In a letter yesterday, the Maoists had named three mediators they would be willing to negotiate through, one of them Supreme Court lawyer and Team Anna member Prashant Bhushan, who said today that he would talk to the Maoists only after they released Mr Menon. "Free the collector first, then we will talk," said Mr Bhushan. He said that he can appeal to the Maoists, but won't take part in any mediation process. "In my view kidnapping a civilian officer and holding as a hostage is not right. Maoists should release the officer unconditionally. Most of the demands of the Maoists are justified, but I cannot negotiate with the Maoists in this situation," said Mr Bhushan.
Maoists also asked for BD Sharma, one of India's foremost experts on tribal issues and a former Collector of undivided Bastar and Manish Kunjam, a former MLA from Konta district, as mediators acceptable to them. Mr Kunjam, though said to be reluctant to negotiate with the Maoists, agreed to carry medicines to the abducted officer hours after the Maoists issued a statement this morning saying that their hostage is critically ill.
Mr Menon was abducted on Saturday. About 500 Maoists are said to be holding him captive in the south Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. In a statement issued this morning, they said, "It's our appeal to Mrs Asha Paul Menon, his friends, family and IAS officers that Mr Alex Paul Menon's health is very critical. It's our request to please send his medicines from the mediators. The delay being caused by the officials is responsible for his bad health and if something happens, it will be the government's responsibility."
Officials who have worked with the 33-year-old Collector say his health could well have deteriorated. Mr Menon is asthamatic and his wife, Asha, had said that he had medicines to last him two days. Asha Menon has refused to leave Sukma till her husband is home and has asked people to pray for him.
The Maoists have demanded the withdrawal of paramilitary forces from Bastar, the release of eight prisoners and a halt to Operation Green Hunt at large, in return for freeing the Collector. They have set a deadline of April 25, tomorrow, for complying with those conditions.
Chief Minister Raman Singh made clear on Monday that, "The collector will have to be released. The government is willing to speak to the Maoists about their demands only after he is released."
Chhattisgarh is a huge state and the government just doesn't have the size of force it requires to launch the kind of anti-Maoist operation needed. After Mr Menon's abduction, there has been a pullback, with big operations stalled, but smaller operations are on, sources said.
Sources said security forces now know the exact location of the Collector.
Immediately after the abduction, the Chhattisgarh government set up a five-member team to negotiate with the Maoists who have kidnapped Mr Menon; Chief Minister Raman Singh heads the team, which includes Home Minister Nankiram Kunvar, PWD Minister Brij Mohan Agarwal, Rural Development Minister Ram Vichar and another minister Kedar Kashyap.
The Left ultras had kidnapped Alex Paul Menon from a remote village where he was attending the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan - a state government-run programme meant to promote greater coordination and connect between the villagers and administration. They also killed two of his security personnel when they resisted his abduction.
His wife, who had already appealed to the Maoists for releasing him on health grounds, said on Sunday, "Maoists have given their demands...we have to be courageous, patient...concerned people are in a meeting, deciding Maoists' request." But Asha Alex, who is expecting the couple's first child, said that she had no news about the safety of her husband who is asthmatic. The Chhattisgarh Police had, earlier in the day, claimed to have received information that he is safe. "We don't know about my husband's health, it would be a relief if we heard from him. We request the government and Naxals to understand about the health of the Collector...he has worked for the good of the people," Mrs Alex said.
Sources have told NDTV that the Collector had ignored repeated warnings by the police that he could be kidnapped. Mr Menon was told to take proper precautions and avoid moving around without adequate security as there were clear indications that he could be abducted, sources said. Despite the warnings, he decided to go ahead with his meeting with a group of villagers for the Gram Suraj Abhiyaan without informing the local police, sources added.
The Collector's family had said on Saturday that he was aware of the threat of a possible kidnapping of officials in the region. But it never deterred him from responding to the call of duty.