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India

Swami Agnivesh and friends meet the comrades

Supriya Sharma, TNN--February 13, 2011
NARAYANPUR: "Have you seen the film Avataar?," asked Swami Agnivesh, as he trudged along a jungle path this Friday, carefully avoiding sharp edged stones, and the even sharper thorns in the bushes.

"Isn't this place like the other planet shown in the film? And aren't our adivasi brothers just like the Naavi people? Simple and innocent".

Clad in his trademark saffron, at striking contrast with the greens and browns of the forest, the 71 year old social activist was on his way to free five policemen held hostage for 18 days by the Maoists. The destination was an undisclosed location somewhere inside Abhujmaad, literally the unknown forest, in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region. And accompanying the Swami, were a group of human right activists, a gaggle of media, and the distraught families of the captured policemen.

"I want my munna back," wept Amarwati Devi, tears rolling down her creased face, half covered with the pallu of her saree. The old woman had travelled with her daughter from a village in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh by tonga, train, bus, and car. Like the others, she was finally trekking in the jungle to reunite with her 26 year old son.

On January 25, her son Rajjan Dubey, a constable in Chhattisgarh armed force, had left his camp at Dhanora, to get home to recover from a bout of malaria. Along with four other policemen, he boarded a passenger bus, riding unarmed, camouflaged among civilians. A few kilometres ahead, the bus was stopped and searched by the Maoists. His cover was blown up. All five policemen were taken hostage.

For a week, there was no word from the Maoists. Then, they shot off a charter of 11 demands - stop greenhunt, release those held in false cases, withdraw troops, scrap the plan for army training - followed by word that they were willing to release the policemen unconditionally, in the presence of human rights activists, provided the police stayed away.

For the Swami, still nursing wounds of the death of Azad, the Maoist spokesperson, and his peace initiative, this offered the chance of much needed balm - and possibly a new opening.

A message from the Maoists made him call the chief minister, who welcomed the mediation and assured him that police operations would be suspended for 24 hours, all for the sake of the safe return of the men.

Next day, the Swami flew into Chhattisgarh with Gautam Navlakha and Harish Dhawan of People's Union for democratic rights, and Kavita Srivastava and B Suresh of People's Union for Civil Liberties. The group drove straight to Bastar. The TV cameras followed. So did the satellite vans. The rendezvous with the comrades, the release of the cops, with the blessings of both the government and the Maoists - it looked like a straight script.

But next day, it almost unravelled. Driving all day through blinding dust and confusion, with several wrong turns, failed forays, and rising tempers, it had begun to feel like "a wild goose chase", as one member of the entourage put it, when at three in the afternoon, 'contact' was established with the comrades. Word came in: the village lay just six kilometres ahead.

After an hour and half of walk, the stillness of the dusty jungle broke. Olive green figures shifted and moved. The sounds of a drum and a song wafted in. "Swagat hai Buddheejeevi saathiyon ka, swagaat hai Manav Adhikar saathiyon ka, parijanon ka..." (We welcome our intellectual friends, human rights friends, the families of policemen.)

In a circular alcove, lined with trees and red banners, village folk sat in stony silence, while Maoist cadres, thin women and men, stood around with rifles slung on their shoulders. A Maoist woman led a singing choir on an improvised microphone. A group of women danced in ghunghroos and green long skirts.

Overseeing the arrangements, a diminutive woman in uniform, Comrade Neeti, flitted around. A young man, Comrade Prabhat stood by. Both are members of the East Bastar Divisional Committee of the CPI Maoist.

Minutes later, the five policemen were brought to the alcove. They first shook hands mechanically with a line up of cadre. And then, after a moment of pregnant pause, they collapsed into the arms of their families, in loud sobs.

Mobbed by cameras, head constable T Ekka's son clutched him tightly, weeping profusely, wetting his shirt. Constable Manishankar Dubey's ageing father held his son in a steady embrace.

As the families quietened down, Swami announced, "Our comrade brothers have given proof of their humanitarian values. They is a lot of false propaganda about them. But after witnessing this, it is hard to believe that," he said. Then, unexpectedly he raised his fist, breaking into slogan. "Bhartiya communist party Maowadi, lal salaam." Everybody joined him, including the policemen.

Called to the microphone next, the five men delivered a short staccato speech, one by one. The vocabulary was similar. So were the narratives. "I come from a poor family. I joined the police because I needed a job. When the comrades caught me, I was initially terrified. I thought these were violent people, they would chop me, kill me. But they treated me very well," said Mani Shankar Dubey. "It felt like we were home," said Ramadhar Patel. "They cared for us like children," said Raghunandan Dhruv.

Speeches over, the policemen filed back to sit with their families. Amarwati encircled her munna around the waist. The agonised look was gone. Her face beamed with pure joy.

Meanwhile, another group had walked up to the microphone to talk about their families. Villagers spoke in Gondi about their missing sons and daughters, arrested, beaten, taken away by the police. Some cases were recent, others dated back years.

Furiously jotting down names, Gautam Navlakha asked a woman with a child on her hip, "When was your husband taken away?" She said, "Do saal". Another villager intervened, "Nahi, teen saal". Gautam asked, using his figures to gesture, "Do ya teen?" The woman thought again. "Teen".

By now, the light had faded. The crowds had dispersed. Cooking fires had been lit. As tea was passed around, a small radio set crackled and came alive. "Namaskar, yeh hai BBC radio..Chhattisgarh se aa rahi khabaroon ke mutabik Swami Agnivesh aur manna adhikar karyakarton ka maowadiyon se sampark ho gaya hai.. Police karmi kee rihaayee ho gayi hai (It is hard to get clear details, but it appears that the group led by Swami Agnivesh has successfully contacted the Maoists inside the jungle. The policemen will soon return to safety.)

Back on the jungle path, walking in moonlight, the landscape imbued with a mild Avataar like surreality, the Swami reflected, "I hope this will open the road to peace."
THE TIMES OF INDIA