With the abduction of two Italian citizens, killing of a police sub-inspector, and abduction of an MLA, Odisha state has been brought down to its knees and forced to give in to the demands of the Maoists. The secretary of the CPI (Maoist)'s State Organizing Committee, Sabyasachi Panda, seems to be emerging as the new face of Maoist activities in the states. However, is there disunity between the CPI (Maoist) Central Committee, Odisha SOC and the various other factions in the state? Who is Panda and how has he emerged as the leader of the Odisha Maoists? Is the apparent shift in tactics of Maoists in Odisha just a one off or is the situation really changing for the worse in the state?
Odisha’s violent streak
The violent streak in Odisha started with the abduction of two Italian citizens, Claudio Colangelo, a visiting physician from Rome, and Paulo Basusco, who ran a travel agency in Puri, while they were trekking. Within a span of 10 days SI KC Rath was shot dead at Madulipada police station in Malkangiri district and a tribal MLA from BJD, Jhina Hikaka was abducted from Laxmipur in Koraput, just metres away from a BSP camp, bringing a halt to the state’s anti-Maoist operations.
With the abduction of foreign citizens for the first time to demand the release of jailed Maoist cadres, the ideology aspect of the Maoist insurgency has been compromised. Panda, who is the mastermind behind the abductions of the Italian citizens in Daringabadi, Kandhamal has not claimed responsibility for the other incidents. When releasing Colangelo on 25 March, Panda maintained that Basusco would remain in Maoist custody until their demands were met.
Panda is the 47-year-old secretary of the Odisha State Organizing Committee of the CPI (Maoist) party. With the killing of Maoist commander Kishenji and arrest of Kobad Ghandy, the leadership is now up for grabs and Panda is seen as a strong contender. In the past, he has been vocal against the domination of cadres from Andhra Pradesh in the party’s top leadership hierarchy. This is seen by many as a desperate attempt by Panda to gain recognition and move beyond the Telugu supremacy in the senior leadership structure of the CPI (Maoist) party. His main demands are cessation of anti-Maoist operations in the state and release of jailed Maoists including activists from Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS) and Panda’s wife, Subashree Panda, who was arrested in 2010 on charges of supporting Maoist activities in the state and is in Gunupur jail currently. The lack of coordination even within the state was evident as Panda had assured cessation of violence till the negotiation process for the release of the two Italian citizens was on. However, separate factions outside Panda’s strongholds of Kandhamal and Ganjam districts carried out Rath’s murder and Hikaka’s kidnapping.
Many within the Central Committee also are reportedly unhappy with this new strategy of kidnapping foreigners. They feel that this will get them unfavourable international attention and possibly even a backlash. However, this could be taken as a reason why the Maoists are unlikely to harm the two victims. While international attention may be good for them, they wouldn’t want an international backlash. Moreover, they know that this being a diplomatically sensitive situation, they are in a better bargaining position with the Indian agencies. What needs to be borne in mind here is that in the absence of a coherent policy on dealing with kidnapping and the ensuing negotiations, the Indian government’s actions would not follow any set guidelines which work to the advantage of the Maoists. There are also no trained negotiators for this kind of a specific situation and the Indian agencies at present are working on a trial-and-error method. Conceding to the demands of the Maoists unconditionally now would encourage more such actions in the future.
Despite seeing a similar situation in the state in 2010 with the kidnapping of the Malkangiri District Collector, Vineel Krishna, Odisha’s preparedness in dealing with a hostage situation left much to be desired. In fact the state authorities were not even aware of the kidnapping of the two Italian citizens until 17 March, three days after they were abducted.
The recent incidents come at a time when the state government had declared major breakthroughs in its anti-Maoists operations. In 2011, an important success like the arrest of the leader of the Andhra-Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee, Chenda Bhusanam alias Ghasi, the second-in-command of Saranda Forest, Prashant, and senior leader Girish Mahato put Odisha high on the anti-Maoist force map. This trend continued in 2012 with many encounter killings of top Maoists in Odisha; the biggest success came in the form of the surrender of Panda’s deputy, Duna Kesava Rao alias Azad, in January in AP. The state’s dedicated anti-Maoist force, Special Operations Group, stated that Panda’s strength has depleted considerably due to continuous offensives and has resulted in the SOG gaining control of Narayanpatna block in the state.
However, due to systemic failures in training and large vacancies in the SOG, the successes come in spurts followed by long periods of Maoist domination and are limited to certain areas of the state. Also, inter-state coordination between Odisha and Chhattisgarh is poor and hence there is increased Maoist activity in new theatres like Nuapada, Nabrangpur and Bolangir districts.
While the state is ready to release almost 40 Maoists in return for the safety of Basusco and Hikaka, this is a very short-sighted approach. This will only encourage further such abductions in the state as has been evident from past experience. It is unlikely that the Maoists would kill Basusco because the resulting international recoil would be unjustifiable for them in their long-term strategy. In this situation, considering that the state saw a similar hostage crisis in 2011, a team of expert negotiators is the need of the hour along with indelible ground-level intelligence should such situations happen in the future. Failing this, the state’s options will remain limited as they would find themselves in a constant position of disadvantage.