Bhubaneswar, March 24: Maoists kidnapped a ruling Biju Janata Dal MLA late last night from Odishas Koraput district, spawning theories ranging from a faction fight to a rebel policy shift to tactical abductions of VIPs.
The kidnapping of Jhina Hikaka, 35, came days after the abduction of two Italians from Kandhamal district, apparently by a rival Maoist faction. It led to immediate suspension of talks between the state government and the rebels chosen mediators for the release of the Italians.
Late tonight, television reports said the Italians had been freed following an appeal from the mediators but officials said they were awaiting confirmation.
Hikaka was abducted from his car by a group of some 80 armed rebels in the jungles of Toyaput, about 600km from Bhubaneswar, shortly after midnight while returning home from a political trip.
Intelligence sources suggested the abduction was a fallout of rivalry between the Maoists Telugu-dominated Andhra-Odisha border zonal committee and the state organising committee, headed by Odiya rebel Sabyasachi Panda. ( )
They suspect the border committee kidnapped Hikaka to prove it was stronger than Pandas faction, which allegedly abducted the Italians, and to embarrass the rival by sabotaging its hostage talks with the government.
Sources said the MLA had gone to Semiliguda to discuss the election of the Koraput zilla parishad vice-president and was returning home ignoring a government advisory against road travel at night in rebel zones. Nor had he informed the police of his travels in advance, as advised.
Hikakas driver Ugrasen said the rebels spoke in Telugu and Kui, a tribal dialect. They stopped our car where the road had been dug up. They asked the MLA who he was and why he was there. They took him away after he told them, leaving me and his personal security officer behind.
Police sources said it was too early to say whether the rebels were unaware who Hikaka was when they stopped him and had dug up the road merely looking to abduct somebody.
However, the idea that it was an opportunistic kidnapping, spawned by a faction fight, would relieve the Centre, which is worried about a more sinister possibility: a Maoist policy of tactical abductions of VIPs to push the state on the back-foot politically and operationally.
The Centre is not ruling out a faction fight but sources in Delhi said that reports of a rift between Panda and the Telugu leaders had been circulating since 2007. If there were serious differences, would they tolerate him for five years? a security analyst asked.
Traditionally, the Maoists have carried out abductions not as a war strategy but only to get leaders released from jail. Security agencies said that in case the rebels were thinking of kidnapping prominent people, the best response would be for the state government to mobilise ordinary people to organise street protests against the abductions.
Odisha officials, though, insisted on the faction theory, citing how the incident had come just a day after the Maoists killed a police officer in Malkangiri, violating the unilateral ceasefire declared by Panda to facilitate the hostage talks. The killing too is being blamed on the border committee.
The abductors are suspected to be members of the Maoists Srikakulam-Koraput divisional committee, headed by Daya, who is close to the Andhra leaders. The committee had called a nationwide bandh today demanding suspension of the so-called Operation Green Hunt.
State home secretary U.N. Behera said the two-day-old hostage talks were suspended on the advice of the Maoists interlocutors: rights activists B.D. Sharma and Dandpani Mohanty. In a joint statement, the interlocutors said the kidnapping of Hikaka and the police officers killing had made a mockery of the peaceful negotiations and appealed to the Maoists to release the two Italians and Hikaka.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who spoke to Union home minister P. Chidambaram and Hikakas wife Kaushalya, sent senior ministers Surya Narayan Patro and Lal Behari Himirika to Laxmipur by helicopter.
Kaushalya, who last spoke to her husband an hour before the rebels stopped his car, appealed for his release saying he had always worked for the local tribals welfare.
Hikaka had defeated the Congresss Hema Gamang, wife of former chief minister Giridhar Gamang, in the 2009 state polls. Protesting the kidnapping, Opposition members refused to budge from the Assembly, saying they would continue to sit there till the House reopened on Monday.