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Monday, June 09, 2014  
Living in Cynical Times
"There were some impertinent – and in some cases, mischievous – questions as well. Why was Vineel Krishna chosen to be the target? The implication was that the state government wanted to bask in the reflected glory of the Malkangiri Collector, who clearly has earned the admiration of the people of Malkangiri in general and the so-called ‘cut off’ area, in particular."

Sandeep Sahu

   

The day after Malkangiri Collector R Vineel Krishna and Junior Engineer Pabitra Majhi were abducted by Maoists, a journalist friend said; “Mark my words. The abducted government officers will be released only on Feb 24 after the Assembly adjourns for the mid-session break.” His reasoning: this is a neatly choreographed drama to take the sting out of the Opposition attack on the government in the Assembly on the rotten Dal scam.

Lo and behold!! The Collector’s release is announced to the world more than an hour after the Assembly being adjourned till March 10, even though the actual release had already taken place at least an hour before the Assembly adjourned.

The journalist friend is no seer. Having once been a part of the think tank of the ruling establishment, he was just making an intelligent guess based on his insider’s knowledge of the working of the Naveen Patnaik government.

While nobody else predicted the date with such pin-point accuracy, there was no dearth of people – and certainly not journalists – who sincerely believed in, bought or peddled the ‘deal’ theory.  Even paan shop gossip centred around the theory that the Naveen Patnaik government, through the seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent ‘Uncle’,  had entered into a deal with the Ramakrishna faction of the Maoists to take attention away from the Dal scam, which was getting too hot to handle for the government when the abduction happened.

In journalist circles, there was animated talk of a more mundane ‘deal’ – one involving payment of huge amounts of cash to the Maoists to stage the drama. Even a figure – Rs. 8 crore – was bandied about freely.

Proponents of the ‘deal’ theory raised a number of eminently pertinent questions. Why did the Collector venture into territory which is widely known as the Maoists’ den? Why was Swami Agnivesh cold shouldered by the state government though he was the first to offer his services as a mediator – especially considering the fact that he had played a key role as a mediator in securing the release of five abducted policemen in neighbouring Chhatisgarh just a few weeks before the hostage crisis in Orissa? Why did the Chhatisgarh government not pass on definite intelligence it apparently had a day before the abduction that the Maoists were planning to do precisely such a thing? Or, if it did, why was it not heeded by the Orissa government?

There were some impertinent – and in some cases, mischievous – questions as well. Why was Vineel Krishna chosen to be the target? The implication was that the state government wanted to bask in the reflected glory of the Malkangiri Collector, who clearly has earned the admiration of the people of Malkangiri in general and the so-called ‘cut off’ area, in particular. One commentator even went to the extent of suggesting that he was ‘chums’ with the annas and was very much a dramatis personae in the hostage drama. To prove his point, he pointed to the unfettered access allegedly given to Vineel Krishna during his period of captivity to communicate with his family and even get essential items like clothes and shaving kit delivered to him in the jungles.

A leading Oriya daily ran a front page story asking for ‘stringent’ action against the Collector for his utterly ‘irresponsible’ and ‘foolish’ act in venturing into an area where the proverbial angles ‘fear to trade.’ It did not stop at that and went on to demand that officers who organized processions in support of the popular Malkangiri Collector should lose their salary for the nine days when “all work came to a standstill”.

Another commentator wondered why Pabitra Majhi was chosen ahead of the other junior engineer accompanying the Collector to be abducted? The suggestion was it was a carefully crafted strategy to use the ‘tribal card’, particularly in view of the fact that he was released a day before the Collector. Another asked: why was the helicopter carrying interlocutors Prof. Hargopal and Dandapani Mohanty ‘deliberately’ delayed till late in the afternoon?  The unspoken suggestion: to ensure that they would not be able to reach Malkangiri in time to secure the release of the Collector. [No answers are available to the important question as to what material difference would it have made if Vineel Krishna had been handed over to the interlocutors and not to some local journalists because there is no way one can ask questions to those who have made a career out of raising questions without bothering to provide – or even suggest – possible answers! ]

The one question which has been the most puzzling for me personally is: when exactly did the government get the first information that the Collector had been released (or was being released)? Journalists who were present when the Collector was released say he was set free at about 4 pm. In that case, what does one make of the announcement by the third interlocutor (the other two having already left for Koraput) Prof. R Someswara Rao at 6.30 pm that Krishna “will be released by tomorrow”? Does that mean the government did not know, at least till two and a half hours after the release, that the Collector had already been released? If that is the case, then it is worrying. When the government of the day comes to know about the denouement of such a serious crisis that had paralysed the administration for nine days from the media, it is a clear signal that it is no more in control of things. If, as is more likely, it did know when the Collector would be released even while pretending that it didn’t and delayed the announcement sufficiently for the Assembly to adjourn, it’s even more worrying.  For it means that the Naveen government has nothing but utter contempt for the people of the state, for the media and above all for the august house called the Orissa Assembly.

Despite being very much in the thick of things in my capacity as a journalist – and despite the time since the release of Vineel Krishna to reflect on things at leisure - I am still not sure what to make of the ‘deal’ theory. Now, it appears so eminently plausible. Now, it sounds so utterly incredible and far-fetched. 

Governments, especially the ones centred around a single personality like the Naveen Patnaik government, have always been more than willing participants in deal-making. BJD’s deal-making skills were on full and vulgar display in the run up to the last Assembly elections in May 2009 and there is no reason why it would shy away from a deal with the Maoists to secure the release of one of the finest officers the state has – or, as the cynics suggest, to divert attention from the dal scam. But did the Maoists really play ball with the very government they are engaged in a fierce, no-holds-barred and bloody battle with? After all, as many as 20 Maoists were killed in the state by security personnel in January alone (although how many of them were really Maoists remains a matter of acrimonious debate).

But in the cynical times that we live in, nothing seems improbable. The new rules of the game provide ample opportunity to sleep and play footsie with the enemy. It is possible to do business with each other even while killing each other. [On second thoughts, it is an old – nay ancient – game, at least as old as the Mahabharat. Didn’t the Kauravas and Pandavas meet after sunset like friends after the day’s battle?] Some incurable romantics may imbue the Maoists with a halo – of an ideology-driven class war, blood and sacrifice. But the unpalatable truth is; they have left Mao far behind. [Why, even China has left the man who led the Revolution far behind!]

In large swathes of Maoist controlled areas in India, lower and middle level cadres have become a law unto themselves. They kill people at will; run extortion syndicates targeting corporates, mining lords and other rich people; charge hefty protection money from companies, government officials and even educational institutions (Remember the seizure of Rs. 12 lakh meant for the Maoists seized  from two senior staff of a leading engineering college in Rayagada a couple of years back?]. In some places, they have now started, like corrupt government officials, demanding a cut even in welfare schemes meant for the poor and children. In the backdrop of all this, entering into a secret pact with the state government is not really as preposterous an idea as it initially appears, especially considering that the Maoists have held all the aces in this case since day one. They have got what they wanted (the release of key Maoist leaders); they have brought the state government to its knees and sent out the right signals by showing their concern for the tribals. [May be – just may be – they have also laughed all the way to the bank, (although the ‘deal’ has been allegedly transacted in hard cash)!]

The issue, however, is not whether a ‘deal’ had actually been struck by the government and the Maoists, but the number of people willing to believe this seemingly absurd theory. We are indeed living in cynical times.

(Author is a Bhubaneswar based Senior Journalist and Political Commentator working with BBC)

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