It has been nearly five days since the Tekalguda tragedy in Bastar, in which 23 jawans of the Chhattisgarh police and paramilitary forces were killed by Naxalites. Yet, the Central and state governments have not been able to find a suitable mediator for the release of one CRPF constable, Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, who was captured by the Naxals.
Naxals had attacked a group of almost 2,000 jawans in Tekalguda on Saturday. In the encounter that ensued for more than eight hours, 23 jawans lost their lives, forcing home minister Amit Shah to fly to Jagdalpur from Assam to assess the situation. Both Shah and chief minister Bhupesh Baghel declared that the fight against the Naxals will now intensify. The same urgency, however, is not being used while appointing a mediator to ensure Manhas’s release.
A team of former Naxal sympathisers was assembled by Baghel to work on his anti-Naxal policy. Some of them are former journalists, who claimed to be long-time socialists. A few months ago, however, Naxals released a hit list in which some of them were named. It appears they may have lost credibility with the left-wing extremists. This likely happened because Baghel has reneged on all the promises he made concerning Naxals during his election campaign in 2018.
Meanwhile, Naxal spokesperson Vikalp released a picture showing the capture of 14 automatic weapons and 2,000 rounds of ammunitions. He also claimed that the Naxals will be only too pleased to release Manhas if their demands are met.
IAS officer Alex Paul Menon had been similarly captured by Naxals and his release had been negotiated by the then chief secretary, Sunil Kumar. Kumar has now retired and settled in Delhi, and this government does not appear to have an officer of his calibre. Kumar had not only managed to get senior former IAS officers like Brahmadev Sharma and Nirmala Buch involved in Paul’s release but had redeemed the Raman Singh government on several occasions, most notably in the aftermath of the Jheeram massacre when several dozen Congressmen were killed.
Tribal rights activist Soni Sori has offered to help this government mediate for the jawan’s release. Sori had been imprisoned and tortured by the state police for her alleged Naxal connections. She has since joined mainstream politics and takes up issues related to tribals in prison through the organisation Bandi Rihai Samiti. In a letter released to the media, she says that she is opposed to violence of all kinds – whether committed by those in green or black uniforms. Well placed sources now believe that the group that took on the jawans in Tekalguda and captured Manhas has since handed him over to the JagarGonda Area Committee, which is more powerful and feared.
Bastar IG Sunderraj P. believes that the jawan is still inside a 40-km circumference from the site of the encounter. But that is not a small area to comb, even though he says that every effort is being made to rescue the jawan.
It is clear that the Naxals would prefer to release the jawan rather than kill or harm him. There is a huge section of jawans within the forces who come from similar backgrounds as them and Naxals have for long been aiming to win them over, through emotional overtures. Killing a captured jawan may not be their best strategic path and they know this. It’s now for the government to find the right person to negotiate his release.