The cars were not allowed to go any further. Mobile phones were switched off, about 60 of them, and kept in a bag that was stashed away in the boot of a car. The photographers had to switch off their cameras and cover the lenses.
Only one reporter had his phone switched on to receive further instructions.
We were all in the heart of West Bengal countryside, a team of journalists summoned by a top Naxalite leader to witness the release of a police officer abducted after a Maoist raid on a police station more than two days ago. The Maoist military chief had personally called up reporters — I got mine at 2:30 a.m. — saying they were about to release their first “Prisoner of War”. It was spine chilling.
“We will release Atindranath Dutta before the media. Please come,” Kishenji had said, before handing over his phone to the POW.
“I am anxious to meet my family. But I am fine. They have treated me well,” Dutta told me. I could hardly catch any sleep. It was about 8 am when Kishenji called me again.
“We are in the middle of a gun battle,” he said. “We still intend to release the POW and keep our side of the deal but cannot be held responsible if anything happens to him.”
It was around 1.30 p.m. when my colleague Subhendu Ghosh and I reached Jhargram. We headed for the hotel where a large media contingent had gathered.
From Jhargram, we travelled in a convoy of nine vehicles for about an hour and reached Gohamidanga, 250 km from Kolkata located somewhere between Dharampur and Lalgarh.
Then the phones were collected. We were frisked.
A two-kilometre trek through rough terrain, past two villages, brought us to the Gohamidanga High School grounds.
The media team waited patiently as villagers served lemon tea and biscuits. There was already a nip in the air. But all hell broke loose at the sight of a familiar figure.
Kishenji, surrounded by four armed guerrillas, had walked in with his face uncovered. The photographers lensmen could not resist the temptation and started clicking away. But they were quickly rounded up and Kishenji got hold of three photographers who had managed to focus on his face. The photographs were quickly deleted.
Then, in the rural heartland, a press meet began. The officer was being released because he had never tortured any villager and even ran a school, said Kishenji. “But since Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has declared a war on us, every prisoner we take from now on will be a prisoner of war,” he added.
And then, the prisoner was brought.
Dutta was smiling. A poster pinned to his chest read, Bandi Mukti Sammelan (PoW release ceremony).
“If the government thinks that it has control over this region then it is time for a review. The government should think of development in this area,” said Dutta, as the flashlights blinded him after 55 hours in captivity.
Kishenji removed the poster from Dutta’s shirt.
“By setting him free, we have shown that we don’t want violence. Now think of what the government had done to the local people and poor tribals. So who is the real perpetrator of violence? From now on we will take war prisoners at every opportunity,” said Kishenji.
The weary officer trudged to a waiting car to head home. The rebel commander waved to us and vanished into the darkness.