Bodo militants abducted her, but Pallavi Chakraborty has her eyes set on her goal
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 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 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 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).
Then, in an unprecedented incident in early February 2011, six people, including three women, from the team of eight, were abducted by a faction of the militant outfit National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) at the Ultapani forest range along the India-Bhutan border.
On the job: Pallavi Chakraborty, along with an associate from WWF-India. (Photo: WFS)
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. 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.
Food mostly consisted of rice, dal (lentil) and vegetables. Sometimes pork, mutton and fish were supplied by the villagers. 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.
"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. 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.
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. Yet, 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.
Women’s Feature Service