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Face to face with the Maoists who abducted two Italians in Odisha (and played chess with them)

The Scroll
By Professor  

In 2012, I had the extraordinary opportunity of joining an excursion into an Adivasi settlement in Odisha to follow the story of two Italian men abducted by the Maoists operating in the area. In that impossible trek through the jungles of Kandhamal, I found the anchor to the stories I had been researching and trying to tell.

In the middle of a jungle in Kandhamal in Odisha, where it is unbelievably hot and humid, two men – an abductor and a captive – are engrossed in a game of chess. The hostage is winning repeatedly and the captor is frustrated with defeat after defeat. The captive’s life hangs on the whims of the captor whose existential crisis now is about losing chess matches to a man he holds prisoner. He feeds the hostage fruits and cashew nuts and bread and butter with mashed potatoes, bartering their lives for his demands. And he hates to lose.

The hostage belongs to a different world, thousands of kilometres away, and the captor is the commander of an armed underground left-wing extremist party that has been fighting the Indian security forces for years. Held at gunpoint with no certainty about his life, the hostage challenges the captor to this series of games and hands out a humiliating defeat.

While they are at play, hundreds of people are searching for them. Television networks are playing up the news every day – of the “abduction drama” and “hostage crisis”. Negotiators are having endless sessions with the government authorities. Security forces are planning their next move. But here, under the scorching sun in a burning forest, where there is danger of an attack every moment, the chess players play on, oblivious to their surroundings.

It is almost evening in the hot and humid forest, and it is obvious we are not returning in a hurry.

Swarms of flies hit the face constantly, making it difficult to have a simple conversation. Now I understand the mystery of the black mesh covering the faces of the female cadres; it is a clever way of warding off the flies.

Staged between huge rocks with a jungle as the backdrop, the commander is ready to take questions. A surreal conversation begins between two strangers about two other strangers. The location, unknown and fraught with risk; suddenly there are mountain echoes of bullet shots. Was the crew being trailed or has the crew been planted by government forces to identify his camp?

The commander gets into action, making radio calls, finding out where the sound came from. After anxious minutes of investigation, he finds out that it was the sound of tin sheets blown by a strong dust wind that echoed in the mountains. Assured by his comrades and happy in the knowledge that his plan – of making us walk through a maze of mountains to get here – has worked, he settles down again.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee (KB): Why did you abduct the Italians? Your fight is against the state which you claim represses the people here, so why Italians?

Commander (C): [in a muffled voice because of the chequered scarf covering his face to hide it from the camera] Some people, foreign and national tourists, and the government, have been trying to project the tribals as a commodity, as a subject of tourism. They are opening liquor shops in tribal areas, taking photographs. They treat the tribals like monkeys in a zoo.

For a while now the issue of intrusive tourism in tribal India has been making headlines: allegations that tourists, both foreign and Indian, even security forces, lure poor men and women with money or food and make them do their bidding.

Paolo Bosusco and Claudio Colangelo are accused of taking objectionable pictures of tribal women. The two Italians were camping near Kerubadi to study tribal life. The pictures seized, however, are nothing objectionable. The commander shows the photos on the display of the seized camera. There are some portraits of tribal men and women, a landscape, villagers doing their daily work but nothing that I can call “objectionable” or voyeuristic. But the Maoist stand is that if you are not taking pictures of non-tribals moving around then why this enduring interest in tribals alone?

The Italians came here with a driver and local guide to take photos and notes on the tribal way of life.

The driver and guide have already been released. The Maoist commander insists that the Italians’ activities were suspicious. Not just suspicion, this is also political compulsion. Tribals are their strongest support bases and to retain that hold Maoists actively support their causes or generate some to justify their existence. Be it the displacement of tribals by mines and minerals’ giants, their anger over lack of development or the current issue about their alleged exploitation by tourists, the Maoists act like their self-styled guardians.

The flies’ attack on the face is irritating and I’m constantly fanning myself with a scarf to conduct this interview. The commander seems used to this way of life – of heat and flies and danger.

KB: They are exploiting by clicking pictures, you say, but don’t you think you are also exploiting tribals and their underdevelopment by recruiting them, taking them away from their right to get educated or other rights?

C: Any movement has to be organised around economic issues. For a long time, the state has been suppressing the tribals and the poor people. They have a vision that this movement can free them from exploitation. So they come. So, it is economic issues and state repression that pushes them to us. If not for state repression, I couldn’t have run this operation. It is an irony that our existence is because of a brutal state. Who would I have been able to recruit in these jungles? If the government just played its part by sincerely granting equal rights and refrained from rape and torture, this movement would die a natural death. It’s quite simple, really.

The people don’t know anything about Maoism. Look at her. She is Laxmi – one of my bodyguards. She’s a very good fighter and she attends church every week. I don’t stop them or give them lectures on communism.

KB: So if they don’t follow or believe in your ideology, aren’t you fooling them to believe in something else, maybe retributive violence?

C: Look at her, she is one of the members of my strike force, do you know why she is here? Rebecca is a local Kondh Christian tribal girl, one of my bodyguards. She is the one who led the team that arrested Claudio and Paolo.

Rebecca’s face is covered with a black mesh, not necessarily to conceal her identity but, as I said, as a defence against the swarms of insects buzzing around the face. It is a malaria-infested tropical jungle; everything here is scarce from water to food to healthcare. To avoid identification, Rebecca and her team must be constantly on the move through inhospitable terrain.

Slinging an automatic rifle, she carries a big pot of water or perhaps food as she walks down a treacherous path strewn with dead leaves. These are makeshift camps where cadres spend the night, barely catching some sleep, but that is a way of life. Camouflaged by unusually huge boulders and occupied also by families of monkeys, the hideout is ringed by villages that are loyal to the armed group. Women play the traditional role of cooking, cleaning and nursing along with the responsibilities of warfare.

Rebecca’s sister had joined the organisation and was arrested; she was allegedly gang-raped in police custody in the presence of her father who was forced to watch it. Then her brother was picked up by the security forces and died mysteriously, again in police custody. She says there was only one road left for her and that was to join the Maoists and seek revenge. Her story finds resonance in most women taking up arms in the Maoist ranks; state repression, they say, is what drives them to kill.

The Maoist document asserts: “The history of oppressed women is the real history of the dearest daughters of our beloved country which is an inseparable, vital component of the history of oppressed people. And no success in the revolutionary war or the final victory of the revolution is imaginable or possible without women.” The document lists the numbers of rapes and tortures of women and says ‘liberation from patriarchy’ is the main reason for them joining the organisation.

The ideological attraction of women from Indian universities towards this “movement” in 1960–70 has given way to more real and desperate situations that prevail in the countryside: escape from poverty and fear of rape and atrocities by security forces.

There are other factors as well, for example, local issues of displacement that affect the women who are predominantly the breadwinners of the family; they become vulnerable as they step out in search of work. Violence against women in India has been rising at an alarming rate and women like Rebecca are the most obvious victims.

In 2005 the introduction of Salwa Judum, an irregular force of local tribal population set up by some state governments to counter the Maoist militants, changed the course of anti-Maoist operations. Setting the tribals against their own proved counterproductive. The Salwa Judum volunteers went on a rampage, looting villages and raping women. In desperation, women turned to the Maoists and many joined them. Since tribal society is women dominated, it is not unnatural for women to be part of what is largely a tribal-dominated guerrilla force. And here every girl has a story to tell, invariably of harassment.

Excerpted with permission from An Unfinished Revolution: A Hostage Crisis, Adivasi Resistance And The Naxal Movement, Kishalay Bhattacharjee,