them. This has been possible because the forces now have better firepower and the Maoists have lost tribal support — a periodic cycle of loss that the rebels often encounter — in several areas due to excesses by their reckless cadres. But the same tribals may be forced to back the Maoists if excesses by the security forces continue and there’s no long-term solutions to their problems.
The tribal areas of the country are governed by the finest laws. But not many of them are implemented in letter and spirit. It is time the central and state governments implement them along with the best of amendments and recommendations by various commissions that have repeatedly proposed that the tribals’ concept of development and community ownership must be weaved into the planning process for those areas.