A few days after the Odisha government secured the release of the Italian hostages by conceding to the demands of Maoists, a CRPF commander is reported to have told his men fighting terrorists in the jungles of Chhattisgarh: “Think of your own life and that of your children. You are not Italians. The media and diplomats will not come to your rescue.”
Similar sentiments have also been expressed by the Odisha policemen who have threatened not to perform their duties in the Maoist-affected areas if terrorists are released in exchange for VIP hostages. Underlying these protests and low morale is an understandable resentment against the state’s implicit assumption that the life of a district collector or an MLA or even a foreign tourist is more important than that of a policeman or ordinary citizen who faces the wrath of the Maoists in his normal or professional life and whom the state, though duty-bound, is unable to protect. It is this basic dilemma that must be confronted by any administration which caves in (for short-term gains) to the demands of the terrorists by adopting a soft approach.
It is often said that India is a soft state and you can’t expect anything better. In reality, no state is inherently soft, for it has all the constitutional and legal powers and material capacity to deal with any rebellion or threat to internal security. It, however, acts meekly when its leaders are soft. You may not like Narendra Modi for what happened in Godhra, but even his worst critics will agree that Gujarat under his care is not a soft state that will pander to the dictates of terrorists and law-breakers in a cowardly manner.
The Indian state acted tough when in 1974 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi refused to negotiate or release Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) prisoners including its founder Maqbool Butt, then lodged in Tihar, in exchange for senior Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre who had been kidnapped in England. The terrorists killed Mhatre and Maqbool Butt was hanged in a few days when his clemency petition was rejected. The same Indian state became soft when Prime Minister V.P. Singh, in 1989, released five terrorists from prison in order to secure the release of the then home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s abducted daughter. Ten years later, the A.B. Vajpayee government released three terrorists following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar. Some of these released terrorists subsequently went on to cause heavy damage to the Indian state through a number of attacks.
The compulsion of saving hostages’ lives is put forward as an argument for surrender. But, it overlooks the fact that even when the terrorists’ demands are met there is a blood price that is invariably paid in subsequent months or years.
It is typical of a soft leadership to repeat ad infinitum the platitude that law would take its own course while under its watch law is violated again and again by lawless elements. In Odisha, this trend is not confined only to the Maoist-affected areas. Following the Kalinganagar firing in January 2006, local residents blocked a highway for a year when the state government remained a mute spectator, thus making a mockery of governance. Similar weak-kneed approach has characterised the state government’s response to Maoist terrorism, which starting initially in two districts, has now spread to 19 out of 30 districts.
One suspects that a general perception of soft government leadership had encouraged some Maoists to kidnap the Malkangiri collector in 2011 and hold him as a hostage till five jailed Maoists were released. The situation worsened when this year first the two Italians and then a ruling party MLA was abducted by two different Maoist groups. The Odisha government caved in to all the demands of the kidnappers in order to secure their release.
It is no one’s case that there should be no negotiation or release of jailed terrorists for securing the freedom of abducted hostages. There are, however, negotiations and negotiations and it is the strategy and nuances adopted that distinguish a hard from a soft approach.
The main argument against negotiations with terrorists is that it encourages them to repeat their tactics. But, it is not negotiation per se that encourages terrorism, rather the extent to which terrorists are able to achieve their demands by negotiations. If terrorists who take hostages are able to have all their demands conceded easily, it is but inevitable that there would be one hostage crisis after another.
This is what seems to be happening in Odisha. In each of the cases of abduction, chief minister Naveen Patnaik himself has publicly and fervently “appealed” to the kidnappers first to name their negotiators and then to release the hostages “immediately” on “humane considerations”.
And in the negotiations that followed the state government has conceded to almost all the demands of the Maoists, giving up so much for so little. This is in sharp contrast with the behaviour of tough and successful governments who rely on maximum caution, restricted publicity and discreet behind-the-scenes contacts while publicly adhering to the policy of not negotiating with hostage-takers on the ground that any concession offered would encourage more kidnappings.
There is also an implicit assumption that abduction of an innocent person as a hostage is in the nature of an accident, and in accidents some can be fatal. While all possible efforts must be made to get them released through negotiations (or better still through rescue operations on the basis of adequate intelligence), there need not be a sense of “desperation” that terrorists often interpret as a sign of weakness.
It appears compared to Odisha, the government in neighbouring Chhattisgarh seems to have adopted a more nuanced and measured approach in dealing with the hostage crisis following the abduction of the Sukma collector.
When in 1938 the then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler and signed the infamous Munich Agreement conceding the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany, Winston Churchill had remarked: “England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame and will get war.” This is something she did when in 1939 the Second World War broke out. Similar fate may be waiting Odisha where more killings and blackmail are possible, as some independent observers and families of slain policemen in the drive against Maoist terrorism have forecast.