Dealing with a hostage situation.
Every time there is an incident of Indian citizens being taken hostage, particularly involving government officials, by an insurgent or terrorist group, the debate over India’s non-existent policy on dealing with hostages flares up. And it subsides after a few days.
Even this time, where district collector of Malkangiri in Orissa, R Vineel Krishna has been taken hostage by the Maoists, the misinformed and chest-thumping arguments have debate has started all over again. And it will subside with the next Sehwag century in the World Cup soon.
The major argument, rather a lamentation, is that India should have an official policy of not negotiating in any hostage situations, come what may. Ideally, yes. But we live in a real world, not an ideal one. In this real world, even countries like Israel — which everyone is so fond of quoting as example of a country worth emulating — negotiate with terrorist kidnappers. Tel Aviv was negotiating with the terrorists even when the commando raid at Entebbe was only a few minutes away.
This argument actually flows from a faulty premise that negotiations with terrorists automatically mean capitulation by the state. Yes, if negotiations are held in full public glare, they do indicate the start of state capitulation. It is thus important that negotiations must be held without any publicity, should be discreet and limited to back-channel talks, which can be plausibly denied by the state.
This brings us to core of the problem. Whatever be the different official demands of the terrorists in each particular hostage case, their underlying motive is always the same — a public and rather visible capitulation of the State (think Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Kandahar or Rubaiya Sayeed incidents). For the terrorists, it is about sending a message to the population, of controlling the perception in the public mind, that the terrorists are stronger than the State. This is precisely what the state needs to avert at all costs.
In turn, it provides us with the Red Line in dealing with such hostage situations: government shall not do anything, come what may, that leads to a publicly visible capitulation of the State in front of the terrorists. All dealings conducted under the Red Line are a part of Statecraft.
In most cases of hostage-taking, the only goal that the government has is the release of the hostage. Is this goal reconcilable with the Red Line stipulated above? Yes, it is possible. The state has its own ways of doing these things without being overtly seen to be doing so. Money can exchange hands, witnesses can turn hostile, bails may not be opposed at the next hearing, charge-sheets can be thrown out on technical grounds by the courts, so on and so forth.
This is where the track-record of the state and the question of state capacity comes into play. The fear of ruthless, relentless and brutal retribution by the state, if the hostage is killed by the terrorists must be palpable. That fear, and not some government policy, is the biggest deterrent against preventing future hostage-taking. Moreover it is also the only bargaining chip that the State possesses during the negotiations. In common parlance, the message to the terrorists ought to be: you may have fired the first shot, but the war will only be over after we bombard you with napalm many times over.
Another argument that has been particularly made in the Orissa case is that the government is bending over backwards because an IAS officer is involved. The government would have done little if a peon would have been abducted by the Maoists. While both the peon and the DC are government employees and have an equal right to life, the DC is a powerful symbol of the state. It is for this precise reason that the Maoists have abducted the DC, and not his peon. It is also for this reason that States protect and guard their prime ministers, and not their peons. They are symbols of the state. The state is duty-bound to protect them. A rough parallel to the above situation exists in the difference between a general and a private surrendering to the enemy being taken as a prisoner of war.
In case of conflict-ridden areas, there is another complication. The government, in any case, struggles to motivate its employees to work in such zones. Special pays and promotion incentives are often provided to employees serving in these areas. If the government is seen by all other employees as either unwilling or incapable of rescuing or securing the release of its top official in the district, the state machinery in these areas will come to a complete stand-still. It is a fine balancing act, with no easy choices for the government. It can not be broken down into simplistic black or white arguments.
A final word on declaring a government policy of non-negotiation with the terrorists in cases of hostage-taking. No terrorist will be running scared of a policy promulgation by the government of India. From the terror attack on Indian Parliament to the terror strike on Mumbai in 2008, tough words about zero-tolerance for terror have been spoken by Indian Prime Ministers. It hasn’t dissuaded the terrorists so far.
Similarly, words typed on a piece of official stationery of the government of India are not going to deter terrorists from taking people hostages. To use an over-worn cliché, actions speak louder than words. And going by the evidence so far, no political leadership in this country has the cojones guts to act on such a policy.
The answer then lies in first, creating a fear of state retribution to deter such hostage-taking; and second, if and when a hostage situation occurs, in knowing the Red Line. Chest-thumping is not a policy, unless you are a Tarzan living among the apes in the jungle.
Update: A version of this blogpost appears as an Opinion Column at Outlook Web.