By B. Raman
The Orissa Government’s handling of the situation arising from the kidnapping on February 16, 2011, of Shri Ravella Vineel Krishna, the popular District Collector of Malkangiri District, and a junior engineer Pabitra Majhi by the Maoists active in the District has evoked mixed reactions.
While some on the left of the political spectrum have showed understanding of the decision of the Orissa Government to accept 14 demands of the Maoists to secure the release of the kidnapped officers, political parties on the right of the spectrum such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its representatives and many retired officers of the security bureaucracy have strongly criticized the State Government for conceding the demands of the Maoists.
In an editorial titled “Lessons From the Kidnapping” published on February 26, “The Hindu” of Chennai, whose Editor N.Ram is known for his sympathies with the leftists, has praised the “astute handling” of the situation by the State Government. Even before the demands were conceded by the State Government, one saw examples of the hardline views during “The Buck Stops Here” programme of Barkha Dutt on NDTV on February 21. Shri A.K.Doval, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, and Shri Kanchan Gupta, Associate Editor of the “Pioneer’, a daily close to the BJP, expressed themselves in favour of a “no concessions” approach. Shri Gupta, who is known to be an uncritical admirer of Israel’s no-holds-barred approach to terrorism and insurgency, was even prepared to face the risk of the death of the two officers if that was the outcome of a hardline approach.
There has to be an agreement on one point—it was extremely unwise on the part of the District Collector to have undertaken a village visit in an insurgency-affected area without a security escort. The District Collector probably thought that what he apparently looked upon as a brave gesture to the people of the area by touring without security would bring the people of the area closer to the administration. He did not seem to have realized that such gestures were ill-advised in insurgency-affected areas and could prove counter-productive. His action in dispensing with security while touring enabled the Maoists to kidnap him and the junior engineer accompanying him in order to secure their demands and thus placed the State in an unenviable position at the mercy of the insurgents. There are other ways of bringing the people closer to the administration without dispensing with necessary security measures. The hostage situation might not have arisen but for this ill-advised action of the Collector.
Once the kidnapping had taken place and the Maoists had taken advantage of the hostage-taking to exercise pressure on the State Government to concede their demands, the State Government was confronted with three difficult questions—Should it negotiate with the insurgents? If so, should it concede their demands? If it did not, what could be the public reaction to the possible death of two dedicated public servants?
The counter-terrorism doctrine of practically all countries of the democratic world, including the much-admired Israel, do not rule out negotiations. In fact, agreeing to negotiations is viewed as an essential first step in the strategy to deal with hostage-taking. That is why techniques of negotiations with terrorists or insurgents is included in the syllabus of counter-terrorism training courses in many countries. When Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister in the 1980s and the late R.N.Kao was her Senior Adviser, some officers of the IB and the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) were got trained in negotiation techniques either in the UK or the US.
Negotiations, which are an essential part of the drill to deal with hostage situations, have two aspects—operational and psychological. The operational aspect is about giving time to the intelligence and security agencies to collect ground information in order to prepare themselves for physical intervention to rescue the hostages should such intervention become necessary or feasible.
The psychological aspect relates to exercising pressure on the insurgents or terrorists either directly or through intermediaries to release the hostages. India had been facing hostage situations since 1971 when two members of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKJLF) hijacked a plane of the Indian Airlines to Lahore. All Governments in power when these incidents took place had negotiated with the hostage-takers either directly or through intermediaries. It is, therefore, pointless to say that no negotiations should be held. Such a position would be unwisely rigid and come in the way of operational flexibility.
It is more difficult to answer the second question—should the demands of the hostage-takers be conceded? The basic principle of all counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency doctrines is that the demands should not be conceded, come what may. While this principle is generally adhered to in most countries even at the risk of the hostages being killed, history of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency has instances where the demands were conceded for some reason or the other even by countries such as Israel or the US even though they openly did not admit so. In India itself, there were two controversial instances of the demands being conceded—- to secure the release of the daughter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the then Home Minister in the V.P. Singh Government, in 1989, and the release of some terrorists by the Government of Atal Behari Vajpayee in December 1999 to secure the release of an Indian Airlines Plane hijacked to Kandahar and its passengers. While the release of some terrorists to secure the release of the Mufti’s daughter was inexcusable, the release of some terrorists to secure the release of a large number of IAC passengers was understandable. Once the Vajpayee Government, through its mishandling of the situation, allowed the hijacked plane to leave the Indian airspace and go to Kandahar, it had only two options—either let the passengers die or concede the demands of the terrorists. Public reaction would have been strong had it allowed such a large number of civilians to be killed.
In the history of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, there have been instances where States had rejected the demands of the hostage-takers even at the risk of the hostages being killed when the number of hostages was small and their deaths would not have caused strong public reaction. Examples: The action of the V.P.Singh Government in refusing to concede the demands of the terrorists who kidnapped the Vice-Chancellor of the Kashmir University and one of his staff members in 1990 resulting in their death; the refusal of the Narasimha Rao Government in 1995 to concede the demands of the Al Faran terrorists who had kidnapped five foreign tourists, one of whom managed to escape and the others were allegedly killed by the terrorists; and the refusal of the US and Pakistan Governments to concede the demands of the terrorists who had kidnapped Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, in 2002, which resulted in his death. While the deaths of the tourists in 1995 and of Pearl in 2002 due to the strong line taken by the Governments did not result in strong public reaction, the deaths of the Vice-Chancellor and his staff member did create strong public reaction since it came soon after the surrender by the V.P.Singh Government to the demands of the terrorists to secure the release of the daughter of the then Home Minister. In other hostage situations, the hostages were got released through psychological pressure on the hostages during prolonged negotiations.
The major mistake committed by the Orissa Government in dealing with the kidnapping of the District Collector and the Junior Engineer is that it would appear to have concluded at the very beginning of the situation that it had no other option but to concede the demands of the hostage-takers. As a result, the principal aim of the negotiations became not giving the intelligence and security agencies time to prepare the ground for a possible rescue mission, but to reach a compromise with the hostage-takers on their demands. Once the Maoists realized that the State Government had no stomach for prolonged negotiations or intervention to rescue the hostages, they stuck to all their demands and forced the Government to capitulate. The Government seemed to have capitulated without any exercise to identify the various operational and psychological options available to it. Even if the Government was mentally prepared to concede some of the demands in order to save the lives of two dedicated public servants, it could have explored the option of conceding those demands of the Maoists relating to the welfare and grievances of the local people and rejecting those demands which could affect the counter-insurgency operations. It did not do so. It just capitulated without even seeming resistance to the demands of the Maoists. This is likely to affect adversely the effectiveness of future counter-insurgency operations in the State.