BRINGING MANHAS HOME
THE WEEK|April 25, 2021
THE WEEK brings you the inside story of how a nonagenarian social worker, a tribal leader and a group of local journalists secured the safe release of Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, a CoBRA commando captured by the Maoists of Bastar
SRAVANI SARKAR

His heart skipped a beat when he saw a young, masked gunman in mili-tary fatigues walking out from behind the stand of tamarind trees. He later told me that it was not out of fear or anxiety. He just realised that the crucial moment had finally arrived.

“Who is Telam Boraiya?” asked the young man.

“That would be me,” replied Boraiya, 71, the Bijapur district president of Gondwana Samaj, a prominent tribal organisation in Chhattisgarh. He was sitting on a charpoy surrounded by a growing throng of villagers, at the Tummel settlement in Sukma district.

It was April 8, five days after Maoists ambushed a joint team of the 210th Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) and the Bastariya Battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the District Reserve Group and the Special Task Force of the Chhattisgarh Police, and killed 22 jawans. Tummel is barely 10km from the ambush site that lies between Jonaguda and Tekulguda villages in Sukma district.

“Come with me, the commanders want to talk to you,” the young man said. Boraiya agreed, but he insisted that Sukhmati Hapka, the 38-year-old vice president of the Bijapur Gondwana Samaj, go with him.

The duo was taken on a motorcycle to a spot about a kilometre away, where six senior Maoists, headed by a lady commander in her early 50s, waited. They were later told that she was Manila, secretary of the Pamed area committee of the CPI (Maoist). “Her appearance was not so daunting, despite the uniform and the gun,” said Boraiya. “But her presence was quite intimidating.”

Boraiya and Hapka had a difficult task—to negotiate the release of Rakeshwar Singh Manhas, a member of the ill-fated CoBRA battalion, who was being held captive by the Maoists.

Meanwhile, a crowd was building in the clearing surrounded by the tamarind trees; villagers were pouring in—on feet, on bicycles and even on tractors. The afternoon sun was harsh. Despite the shade, the atmosphere was hot and oppressive. The tension only added to the discomfort.

On the charpoy that Boraiya and Hapka just vacated sat Dharampal Saini, 91, Padma Shri awardee, Jagdalpur-based social worker and founder of the Mata Rukmini Ashram; he was accompanied by his associate Gururudra Kare. He had been told that he would be taken to meet the Maoist commanders once Boraiya and Hapka returned. After about 45 minutes, Boraiya and Hapka were brought back, but no summons came for Saini.

A while later, Manila and two dozen armed Maoists appeared. Saini, a promoter of girls’ education, noted with interest that almost half of them were women, some as young as 16 or 17 in his estimate.

Manila and some of the senior Maoists approached Saini and put some questions to him. First of all, they wanted to know his political affiliation. “I made it clear that I was an apolitical social worker, and I started my career under the guidance of the late Vinoba Bhave,” said Saini. “The Maoists looked satisfied.”

Manila told Saini that just as social workers like him appealed to the Maoists for securing the release of the commando, they should make similar efforts to protect innocent villagers from being harassed by the police and the administration. “She also asked me to ensure that the commando was sent back home at the earliest and they wanted to see his photograph with his family,” said Saini.

Manhas was brought in by around 3pm under armed escort; his hands were loosely bound with a rope. He was taken directly to the jan adalat (people’s court) organised by the Maoists. “He looked patient and composed, despite spending five days in captivity,” said Saini. By then, nearly a thousand villagers had assembled. As they sat in anticipation, Manhas was brought forward and his ropes were untied, the final act before his formal release.

The silent planning

The efforts to launch the mediation for Manhas’s release began on April 5. The day before, rescue teams had saved 31 injured soldiers and retrieved 22 bodies from the ambush site. As Manhas was not among them, he was reported “missing”.

Ganesh Mishra, a Bijapur-based journalist, got a call from the Maoists on April 5. They told him that they had Manhas and were willing to release him. Mishra and a few other journalists who received similar messages conveyed it to Sundarraj P., inspector general of police, Bastar Range. The formal offer was made through a press statement issued on April 6 by Vikalp, the spokesperson for the Dandakaranya special zonal committee of the CPI (Maoist). It said the Maoists were willing to release Manhas to government mediators.

After some local journalists raised doubts, the Maoists released a picture of Manhas, seated in a temporary shelter. Around the same time, Manhas’s friends and relatives blocked the Jammu-Akhnoor Highway on April 7 as they felt that the Union government was not doing enough to secure his release.

Tribal activist Soni Sori and members of the NGO Jail Bandi Rihai Samiti, too, had tried to intervene. They ventured into the forest, hoping to establish contact with the Maoists. But the attempt failed, and they returned on April 7 after leaving a letter for the Maoists with local villagers.

On the same day, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel convened a meeting of Home Minister Tamradhwaj Sahu and senior officials in Raipur in an attempt to resolve the crisis.

Two surprise mediators

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