To negotiate or not

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 1 May 2012

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This article was published on 'The Indian Express' on 1st May 2012.





Norms need to be evolved and SOPs established to deal with hostage crises

The sudden surge in the taking of hostages by Maoists represents a significant turning point in left-wing extremism in India,and has reignited the debate on how to deal with it. Among the important questions that need answering are: Is India being too soft in its approach? And should we have a strict no-negotiation policy on hostages?

Ironically,what is rarely mentioned is that incidents of Maoist violence,and the resultant casualties,have been declining in recent years. An exception was an article in The Economist,which went so far as to say,“The Maoists are in retreat”,and pointed out that “the ‘red corridor’ of Naxal-affected territory in central India is being encroached on by police,roads and limited rural development.”

The evidence supports that conclusion. Recent years have seen a boost in both security measures as well as developmental efforts. The police forces in Maoist-affected states have seen improved infrastructure,resources,training and specialised operations; the presence of paramilitary forces has also increased.

Equally,there is a gradual improvement in the basic infrastructure that tribal districts have long lacked. The concrete village roads programme initiated by the Vajpayee government,the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY),is arguably the biggest game-changer for rural India; it has now made inroads into many remote tribal villages,improving connectivity and livelihood options. Similarly,measures to tackle abysmally low tribal literacy and ensure access to education have made a mark. Odisha,for instance,has built more than 1,000 hostels for tribal schoolgirls,with another 1,000 on the anvil. While the effects of these will only be felt gradually,they will be far-reaching,impacting everything from job prospects to population stabilisation. The state has also given land-rights pattas to 1.3 lakh tribal families.

Sometimes both security and developmental efforts have coincided,for instance the Border Roads Organisation has been used to push through construction long delayed by Maoist threats. And stepped-up security operations have also led to a sharp rise in top-rung Maoist leaders being captured or killed. Thus it is no surprise that they have now adopted a radical new strategy,one that compensates some of the Maoists’ tactical handicaps,while at the same time giving them new leverage. Besides leverage in terms of prisoner exchanges or temporary halts to combing operations,hostage-taking yields enormous publicity. So much so that it has succeeded in giving an impression about their fortunes that is at variance with the facts.

That is not to say that the Central and state governments should be sanguine about the situation; in fact,much introspection is needed,as well as some course correction. The most urgent need is to evolve a national consensus on whether to negotiate in hostage situations. To those who consider India the epitome of a soft state,negotiations are grist to the mill; they have been vocal with their strong opposition,and have been pressing for a strict no-negotiation policy.

Various so-called strong states have on occasion announced such no-negotiation policies,only to invariably succumb from time to time. The most glaring example is Israel. Many in India envy its reputed zero-tolerance doctrine,which enshrines both pre-emptive as well as tit-for-tat retaliatory strikes as deterrence against being attacked. And,yet,Israel has been forced to compromise on several occasions,including last year when it negotiated the release of a lone abducted soldier by releasing 1,027 prisoners,including some convicted for life.

Clearly,even strong states recognise that there are consequences to both negotiating and not negotiating: perhaps the demoralising consequences of some hostages being harmed can become a negative tipping point. On the flip side,releasing high-value prisoners could also have a demoralising effect on the jawans who risk their lives to apprehend them. And we know from the IC-814 hijacking that releasing hardened terrorists can have extremely dire consequences for years afterwards.

But should all prisoners be seen in the same light? After all,the Maoists’ demands usually include the release of so-called “innocent” tribals. In fact,not all prisoners arrested as Maoists are killers; there are indeed many being held on lesser charges,such as providing logistical support. Sometimes that could be as innocuous as distributing posters or providing food,possibly under compulsion. There are also some tribals in jail for other unrelated violations,such as illegal logging.

Whether environmental,wildlife and other laws ought to be relaxed in the interest of tribal livelihoods is an important question,but an entirely different discussion. The relevant question here is whether the lakhs of people in jails awaiting trials on relatively minor charges — not just tribals or Maoists,but also petty criminals and others — ought to be treated differently from those facing more serious cases like murder.

You could argue that all prisoners awaiting trial deserve speedy hearings irrespective of the seriousness of their alleged crimes; you could also argue that those with lesser charges should routinely get expedited trials,and not just when hostages are taken. But the reality is that India needs five times the number of judges it has today to be on par with developed democracies,which requires a huge surge in budgetary allocation. Until that happens,and there doesn’t seem to be any political will for that,undertrials will continue to languish in jail.

The lesson,therefore,seems to be that the least bad option may indeed be selective negotiation. Expediting the court hearings of undertrials on lesser charges may not be ideal when triggered by a hostage crisis,but it is something the world’s largest democracy ought to be doing in normal circumstances anyway. But norms need to be evolved,and standard operating procedures established,so as not to reinvent the wheel at each new abduction.

Finally,of course,the formula that has resulted in the declining casualties of Maoist violence — enhanced security operations and a simultaneous thrust on developmental projects — needs to be sustained. And yes,with or without Maoists,investing in a drastic increase in the numbers of judges would be well worth the costs.