The Italians’ kidnapping is the first ever time that the Maoists have held foreigners as hostage.
The other day, two Italian tourists were taken hostage by dreaded Maoists in the jungles of Odisha (formerly Orissa, the eastern Indian State). The visitors, Paulo Bosusco and Claudio Colengelo, were in the thickly wooded forest taking photographs of tribals (probably semi-nude) when they were whisked away by the Maoists.
This abduction comes soon after two Italian marines on board a navy ship shot dead two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast. Despite Rome’s and even Vatican’s efforts to free the marines, now lodged in a Kerala jail, New Delhi has remained committed to the rule of law.
India has made it clear that the marines will be tried by courts in the country and that they will not be entitled to any special privileges, except food.
The Italian government must now be in a terrible quandary after the kidnapping of two of its nationals. Having failed to secure their freedom, Rome must be wondering how best to tackle the latest imbroglio.
The Maoists, who first said they were extremely angry with the tourists for having taken pictures of half-clad tribals, have now given the Odisha administration an ultimatum.
They would let the Italians go unless the government meets their demands, including one to stop combing operations by security forces. There has been apparently no mention of tribal mistreatment.
In another column on Jan 13, 2013, I wrote how tourists (some foreigners were involved here as well) were photographing Jarawa women on the Andaman Islands as they sang and danced bare breasted. In return, the women were offered food and money.
In spite of widespread media and public outcry against such tribal abuse, the evil continues with the Odisha affair indicating that visitors are still having a free run with exploitative voyeurism.
Apart from this ill-treatment, there are other issues. One, the kidnapping of Italians appears to have been triggered by a power vacuum among the Maoists.
After their leader, Kishanji, was killed in a police encounter in West Bengal last year, the group has been left without a proper leader. This has obviously led to a power struggle with Sabyacachi Panda, president of the Maoists’ Odisha State Organizing Committee, eyeing the top post. He reportedly masterminded the abduction.
Panda’s minus point
Known to be cruel and ruthless and hankering after publicity, Panda may not, after all this, be able to step into Kishanji’s shoes.
For, he has one minus point: he is not good at military organisation and tactics. And, these are precisely the Maoists’ strengths.
Also, Panda is only 43, and the Maoists seldom let such young men take up leadership positions.
The Italians’ kidnapping is the first ever time that the Maoists have held foreigners as hostage, and there is allegedly some fear among the Maoist ranks that this could lead to global repercussion.
Whether this happens or not, there is an unmistakable trace of acrimony between India and Italy that has grown a little more bitter after the tourists disappeared.
However, New Delhi must get its act together to make sure that tribals do not become objects of titillation for camera-toting visitors.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.