In recent years, kidnapping has become the modus operandi of choice for the Maoists. The kidnapping of Alex Paul Menon is not an exception but just the most high profile example of a frightening but highly effective strategy.
Data from the ministry of home affairs show that between 2008 and 14 November, 2011, Maoists abducted 1,554 people. Of these, 328 people were killed. Chhatisgarh witnessed 489 abduction cases followed by 463 in Jharkhand.
And the trend is escalating. In 2008, there were 108 incidents in nine Naxal affected states including Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. The number of incidents increased to 128 in year 2009 and 150 in year 2010.
Majority of the abductions were carried out in order to secure specific goals: one, compel the forces to scale down its operations in the area; and two, make the state government release Maoists lodged in prisons.
The abduction of Malkangiri district collector R Vineel Krishna last year offers an instructive example. Not only were the cadres released, the incident also acted as a deterrent for the forces which were scaling up their combing operations in the area.
“After the Malkangiri (kidnapping), they have tasted blood. I don’t see them stopping now,” former director general, border security force, Prakash Singh, told Firstpost.
In Odisha, the trend continued this year with the abduction of two Italian natives and MLA Jhina Hikaka. The state government has agreed to release 25 Naxals and on 18 March, stopped all operations in the Naxal-dominated zones in the state. If past actions are any guide, Odisha may release more cadres as Hikaka remains captive. Sukma district collector Alex Paul Menon is the latest victim of the blackmailing tactic.
All is not lost with Menon as the Maoists have released hostages in the past. In February last year, Naxals released five security personnel after 18 days of captivity in Chhattisgarh. In return, the government had to halt search and combing operations in the entire region. In 2010, Maoists in Bihar released three policemen after holding them hostage for eight days. Forces had reportedly surrounded the Maoists and provided them free passage in return for the policemen’s lives. In 2009, West Bengal police officer Atindhranath Dutta was released from captivity in exchange for release of 22 imprisoned women allegedly linked to Maoists.
The decision on who to kidnap, and whether to kill the victim is often idiosyncratic, depending on the aims and analysis of the specific group. “We evaluate what the government is thinking on what we are demanding. Whether to kill this person or not, it depends on the situation, the government response, and on whether the demand is fair. We don’t kill people each time. We want to take it before the public. We want to explore it politically,” Maoist divisional spokesperson (Koratput- Srikakulum) Gasi alias Sannu said in an interview to Tehelka magazine.
Their definition of ‘fair’, of course, is not shared either by the victim or the government.
The Maoists choose their targets for kidnappings with precision – and good intentions or character of their victim often offer little protection. Vineel Krishna was popular with the locals, and tribes rallied for him leading to his release. At the time of his kidnapping, Menon was the collector of Sukma, a district carved out of Dantewada district. He was working to bring electricity to Sukma.
Explaining the decision to kidnap someone as well-liked as Krishna, Gasi told Tehelka
We decided to kidnap after taking into account what is happening in Koraput and in Odisha. We decided to focus on one issue: to investigate what is happening inside the jails. Hundreds of innocent Adivasis, poor people, and many human rights activists are languishing in jails on the pretext of being Naxalites. We wanted to make the public, government and intellectuals think about this. Whether the collector is a good person or pro-people is not relevant. We have nothing personal against him.
Krishna’s abduction was the first high profile kidnapping in the last two decades. But the most infamous abduction in Naxal history dates back to 1987, when they kidnapped a group of IAS officers in Andhra Pradesh. Just five years before the incident, Telugu Desam Party leader, NT Rama Rao had declared Naxals as “'true patriots’ who have been misunderstood by the ruling classes”.
The government acceded to their demands in 1987, but after this episode, it banned Naxalites and gave forces and the police free hand to deal with them. After combing operations which went for two decades, the state has mostly wiped out the Naxal threat.
“They know if they do any such thing in Andhra Pradesh they will be seen fighting for their own survival and not of the hostage," said Ajay Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management.
The bigger problem, however, is the absence of a national policy for hostages, which leaves state governments free to follow their own interests and whims in the decision to either accede to Maoist demands or not. This creates an erratic response which varies from state to state.
Until there is a clear policy in place, kidnapping will continue to be a vastly effective strategy for the Maoists.