Bhubaneswar, March 21: As concern over the health of the two Italian nationals taken hostage by the Maoists mounted with intelligence inputs suggesting that one of them was ailing, the state government today sought to accelerate the process of initiating a dialogue to resolve the crisis.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik dropped hints that former bureaucrat and forest rights activist B.D. Sharma, whom the rebels had picked up as one of the mediators, was acceptable to the government, which had earlier rejected two other names suggested for the job.
Making a statement in the Assembly, Naveen said that while Sharma, who had agreed to negotiate on behalf of the Maoists, was expected in the city tomorrow, the government wanted the rebels to suggest one more name, so that there were three mediators on both the sides.
The state government has asked home secretary U.N. Behera, panchayat raj secretary P.K. Jena and scheduled tribe and scheduled caste development secretary S.K. Sarangi to negotiate with the Maoists on its behalf. Sources said the bureaucrats had been trying to get in touch with Sharma since his name came up.
Meanwhile, Jan Adhikar Manch convenor Dandapani Mohanty, who is one of the interlocutors chosen by the Maoists, urged the government to speak to human rights activist Biswapriya Kanungo and convince him to join the negotiations. Kanungo, whose name was one of the first to be suggested by the rebels as a negotiator, had turned down the proposal, saying he could not be a mediator unless the offer was also made by the government. Mohanty also wanted one of the three top Maoist ideologues — Kobad Ghandy, Narayan Sanyal and Amit Bagchi — who are lodged in different jails of the country, to be brought to Bhubaneswar to facilitate the dialogue process.
Anxiety about the condition of the hostages grew as intelligence reports from Kandhamal suggested that one of them, Claudio Colangelo, was suffering from fever and had blisters in his feet.
Sources said the Maoists today offered to release one of the captives if the government agreed to set free five rebels, including Subhashree Panda, wife of the CPI (Maoist) Odisha State Organising Committee secretary Sabyasachi Panda, in exchange.
The offer, contained in an audio-cassette sent to some media houses by Sabyasachi, the man behind the kidnapping, said this bargain could take place even before formal negotiations between the two sides began.
Apart from Subhashree, who was arrested in the city two years ago, the other important leader whom the Maoists want released in exchange for one of the hostages is Gananath Patra, who was jailed for his vocal support of the anti-landlord movement launched by the rebel-backed Chasi Muliya Adivasi Sangh in Koraput. However, there has been no comment from the government on this reported offer of the rebels.
On the other hand, the all-party meeting called by the Assembly Speaker to discuss the hostage crisis failed to arrive at a consensus as Congress leaders demanded an explanation over Naveen’s remarks to a private TV channel yesterday, accusing the Union home minister of not offering any help to the state in resolving the hostage crisis.
However, the charge was dismissed as baseless by Union home minister P. Chidamabaram, who claimed to have offered all help to the state. He said that even the Union home secretary had spoken twice to the state chief secretary.
Naveen, however, refused to join issue with the home minister saying: “I don’t want to banter with him. Our prime concern is the release of the hostages.”