The central and Orissa governments are faced with a quandary over the abduction of two Italians by Maoists in the forested southern district of Kandhamal. For the first time Maoists have taken foreigners hostage.
A good deal of embarrassment is already seeping into the ministries of external affairs and home at the Centre. The Minister for External Affairs, Mr S M Krishna has been in active touch with the Chief Minister of Orissa, Mr Naveen Patnaik, and so has been the Italian ambassador, Mr Giacomo Monteforte.
Maoists have been taking local officials as hostage to force governments to accept their demands. Exactly why they targeted Mr Paolo Bosusco and Mr Claudio Colangelo who were trekking through the forests of Kandhmal is not known. Mr Bosusco had been living in Puri for a decade and running an adventure tourism company; Mr Colangelo was a tourist. Both of them were taking bath in a hilly stream when Maoists captured them. Was it a sudden decision of Maoists to take these two men when a group of them saw them roaming around in the forests? Or was it a planned abduction in which the central leadership of the CPI(Maoist) directed local commanders to take foreigners?
It seems more likely that Maoists had decided in principle to carry out an abduction for pressing for their demands – the most prominent of which is the release of some of the key leaders and activists of CPI(Maoist) detained or serving term in prison – but had not decided who to pick up. When local intelligence reached them about the two Italians trekking, they probably thought they would be a good catch. And they wanted the Italians only, for the two Oriyas who they had hired as assistants were allowed to leave.
In all likelihood, the negotiations between the Orissa government and the Maoist interlocutors are going to be tough. More so, because in the past the state government has gone back on several of the promises it made them during negotiations over abductions. According to Mr Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, the very fact that for the first time the Maoists had kidnapped foreigners showed the desperation in their ranks. Mr Sahni feels it was not clear yet if this was a “rogue operation” by a maverick leader or a strategic move by the central Maoist authority. But one thing that was clear, feels Mr Sahni, that Maoists have suffered tremendous attrition of leadership in recent years, so this presents an opportunity to get some of their leaders out of jail.
We do not know how the story would turn. The demands of the Maoists are very tough and involve release of key leaders in jail. Whether the central government will be willing to release them is open to question.
But if the situation is embarrassing and awful to the central and state governments, it is they who are to blame. They have been stoking the anger of the poor in the villages of Orissa, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and other states by declaring war against Maoists, little realizing that Maoists are not aliens but from among the poorer sections of society. It is the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh and the Union Home Minister, Mr P Chidambaram who are directly responsible for treating Maoists as enemies of the state. They have been describing them as the “greatest political challenge” and using paramilitary forces and commandos with highly sophisticated weapons to kill ‘Maoists’.
The Prime Minister and Home Minister know very well that Maoism is a ‘creation’ of the hypocritical political class to which they too belong. For decades, elected representatives have promised to change power equations in villages. In villages, power is held by the landed sections. The landless labourers and small peasantry are virtually powerless. Politicians have made laws in favour of the powerless, but have not implemented them because they win with the votes of the powerful landed sections.
The poor have waited for too long for the political class to shed its hypocrisy and start delivering promises to the poor. The powerless have been hoping for too long for the political class, who swear by their name, to change the power equations. But instead they have made the powerful even more powerful landed sections by extending new agricultural techniques, support pricing, subsidies and rural infrastructure development. The powerful landed sections have also captured the grassroots democratic institutions in the rural areas. Siphoning off money from government schemes, they have accumulated illegitimate money in a nexus with local government officials. The political class did not stop them. Is it unnatural for the poor and the powerless to lose faith in the political class and Indian State? The need is to restore the faith of the poor in the Indian State. As long as they do not do it, hostile actions such as Italians’ abduction are not going to cease.