By Ajai Sahni
A rolling crisis of high profile abductions, initiated with the kidnapping of two irresponsible Italians in Odisha on March 14, 2012, continues to hold the national attention, with Alex Paul Menon, the District Collector (DC) of the newly formed Sukma District in Chhattisgarh, still in the custody of the Maoist’s Dandakaranya Special Zonal Committee (DKSZC), since his abduction on April 21, 2012. Significantly, even as the Menon abduction is discussed threadbare, little mention is made of the two policemen guarding him, who were murdered in cold blood by the Maoists. In the interim, the two Italians and the Odisha Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Jhina Hikaka, who was abducted on March 24, 2012, have been released after successive deals with different ‘commands’ of the rebel grouping – the former, in a settlement with Sabyasachi Panda, Secretary of the Maoists’ Odisha State Organising Committee, who controls the Bansadhara and Ghumsur ‘Divisions’; and the latter, in a deal with the Andhra Odisha Border Special Zonal Committee (AOBSZC).
Even as the hostage crisis winds down, with the release of the Sukma DC currently under negotiation, urgent questions persist regarding the conduct of the state during these crises and, more broadly, the fundamentals of ‘negotiating with terrorists’ or with ‘hostage takers’. There has been much commentary on the state’s ‘capitulation’ and the obvious and adverse consequences, both of releasing active Maoists from jail, and of the ‘demonstration effect’ which will ‘naturally’ encourage future abductions, given the success of the present instances.
Significantly, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA), with characteristic whimsicality, has now decided that, as a consequence of the “new development”, the Maoists have lapsed from their status as our privileged ‘brothers and sisters’ and are now to be designated as ‘terrorists’. The Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Jitendra Singh, told Parliament on April 27, 2012, that abductions were a “new development in their tactics, indicating the gradual transformation of the outfit into a full blown terrorist organization which indiscriminately targets civilian non-combatants.” The assessment was given further weight by the endorsement from elements within security establishment, with the Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), K. Vijay Kumar, reportedly declaring, “What is the difference between the CPI-Maoist and any terrorist organization? This is not a typical rural insurgency. The Maoists believe in protracted war with the state and building a regular army to overthrow the state.”
The inherent contradictions and sheer incoherence of the state’s approach are manifest in these two statements. Vijay Kumar, while condemning the Maoists as terrorists, gives a descriptive of classical Maoist insurgency – the strategy of protracted war towards the building of a ‘regular army’. As for the ‘new tactics’ that Jitendra Singh speaks of, the UMHA’s own data indicates that abduction is anything but new as far as the Maoists are concerned. Indeed, according to UMHA data, a total of 1,567 persons were abducted by the Maoists between 2008 and April 17, 2012, and of these, at least 328 were killed in Maoist custody. Nor, indeed, is it the case that abduction was abruptly introduced into the Maoist tactical lexicon in 2008. The Maoists have had a long and enduring tradition of abductions since the resurgence of the movement in the 1980s, with natural peaks and troughs in their employment of this tactic.
The only significant departure from recent trends has been the targeting of relatively high-profile individuals – foreigners, an MLA and a DC – as against the continuous stream of lesser mortals whose fate is far more easily ignored by the state. State officials have, of course, been abducted in the past as well, but with rare exception –Vineel Krishna, the DC of Malkangiri, Odisha, abducted in February 2011; and seven officers of the elite Indian Administrative Service, abducted en masse in 1987, being prominent cases in point – they have belonged to the lower orders. The Maoists have, however, routinely targeted subordinate Government officials and elements within the Panchayati Raj (village local self government) apparatus, large numbers of civilians branded as ‘police informers’, ‘class enemies’ or individuals guilty of various alleged ‘crimes against the people’, and Police personnel and officers, among others. And while this unending succession of abductions was occurring, successive administrations, including the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government at the Centre, and various establishment political parties, have seen fit to enter into negotiations with the Maoists, have repeatedly spoken of them in conciliatory terms, seeking a negotiated resolution to their ‘movement’, engaged in opportunistic electoral alliances, and generally inclined to oppose the use of force to end the insurgency, overwhelmingly emphasizing negotiated, political and developmental ‘solutions’ to the insurgency.
The shift in profile of abduction victims has also re-ignited an enthusiastic – though characteristically ill-informed – debate on the appropriate ‘response’ to a ‘hostage crisis’. Bemoaning the state’s supposed ‘capitulation’ to secure the release of the abducted Italians and MLA Hikaka, there has been at least some passionate advocacy of a policy of ‘no negotiations with hostage takers’ or ‘terrorists’, and even of a law against such negotiations. Some experts have insisted that such negotiations are not permissible under any circumstances. Others have argued that negotiations are, quite simply, mandatory, on humanitarian considerations, or in view of the basic covenant between citizen and state. Selective examples have been cited in support of each position.
Unfortunately, an analysis of broad trends in response, as well as of the experience of specific cases, is not particularly helpful in deciding the issue one way or the other. Both the ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’ line, it would appear, can take us down the same trajectory. Within the Indian context, advocates of the hard line, including the Hindutva right-wing Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), through its mouthpiece Organiser, have chosen to salute former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for her uncompromising stand against hostage-taking terrorists. The Organiser, commenting on a hated political adversary who banned the RSS as an extremist formation during the Emergency of 1975-77, and ignoring her active collusion with terrorists in the initial troubles in Punjab, noted,
Indira Gandhi as PM (Prime Minister) in 1984 went ahead and hanged Maqbool Bhat when the Kashmiri terrorists held the Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre as hostage. He (Mhatre) was killed by the terrorists. Since then there has hardly ever been any instance when the government stood its ground.
Critics, however, argue that it was Bhat’s hanging that accelerated radicalization, separatism and terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). On the other hand, the Rubaiya Sayeed abduction in 1989, and the state’s subsequent capitulation, is widely seen as the immediate cause of the near complete breakdown of state authority in J&K, and the trigger to the following decades of terrorism. Of course, the state’s response in the IC 814 hostage crisis in December 1999 has become a byword of state capitulation, and is widely regarded as having significantly contributed to a sharp escalation in terrorism in J&K, with the formation of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) under the leadership of Maulana Masood Azhar, one of the terrorists released in this deal with the hijackers. The incompetence that attended the security response at the Amritsar Airport, where IC 814 remained for at least 47 minutes, moreover, offers a sharp contrast to the response to two incidents of hijacking, which were ‘resolved’ at the same Airport, with a strong and effective security response, under K.P.S. Gill’s command in 1993. The termination of the 1993 hijackings sent out a strong ‘dampening’ message to terrorists planning such future actions.
Clearly, however, no ‘formula’ of response can be derived from these and other conflicting experiences.
Much of the present discourse on the hostage issue has also been undermined by contra-factual stereotypes. Israel and the US, it is asserted, have an uncompromising ‘no-negotiations policy’, and this, it is claimed, has served them well, and is what India needs. The truth is, while both these countries have a declared no-negotiations policy, negotiations – and dramatic concessions to terrorists – have, in fact, been the rule. The Israeli example during the hostage crises at Munich (Germany), Entebbe (Uganda), and at Ma’a lot (Israel) – the last of which involved 105 children, among 115 hostages, at a school – are often cited as exemplars of a successful ‘no-negotiations’ approach. Crucially, and more recently, however, Israel chose to release as many as 1,027 prisoners – including no less than 280 terrorists serving life sentences for various terrorist crimes, and who were collectively responsible, according to Arab reports, for the loss of 569 Israeli civilian lives – in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.
Despite the tremendous complexity of hostage situations, a number of utterly facile, and at least occasionally nonsensical, statements on a ‘hostage policy’ or even ‘standard operating procedures’ (SOPs) for hostage situations, have recently emanated from the corridors of power. Opportunistic elements within the UPA have sought to mix in the present controversy over the National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC) with the hostage crises, claiming, without any adduced evidence, that the NCTC alone could help resolve such problems. That the UMHA has remained almost entirely passive through the recent hostage situations, however, is entirely ignored by advocates of increasing centralization of such responses.
Within this context, it is, indeed, ironic that, as far back as September 2004, the UPA Government had announced that it was planning a “no nonsense hostage policy”. Its “cornerstone”, we were then told, was to be “the principle of no negotiations”. Even more ironic was the fact that this announcement came in the wake of the negotiated release, after meeting terrorist demands, of three truckers abducted in Iraq.
There is evidence, here, of persistent and tremendous political incompetence. At its core is an episodic focus, ordinarily in the face of ongoing crises, on issues crucial to national security, and a refusal to sustain such a focus once the crisis has passed.
If any rationality is to attend our responses to hostage crises, the first element that demands recognition is the fact that options arise out of capacities. The second is that hostage-taking is just one among a wide range of insurgent/terrorist tactics. The third is that all terrorist tactics are adopted within a calculus of success that is integrally linked to relative insurgent/terrorist capabilities and state/security capabilities. Many have argued that releasing prisoners in exchange for hostages has an inevitable ‘demonstration effect’ and encourages future abductions. This, however, is only the case where the state fails to impose unbearable costs on the responsible insurgent/terrorist grouping in the aftermath of the hostage exchange. Where such costs are imposed, anti-state groupings quickly abandon such tactics. The imposition of such costs, however, is not a function of ‘hostage policies’, SOPs, or ‘negotiating skills’, but of general policing or security capabilities, the availability and deployment of state Forces on the ground, and the relative dominance, in specific affected areas, of state and rebel Forces. Essentially, a no-negotiations position, SOPs, or ‘mechanisms’ of response, makes sense only if there is significant punitive capacity and will. Otherwise, these translate into nothing more than a callous and boastful posture of strength, in the absence of real power, at the expense of the hostages, and offer no strategic or tactical advantage.
Critically, no policy or standardized response pattern or mechanism can secure appropriate responses in all situations. The effectiveness of responses will depend purely on the efficiency of the state’s Forces, and on the ability to predict and prepare for all patterns of rebel activity. Abduction is just one among an entire range of Maoist tactics, and relies on the wider capabilities of the rebels and of state Forces. There can be no effective response to a hostage crisis, when the state lacks the capacities, the capabilities and the will to respond effectively to the broader challenge of the Maoist rebellion; to daily killings of its Security Forces’ (SF) personnel and civilians; and to the complex and rampaging depredations of Maoist cadres, militia and fronts across wide areas of the country.
The state has been driven to paralysis by the abduction of a couple of inconsequential foreigners, an MLA and a DC. One can only cringe at the possibility of a Beslan in India – the September 2004 incident in a tiny Russian town, where Chechan terrorists took nearly 1,200 hostages, including at least 777 children, in a school gymnasium. In the eventual SF action at Beslan, at least 334 hostages, including 186 children, were killed. How would India cope with a challenge – and with a catastrophe – of such dimensions?
The gibberish about ‘policies’, ‘SOPs’, the centralization of responses, the transformation of ‘tactics’, ‘terrorists’, and other such twaddle, is nothing more than a diversion, an attempt by bankrupt politicians and Force commanders to direct attention away from the awful crisis of capacities that undermines India’s security and all dimensions of governance. It is not the Maoists that hold India hostage today, but the enduring venality, the incompetence and the collapse of imagination of the country’s leadership.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & SATP