By T S Sudhir
It was Christmas eve of 1987 when the then N T Rama Rao government in Andhra Pradesh was shaken by the news of eleven state government officers (seven of them of IAS cadre) kidnapped by the naxals (then called the People’s War). It was the first time that abduction as a strategy had been resorted to by the naxals in Andhra Pradesh. They wanted to secure the release of 16 of their top guns, then lodged in Rajahmundry central jail. Among them W.Chandramouli, accused of 16 murders.
Those kidnapped included S R Sankaran, then social welfare secretary and a highly respect bureaucrat. Sankaran had in fact gone to the area near Gurthedu in the forest area of Rampachodavaram in East Godavari district to inspect some tribal welfare hostels, when he and the other officers were kidnapped. NTR went into a tizzy, especially since the then Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre wanted to send in commandos into the jungle to try and rescue the officers.
M V Bhaskara Rao, who was then IG (Special Task force), in charge of anti-naxal operations in Andhra Pradesh, recalls the tense ten days when primitive communication facilities and handling the first-of-its-kind hostage situation made it a very difficult experience.
“The terrain was very tough. It was not a building which we could storm. This was 1000 sq km of jungle. Delhi wanted firm action but we were wary of collateral damage. We were sure that if they killed an IAS officer, it would shame the government. So securing the release of the officers was top priority. Yes, the 16 naxals were important but we could always deal with them later,” recalls Rao, who went on to become the DGP of the state.
Civil liberties activist K G Kannabiran was approached to mediate with the naxals. When Kannabiran asked where was the mandate for him to do so, he was given a formal letter by the government, requesting his help.
“But it is not like today when with the help of google maps, you can even pinpoint where in Lakhisarai jungles, the naxals are at the moment. Then, there was no communication beyond Rajahmundry,” recalls Rao.
“Written messages had to be sent into the jungle through tribals. We would write even stuff like `Kannabiran is coming to contact you. Or listen to what we have to say on AIR 11 am bulletin tomorrow. Or that we need more time to concede to your demands.’ Today you have the latest gizmos. The question of legality too was involved because after all how can the executive simply release those in judicial custody by dropping charges overnight.”
Some 10 days on, the 16 naxals were put in two non-police jeeps, with a non-policeman driver and sent into the jungle on a journey that took roughly eight hours. The same two jeeps brought the officers out, with instructions that they should not speak to the press. It had been a traumatic experience for them too since equally tense naxals had been making them move every 45 minutes.
The success of Rampachodavaram made the naxals do a repeat when they kidnapped MLA P Sudhir Kumar, son of senior Congress leader P Shiv Shankar in May 1991. And tasted success again.
P Balaraju, a Congress MLA from Visakhapatnam district was another high-profile victim in 1993. Balaraju was kidnapped along with an IAS officer and four engineers and remained in naxal custody for 23 days. Top naxalite Kranti Ranadev was released in return for securing Balaraju.
Balaraju who is now the tribal welfare minister in the Rosaiah government admits, each day in captivity was spent in fear.
“I was very scared and mentally very disturbed. I knew the possibility of being killed and being released were equal. I and my family still feel insecure as we are still a target. It could happen again. All political parties have to come together to resolve the issue.”
Is it a political or a police decision in such delicate situations?
Bhaskara Rao says it is always a political decision, never a police decision. “It is for Nitish Kumar to decide what to do. If he does not try to save the policemen’s lives, can he be sure there will not be a revolt by the constabulary against his political establishment?”
Lakhisarai is not just another abduction. It is an attempt to drive a wedge in civil society on how to respond to Maoism in India. The naxals have tasted blood with the weapon of abductions before and the maneater is on the prowl again. The country’s greatest internal security threat is now no longer in the jungles. It is at our doorstep.
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