It was a stunning declaration. There we were in a television studio on Thursday evening debating how to deal with Maoists and whether the state should cut deals with terrorists to secure the release of civilians held hostage by them. The immediate context of the debate was the Odisha Government’s capitulation before Maoists who had kidnapped two Italians.

“We must put moral pressure on the Maoists and legal pressure on the state,” declared one of the ‘social activists’ who had brokered a deal with Maoists in February last year after they had kidnapped the District Collector of Malkangiri. He concluded his lofty though bogus commentary with the astounding claim that it was on account of the ‘moral pressure’ brought upon Maoists in Andhra Pradesh by him and other leading lights of ‘civil society’ that they had given up their bad old ways.

That needed to be countered, if only to call his bluff. So I piped up: “Rubbish. It wasn’t your moral pressure that worked with Maoists in Andhra Pradesh. The Grey Hounds beat the (bleep) out of them.” I am, of course, presuming the bleep as the debate is yet to be telecast. But I doubt if the baldly stated truth will make the final cut; inane bluff and bluster have greater chances of being aired.

The debate, however, was not about sanctimonious and self-righteous ‘civil society’ stalwarts who seem to be gaining ground as a pusillanimous state abdicates its responsibility and elects passivity over decisive action. It was on whether India needs a policy to deal with hostage crises; whether the state should at all talk to those who take hostages; and, whether setting criminals free in exchange of hostages is a good idea.
The problem with such debates is that they tend to degenerate into partisan brownie point-scoring: We did this, but you did that. For instance, an MP from Odisha who was one of the participants kept on repeating, ad nauseam, that a nominal, minimum price had been paid to secure the release of the two Italians and, therefore, criticism was uncalled for.

Nominal? Minimum? If true, then the Maoists have settled for peanuts, which of course is not true. Among those freed by the Odisha Government is Subhashree Das, wife of Sabyasachi Panda, leader of the Maoist gang which had abducted the Italians. Subhashree Das, involved in the Maoist raid on the police armoury at Nayagarh in February 2008 and fierce attacks on security forces, was arrested after great effort. Surely that’s not a nominal, minimum price to pay?

Last year, the Odisha Government had similarly released 12 Maoists, including Sriramalu Srinivasalu, wanted for various crimes and horrific killings, in exchange of the abducted Malkangiri District Collector. On that occasion, too, the State Government had claimed it was a “small price to pay”. Who is to tell Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik that each concession made by him, every capitulation before the armed thugs, whets the appetite of the Maoists? That those waging war on our Republic succeed in demonstrating how irresolute the Indian state is?

These questions fetch the counter-question: What, then, should the state do in such situations? And we hear the refrain: After all, innocent lives are on the line and the state cannot be callously indifferent. A rude retort would be: And where is your treacly concern for human lives when Maoists kill civilians and security forces personnel?

But that would be wasted, not the least because nobody bothers to remember the victims of Maoist terror or, for that matter, terrorism of any kind. Last year 275 civilians were killed by Maoists; 128 security forces personnel died fighting the Red terrorists. Who remembers them? What does it say of our state and our society?

Negotiations should be treated as no more than tactics to achieve a strategic goal. Securing the release of two Italians or a District Collector or even an MLA cannot be the strategic goal; indeed, it would be absurd to even remotely suggest so. And if negotiations do not serve as tactics to achieve a strategic goal, they should be avoided.

If the strategic goal is to destroy Maoist terror roots, branch and stem, then negotiating the release of stray hostages does not add up to tactics. The Government should either have the courage to say no negotiation, no concession; or it should use the cover of negotiations to locate and isolate the terrorists, in this case Maoists, and inflict such overwhelming damage that the cost to be paid for daring to seek to coerce the state becomes prohibitively high. Sadly, that’s something the Indian state is simply incapable of doing.

— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist