Maoist conflict stalls hostage
talks By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Over a week after Maoist
rebels abducted two Italians in the eastern Indian
state of Odisha, the fate of the hostages in the
balance. Not only are police clueless about the
whereabouts of the Italians, negotiations to
secure their release have failed to take off.
The Italians are tour operator Paolo
Bosusco, 54, and a 61-year-old tourist Claudio
Colangelo. They were taken hostage along with two
other locals on March 14 while trekking in
forested Kandhamal district.
The locals have since been released.
Bosusco, who has been staying for the past
19 years in the temple town of Puri, was running
an adventure tourism/travel agency, which
organized treks and other trips to different parts
of the state. Colangelo was a tourist from Italy.
The Maoists have accused Bosusco of
indulging in "objectionable photographs of
In January, video footage of
semi-naked Jarawa tribals being made to dance
before tourists for food and money brought into
the spotlight voyeurism and exploitation of
tribals by tourists and tour operators in India's
Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
February, reports emerged of tour operators
running "human safaris" in Odisha's Malkangiri
district where the Bonda tribals live, forcing the
Odisha government to restrict access of foreign
tourists and researchers to areas inhabited by
Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups like the
Bonda and the Dongria Kondh.
Odisha have dismissed the Maoist allegation
against Bosusco. They have pointed out that while
the Italians were taking photographs of tribals
when the Maoists abducted them, "Kandhamal does
not have semi-nude tribals, whose photography can
raise objections." However, the Maoists insist
that the Italians were photographing tribal women
The Maoists have put forward 13
demands. Besides calling for a halt to ongoing
military operations in the region (Operation Green
Hunt), they have asked for a withdrawal of
paramilitary personnel from all of Odisha. They
want the ban on the Communist Party of India
(Maoists) and seven other organizations to be
lifted, and several of their jailed comrades to be
freed. They have demanded a stop to foreign
tourists photographing tribals "selling their
photographs, and treating them like objects and
They have also called on the
government to "meet all promises made ... before
the release of Vineel Krishna", a young bureaucrat
who was abducted by Maoists in Malkangiri in
February last year.
The abduction of the
Italians comes at a time when India's relations
with Italy are under severe strain over the arrest
of two Italian marines in the southern port city
of Kochi. The two marines are accused of killing
two Indian fishermen.
Maoists have a
strong presence in a swathe of territory that
includes parts of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha,
Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal.
However, they have suffered serious
reverses over the last couple of years. Operation
Greenhunt has weakened them. More importantly,
several of their leaders have been eliminated.
Four central committee (CC) members - Sende
Rajamouli, Patel Sudhakaran Reddy, Cherukuri
Rajkumar alias Azad and Kishenji - have been
killed, while four others - Narayan Sanyal, Sushil
Roy, Amit Bagchi and Kobad Ghandy are in jail.
Several second-rung leaders have been eliminated
Unlike in 2010, when the Maoists were
able to carry out several high-profile attacks,
they have been relatively quiet over the past
year. The abduction of the two Italians breaks
that lull. It will have given them media attention
Indian intelligence officials
say that the abduction "reflects neither revival
in strength nor smart strategy" on the part of the
Maoists. "It required no planning," an
Intelligence Bureau (IB) official told Asia Times
Online, pointing to the fact that the Italians
"presented the Maoists with opportunity by
entering an area where they shouldn't have been".
Bosusco reportedly had been denied official
permission to visit the area.
that it was concern over the "human safaris" that
drove Maoists to abduct the Italians. Analysts
believe that the abduction did not have the
blessings of the CPI (Maoists) and that it is a
local operation, which has more to do with the
ambitions of Sabyasachi Panda, secretary of the
CPI (Maoists) Odisha State organizing committee.
Some maintain that Panda is anxious to
come overground and has been cosying up to the
ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the state. In
recent elections to the Koraput zilla
parishad (a local body) the Maoist-backed
Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha backed the BJD
candidate. The abductions, they say, are aimed at
helping him strike a hard bargain with the
It is more likely, however,
that Panda is eyeing a bigger role for himself in
the Maoist hierarchy, possibly in the CC; hence
the high-profile abductions to signal his
Analyst Ajai Sahni of the South
Asia Terrorism Portal argues that Panda is trying
to shake free of the "control of 'outsiders' -
leaders from [the neighboring state of ] Andhra
Pradesh who occupy the most significant positions
in the pecking order in Odisha".
points out that while Panda "is the most important
Odia leader in the state, he is far from the most
powerful Maoist leader in Odisha. He has dominant
influence, at best, in four districts - Rayagada
and Gajapati in the 'Bansadhara Division', and
Kandhamal and Ganjam in the 'Ghumsur Division' -
and even within this jurisdiction, he remains
under the overall command of Modem Balakrishna, a
CC member from Andhra Pradesh.
event, it is the Malkangiri and Koraput areas,
currently controlled by Akkiraju Hargopal aka
Ramakrishna aka RK, another CC member from Andhra,
which lie at the heart of the Maoist insurgency in
Odisha, and Panda has little influence there."
This is the first time that the Maoists
have taken Westerners as hostages.
Hitherto, they have abducted police and
local officials. In October 2009, they beheaded a
police inspector Francis Induvar in Jharkhand,
when the government refused to concede their
demand to free Ghandy. Krishna was freed within
eight days of being abducted.
government conceded several demands that the
Maoists raised for his release. But importantly,
Krishna's work among the people of Malkangiri had
made him hugely popular among the locals. Public
outrage - people participated in massive protest
rallies - against his abduction might have played
an important role in forcing the Maoists to
release him quickly.
In the case of the
Italians, over a week after their abduction,
negotiations to secure their release are yet to
begin. The process is stuck over who should
mediate on behalf of the Maoists.
the Maoist nominees is Sanyal, a politburo member
of the CPI(Maoist), who is currently in jail. The
government has rejected Sanyal as a negotiator on
the grounds that he is "a convicted Maoist". Other
Maoist nominees have refused to mediate as they do
not trust the government will deliver on its
The Maoists have meanwhile
extended their deadline. They have also offered to
release one of the hostages if the government
accepts two of their demands before the start of
negotiations. These include action against police
officials allegedly involved in fake encounters
and rape and the immediate release of five people,
including Subhashree Das, Panda's wife who has
been in custody for the past two years.
officials say that this appears to be a climbdown
on the part of the Maoists, even a softening in
their stand. This could be the outcome of the
Maoists' central committee being unhappy with
Panda as the abductions have given the rebels
negative publicity worldwide.
But for the
Indian government, the abduction of foreigners
spells bad news. If it signals the start of a
dramatic new shift in Maoist strategy it could
impact foreign tourist arrivals in Orissa. More
importantly, the likely conceding of at least some
demands put forward by Maoists will undermine
recent gains in the government's anti-Maoist
operations. This could set off copy-cat abductions
by Maoists and other insurgents elsewhere in the
Sudha Ramachandran is
an independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at
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