It may sound strange, but it is true. Of the 27 persons whose release the Naveen Patnaik government assured Maoists for securing freedom for the abducted Italian Bosusco Paolo (since freed) and Biju Janata Dal legislator Jhina Hikaka, 24 are tribals and they reportedly have nothing to do with Naxals operating in their region in Orissa.

Of the remaining three, only two are Maoists, according to Dandapani Mohanty, convener of the Jan Adhikar Manch, who acted as interlocutor for talks with the government. The two Maoists are Murla Neelam Reddy and Setu Pangi, both hailing from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. The other person, Subhashree Das, is the wife of Sabyasachi Panda, secretary of the Odisha State Organising Committee of the Communist Party of India(Maoist), which had kidnapped Mr. Paolo from Kandhamal district on March 14.

26 persons yet to be released

Ms. Das was released from jail after a fast track court at Gunupur in Koraput district acquitted her on Tuesday. The remaining 26 persons were not released till Thursday.

Land rights activists

Mr. Mohanty told The Hindu that the 24 tribals, whose release was demanded by the two different groups of Maoists who had kidnapped Mr. Paolo and Mr. Hikaka, were activists of the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangha (CMAS), a local outfit fighting for land rights for tribals for nearly two decades.

He said the cases against these activists pertained to an attack on the Narayanpatna police station in Koraput district, taking over possession of their land that had been in the custody of non-tribal families for long, and a quarrel between the two CMAS factions. Eighty-nine other CMAS activists, who faced similar cases, were already acquitted by different courts, Mr. Mohanty claimed. But many were still facing trial.

Common demand

As for the fresh demand by the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee of the CPI(Maoist) — which had abducted Mr. Hikaka from Koraput district on March 24 — for release of five more persons, Mr. Mohanty said only one of them, Ghasi, was a Maoist. The other four were social activist and CMAS advisor Gananath Patra and three activists of the tribal outfit that was fighting for land rights for tribal people as well as opposing liquor trade in their region.

Interestingly, both groups of Maoists had demanded the release of Mr. Patra, who was acquitted by a court in Koraput district during the day in a case of atrocities on Scheduled Caste people, for want of evidence. In the recent past, he was acquitted in an abduction case. But two more cases are still pending against him.