For this group of wildlife activists, it was an experience straight out of a spine-chilling thriller. The two-and-half days that Pallavi Chakraborty, 25, and her associates from WWF-India, spent in the custody of their abductors will remain etched in their memory.
When Chakraborty first decided on a career in the wildlife sector she had not, even in her "wildest" dreams, anticipated such a dramatic beginning. The young woman from Shillong, Meghalaya, joined WWF-India as a volunteer after her Diploma in Wildlife Management from Assam's Gauhati University in December 2010.
As part of a team engaged in the All India Tiger Estimation Programme being conducted by the National Tiger Conservation Authority at Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam, her work involved looking for indirect evidence of tiger presence such as pugmarks, rake marks and scat (faecal matter of the tiger). The fieldwork was good exposure for the youngster.
Then, in an unprecedented incident in early February 2011, six people, including three women, from the team of eight, were abducted, allegedly by the anti-talks faction of the militant outfit National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), at the Ultapani forest range, which is part of the Manas Tiger Reserve along the India-Bhutan border in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. It is quite rare for militant outfits to target wildlife activists.
Today, of course, they are back at work after being set free and the other two women, Tarali Goswami and Srabana Goswami, are already in the field conducting tiger census at the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. Of course, the incident continues to haunt them.
Chakraborty recalls the nightmare vividly. It was around 3 pm on February 6. After finishing the day's work, the group was heading back. "We had a car and were waiting for two of our colleagues to join us. Suddenly a group of young men dressed in army fatigues came out of the jungle,” she says.
Despite the rising panic, the team tried to ask their abductors questions in order to ascertain their identity and plan. "But they simply commanded us to obey them," she says. At first, it was a group of nine to 10 people. Later, around 20-22 men joined them. Repeated questioning did not yield any response although they did say they belonged to a group called “Aronai”.
The hostages were taken to a remote village and held captive in a house. While the mobile phones of the boys were confiscated, the abductors left the girls' belongings untouched. They, however, thought it prudent to switch off their phones.
Describing the village, which was mainly inhabited by people of the Bodo tribe, the young volunteer believes that the main occupation of the people there must have been farming. “We could see mustard fields all around us," she says.
Although they were being held hostage the group was never tortured, either physically or mentally, says Chakraborty. This was perhaps because nobody disobeyed orders or resisted the abductors. "The six of us were allowed to be together and were never locked. They allowed us to sit and chat out in the open although they always surrounded us. They would sit and watch us. Sometimes I could see smirks on their faces. They conversed with each other in Bodo but spoke to us in Assamese. They had cautioned us: 'Do not take undue risks. The consequences will not be very good,'" she recalls.
Food mostly consisted of rice, dal (lentil) and vegetables. Sometimes pork, mutton and fish were supplied by the villagers. They abductors ate with the hostages. "Most of the time, we felt too uneasy to eat. But we ate because we had to eat," says Chakraborty. According to her, she could sense that the villagers were not scared of these men, but it was also apparent that they were not happy with what was happening either. Continues Chakraborty, “The women kept their distance although they provided the men with whatever they needed. It was a rather impoverished village with just basic amenities."
The girls shared a room in a hut with the women and children of the family. They were given 'dokhonas' (traditional Bodo attire) to change into and while their hosts slept on wooden beds they were given a mattress, a pillow and blankets to sleep on the floor. "It was cold. But the blankets were fine," she recalls. There were no toilets so they had to go out in the open. While some of their abductors slept outside their hut, others boarded with the boys in other huts.
The three girls did try to strike up a conversation with the women. "We tried to befriend the kids but they just smiled and went away. We tried to ask the men why they had abducted us, but got no answer. We knew it was for money but we did not know how much. We were perturbed imagining our parents’ anxiety," Chakraborty remembers.
The girls were released after two-and-a-half days but it took the boys 11 days to be let off. After lunch on the second day in captivity, the girls were asked to get ready to leave. "When we said that we did not want to leave the boys behind, they warned us to cooperate and not tell anything about the village to anyone," she says.
Three bicycles were made available, which they rode pillion for a distance, after which they were transferred into a hired car. Of course, the driver had no clue of what was happening. By then they had switched on their mobile phones and shortly thereafter the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Chirang district, which is adjoining Kokrajhar and where they were released, was on the line, directing them to go to a local police station, from where they were taken to his residence.
Today, Chakraborty and her colleagues are safe. But when she looks back, she feels a wave of fear. "Frankly speaking, at that time I did not feel anything. Fear was suppressed by numbness," she says.
The incident has also prompted her to analyse things more closely. "They [the abductors] were of our age. They were wasting their talent. They could have done so many constructive things. I could see that they were very disciplined. They could have used their energies in more productive ways. We tried to talk to them. They responded but we are not sure how much of what they told us was true," says Chakraborty.
Life has moved on for the group, which has drawn praise for its calm and rational conduct. Remarks Soumen Dey, Associate Coordinator, WWF-India, North Bank Landscape Conservation programme, "We are lucky to have such an enthusiastic group of girls. But this incident is also a lesson for us. We cannot let our guard down. We had always imagined that we will not be targeted." His organisation, he says, does not differentiate between men and women in recruitments for field jobs, although women have to cope with practical problems like lack of toilets, separate accommodation, and so on. “We have had dynamic women who have been working shoulder to shoulder with our male employees," he observes.
The incident has in no way deterred Chakraborty from the career she has chosen for herself. She plans to do a doctorate in wildlife conservation. Although she has never seen a live tiger in the wild, she has a strong passion for tiger conservation. Her words echo that passion, "It is a very political animal. I would like to help this animal survive and co-exist with man. It is trying to fight back. I would like to join the tiger’s team and help the species survive. The greatest enemy of the tiger is man, who is encroaching on its habitat and killing it. Why can't we give back its lost glory?"
By arrangement with WFS