By Rajat Kumar Kujur
In November 2011, after Chidambaram’s review meeting on the Odisha Naxal situation, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Pattnaik downplayed the Union Home Minister’s observation on the Maoist situation in the state and claimed that the problem had been contained successfully. The Chief Minister’s proclamation was based on a comparison of Maoist-related casualties in 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, what he and many others fail to understand is that the Maoist threat cannot merely be determined from a reading of casualty statistics; it should also include their ability to successfully implement the strategy of Maoist warfare. The recent twin hostage crisis in the state is a revelation of the fact that not all is well on the Maoist front in Odisha.
On 14 March 2012, two Italian nationals, Bosusco Paolo and Claudio Colangelo, were kidnapped from the Kandhamal district of Odisha. The crisis was compounded by another Maoist strike that led to the kidnapping of the ruling BJD MLA Jhina Hikaka in Koraput. In a dramatic turn of events, Claudio Colangelo was handed over to a select group of journalists by the Maoists on 25 March. While the Sabyasachi Panda-led Odisha State Organizing Committee of the CPI (Maoist) has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the Italian tourists, the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC) is responsible for the kidnapping of the BJD legislator. Maoists in Odisha have been known to conduct abductions in the past as well; the last high profile abduction was that of former Malkangiri Collector Vineel Krishna a year ago. What makes this twin hostage crisis significant is the fact that in the long Maoist history of the state, Maoists have kidnapped foreigners and a legislator. While factional rivalry among the Maoist forces and the nexus between underground and ground political forces are believed to be the main reasons for the ongoing crisis, it also highlights the unpreparedness of the state to handle a situation such as this.
After the Kandhamal riots of 2008 Sabyasachi Panda was sidelined by the top leadership of CPI (Maoist). Since then, Panda, who has been operating from the neighboring Gajapati district, has turned Kandhamal into a veritable ‘Maoland’. However due to several surrenders and arrests of his aides in the past few months, many in the Maoist as well as security circles have started writing him off. By using the unconventional trick of kidnapping two foreign nationals, the seasoned Maoist guerilla leader from Odisha has made a strong statement about his crucial role in the Maoist Movement in Odisha.
The kidnapping of Jhina Hikaka by the armed cadres of AOBSZC of CPI (Maoist) also hints at a factional feud among Maoist forces in Odisha. By kidnapping a law-maker while the negotiations for the release of foreign hostages were on, the rival Maoist faction of CPI (Maoist) have indicated that Sabyasachi Panda does not speak for the entire Odisha Maoist echelon. There is another political angle to the whole hostage crisis. In the recently concluded elections for local bodies, the ruling BJD registered a massive victory. While the CPI (Maoist) is known to have opposed the BJD on electoral matters in the past, this time the case was different. On this occasion, BJD and Maoist-backed Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS) are alleged to have entered into a tacit agreement which has been responsible for the landslide BJD victory in the Maoist affected areas of undivided Koraput.
The election results also suggest that Maoists have taken control of panchayats in about 30 blocks of Malkangiri and Koraput districts. It is being widely believed that the BJD had promised CMAS to go soft on them and release their leaders from jail. However, post Panachayat election developments suggest that the BJD party men who were instrumental in inking this agreement were unable to have the promise fulfilled by the government. This irked the AOBSZC whose writ runs strong over the whole of undivided Koraput, and the abduction of Jhina Hikaka therefore could be fallout of this unrealistic alliance of two opposites.
Despite the long history of the Maoist movement in Odisha, the state authorities have unfortunately failed to learn from the past. Although there is no fixed formula for handling Maoists that can guarantee success, the state apparatus has failed to understand the complexities of the issue, leading to their failure to contain the problem. The current Maoist hostage crisis in Odisha is a reflection of how situations are allowed to reach the dangerous point of no return.
Rajat Kumar Kujur
Visiting Fellow, IPCS
email: [email protected]