Handling of Maoists by Odisha and Chhattisgarh
India has to evolve a Standard Operational Procedure to handle hostage situations
Popular perception that India is a soft state has been repeatedly validated by the manner in which our Governments—Central as well as State—had handled hostage situations since 1990s. They must take the blame for surrendering to the demands of separatists, terrorists and Maoists to secure release of hostages.
The lack of any doctrine or guidelines to deal with such situations had serious consequences for our internal security. Governments seldom show the guts to face the challenge of ultras and resist the temptation to buy peace. They succumb to “popular demands” to get the hostages released without anticipating cost the nation pays for their lack of determination.
It all started with the abduction of a daughter of the then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Syeed by a jehadi group operating in J&K. What an irony that VP Singh, who was installed as the Prime Minister on the agenda of cleansing the system, sent his External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral as the leader of a team to handle an internal security matter. Talks with representatives of jehadis were brief giving rise to speculations about the entire episode being a stage-managed drama. Defending the decision to release a number of hardened terrorists in exchange for the young hostage, External Affairs Minister argued that the precious life of the then Home Minister’s daughter was an emotional issue that shouldn’t be politicised.
Yet another unfortunate episode was the release of three hard-core terrorists by the NDA Government to secure the release of 192 passengers and crew of the Indian Airlines hijacked flight No IA 814 in 1999. Special Task Force’s orders to block the plane when it landed in Amritsar because of insufficient fuel couldn’t be carried out because of some confusion on the ground level at the eleventh hour. Hijackers smelt trouble and managed to fly out to Lahore, Dubai and ultimately landed at Kandhar. Negotiations with the hijackers belonging to a Pak-based terrorist group posed problems because India didn’t recognise the Taliban-run Government in Afghanistan. The plan to storm the hijacked plane was shelved as the Taliban surrounded the aircraft with well-armed tanks by claiming that that was done to prevent hijackers from killing hostages. Their undoubted intention was to prevent any Indian intervention by air. Tough negotiations went on for a tension-filled week during which the country witnessed an emotional outburst projecting the saving of innocent lives as the top priority.
There was no national consensus even as the principal opposition party the Congress refused to lend support to the Government’s resistance to release terrorists lodged in jails. Its untenable stand was that it was for the Government to tackle the problem. Motivated protestors and sections of mainstream media claiming to be the nation’s voice mounted tremendous pressure on the Government to secure release of the hostages. The NDA Government relented and released Maulana Masood Azhar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtak Ahmed Zargar and flew them to Kandhar in a special plane. They fled to Pakistan and indulged in terror activities against India. Azhar proved to be the worst enemy of India. He founded Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)—a Jehadi outfit—that planned and executed a large number of terror attacks on Indian cities killing innocent people and security personnel to spread terror. This deplorable episode haunts the BJP which was the lead party in NDA.
Recent incidents involving kidnapping in Odisha and Chhattisgarh are the latest reminders that the country has not laid down guidelines to be followed by authorities concerned in handling such situations. The manner in which the two state governments handled the hostage-takers is a study in contrast. Unfortunately, the BJD-Government in Odisha is the one that rallied several state governments to frustrate the Union Government’s attempts to evolve a mechanism for joint action to tackle the Maoist violence on the premise that law and order is a state subject. Little did the states realise that on their own they are in no position to crush the violent movement against the democratic set up. It is in the national interest to have a coordinated mechanism to fight Maoist violence that plagues a large number of states.
The Odisha Government was caught in a stiff stick over the abduction of two Italian tourists and a ruling party legislator from a Vanvasi constituency by two different Naxal groups. The Government lost nerve and made a shameful surrender before the Maoists by arranging the release of a large number of ultras lodged in jails, including those who had been convicted by courts in crimes like murder. Securing release of Italians by accepting totally unacceptable demands of the Maoists so enraged the security forces all over the country that a CRPF officer posted in Chhattisgarh is reported to have advised his jawans and officers to be extremely careful about their personal safety while conducting anti-Naxal operations lest they should be kidnapped. “No one will be concerned about your abduction as you are not Italians”, he said in his address to his force.
The Chhattisgarh Government faced a tough task over the abduction of District Collector Alex Paul Menon. He is popular among Vanvasis because of the sensitivity he exhibited in dealing with their concerns. The Government resisted rebel’s demand for release of several of its leaders and cadres involved in crimes like murders, extortions and burning public and private property even while it appointed two mediators to hold talks with Naxals to facilitate the release of the Collector. Tough negotiations went on for about two weeks before the Government agreed to set up a high-powered committee headed by Nimala Buch to regularly review cases of arrests of Maoists in lieu of the release of the abducted District Collector.
The State Government made it clear that the proposed Committee would review cases of those against whom investigations and proceedings were underway and not those who are convicted by courts. Naxals gave up their demand for release of their comrades obviously in the hope that the review may lead to release of many more of their comrades lodged in jails. They are said to have a database of 1000 of their commanders and cadres languishing in jails claiming they are “innocent” persons arrested by the police on “trumped-up” charges. Chief Minister Raman Singh says it is just a beginning and may provide an opening for resolving the Naxal problem. It would be a great error on the part of the State Government to treat them as friends of the Vanvasis in spite of the propaganda unleashed by their over-ground sympathisers that they are “misguided” people with a mission. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram rightly points out that it is a gross misreading of their objectives. Publicly stated objective of these rebels is to overthrow the democratically elected Government through armed rebellion. The nation can treat them with kid gloves at its own peril.
Maoists, terrorists and separatists operating in different parts of the country are indulging in abduction to extract money and to blackmail authorities to get their commanders and cadres released. These ultras are caught by security forces at a big price in terms of human lives and risk to the lives of security personnel. Releasing them to save the lives of hostages demoralises the security forces and sends across a wrong message to outlaws. In the absence of any guideline authorities are left on their own and commit blunders. It is high time that the Union Government in consultation with Opposition and state governments evolve a broad consensus whether or not to negotiate in hostage situations. Several Western countries have adopted no-negotiation policies. Israel, for example, has adopted a zero tolerance doctrine enshrining pre-emptive and tit-for-tat retaliation strikes against abductors. India needs to evolve a Standard Operating Procedure to handle hostage situations and lay down norms for conducting negotiations, if these become inevitable in a given situation.