The breakthrough to ensure the safe return of the 32-year-old collector, who was abducted on April 21, on or before May 2 came in the form of an agreement between the two mediators each of the Chhattisgarh government and the Maoists at their fourth round of talks today. The talks were spread over three days.
"I hope Alex Paul Menon will be released within 48 hours," Chief Minister Raman Singh told reporters here tonight after the two-page agreement was initialled by the mediators in the presence of Principal Secretary(Home) N K Aswal.
Under the agreement, the mediators nominated by Maoists have agreed as a "gesture of goodwill" to ensure the safe return of Menon within 48 hours i.e on or before May 2.
The agreement did not concede the demand by the Maoists for the release of their eight jailed associates in exchange for the freedom of Menon, an asthmatic for whom medicines had to be rushed in deep jungles.
But, the statement said government has agreed to set up a high-powered committee under the chairmanship of Nirmala Buch, one of the two Government mediators, to review the cases of all prisoners languishing in Chhattisgarh jails including the cases demanded by the Maoists.
The Committee, which will have Chief Secretary and state DGP as members, shall become operational "within an hour" of the release of Menon, according to the agreement.
The other government mediator was SK Misra. The Maoists were represented by Dr BD Sharma and Prof G Hargopal.
There was no immediate word directly from the Maoists on the agreement which is expected to pave the way for ending the tense hostage crisis.
"Under the given circumstances, we as mediators feel that this was the agreement that could be worked out. We appeal to Maoist party, Southern Regional Committee, Dandakaranya to consider this proposal favourably and ensure safe return of Collector Alex Paul Menon, whose spouse is in the family way," Sharma and Hargopal said in their joint appeal to the captives of the Collector.
The agreement, which was quickly approved by a Cabinet sub-committee headed by the Chief Minister, said the matter which is of utmost concern to the mediators is the wellbeing of Menon. Chief Minister Singh said negotiations can continue even after the Collector is released.
It also said that the second issue which concerned the mediators was the large number of tribals and others who are in the judicial custody in the state in various jails.
These prisoners are in distress in view of the long-time taken in investigation/prosecution for various reasons and the great inconvenience caused to their family members who come from long distances to meet them in jail, it added.
The proposed three-member Committee will regularly review all cases of persons in jails in the state where investigation/prosecution is in progress.
In such a review, the lists of cases received by the mediators in respect of tribals of Bastar and surrounding areas shall be given priority, the agreement said.
The agreement said the Committee will give its recommendation to the State Government which will consider these cases with a sense of urgency.
It also said relief will be provided in all cases of victims of Human Rights violations.
Before the agreement was announced, the Maoists set a fresh deadline of May 2 for the Chhattisgarh government to release eight of their jailed associates in exchange for the freedom of Menon.
If the demand was not met, the IAS officer's fate would be decided by a 'Jan Adalat', they said.
In a message sent to the local media, the Maoists said they would release Menon if the government sends eight of the jailed workers along with their mediators B D Sharma and Prof Hargopal on May 2 to the remote Tadmetla village.
The faxed message, signed by Ganesh Uike, secretary South Regional Committee of CPI (Maoist), also said the Collector is in the custody of People's Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) and is being treated as a "prisoner of war".
The latest communication also demanded that the government should revoke "false cases" filed against the innocent villagers.