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Many hostages, no negotiators

Now that the story is a week old, it is no longer in the headlines. One Italian citizen and one member of the Orissa legislative assembly continue to be held captive by the Maoists in Orissa. Most people believe that the Maoists will strike a deal with the government and eventually release the two hostages. This belief emanates from the precedents set in the last 25 years.

On December 8, 1989, just six days after her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was sworn in as India’s home minister, Rubaiya Sayeed was abducted by the militants of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front. Their demand: release of five militants. Although then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was dead against giving in, the VP Singh government decided to free the militants. Rubaiya Sayeed was released within an hour of the release of five militants in downtown Srinagar on December 13. It was the watershed in the insurgency in Kashmir. India had been brought to its knees at gunpoint and many Kashmiris, with assured support from Pakistan, started believing that they could gain ‘Azadi’ from India at gunpoint. That single incident pushed the state down a path where it has taken twenty years, and thousands of lives, for Kashmiris to realise the futility of picking up the gun.

Dangerous precedents: After the J&K militants, hostage-taking has now gained currency among the Maoists who kidnapped 1,554 people in the last four years, of which 328 were killed

This set a trend where the government capitulated to terrorist demands for securing release of hostages in Kashmir. After abducting Indian Oil executive director K Doraiswamy in 1991, terrorists asked for release of five militants. The governor of J&K, Gary Saxena wanted to take a tough line but the Narasimha Rao government ignored him and finally released 12 militants.

Hostage-taking as a tactic in Kashmir came to an end with the kidnapping of six Europeans by a little-known militant group, Al Faran, in July 1995. Despite government’s best efforts to save the Europeans, including the use of Pakistani politicians, the hostages were killed. This single instance changed the world’s opinion of the Kashmiri movement and the control of militancy completely shifted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It was a turning point in the Kashmiri separatist landscape which allowed India to gain political and military ascendancy.
Of course, the most controversial incident occurred in Kandahar in 1999, when Maulana Masood Azhar (who later founded Jaish-e-Muhammad which attacked the Indian Parliament in 2001), Omar Saeed Sheikh (who later kidnapped and killed Daniel Pearl in Lahore) and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar were released by the Vajpayee government in exchange for a hijacked Indian Airlines flight with 176 passengers on board.

Far away from Kandahar, hostage-taking as a tactic has now increasingly gained currency among the Maoists. The Maoists kidnapped 1,554 people in the last four years, of which 328 were killed. This includes the beheading of abducted police inspector Francis Induwar in Jharkhand in 2009. In contrast, district collector of Malkangiri, RV Krishna was released by the Maoists last year after a senior Maoist leader was freed by the Orissa government.

Unfortunately, dealing with a hostage situation is the weakest link in our system. Union home ministry’s guidelines of 2006 bar negotiations in a hostage situation. But any hostage crisis needs two complementary responses: security operations to rescue hostages, and negotiations. Negotiations are not only about conceding demands but also about playing for time while gathering intelligence for a security operation or for wearing the terrorists out. While we have the security forces for rescue operations, we have no trained negotiators. Although political leadership would decide on the demands, professional negotiators are required to undertake negotiations.

In the US, the FBI has a hostage rescue team for the security operations, along with a crisis negotiation unit (CNU) which manages negotiations. Israel has separate hostage handling teams for criminal and terrorist hostage events, each with a commando unit and a negotiating unit. The criminal hostage team is with the police, while the terrorist hostage team is with the military.

No democratic country can have a no-negotiation policy with hostage-takers. Last year, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to get back the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. If negotiations are part of the operational strategy of dealing with terrorists, it is time we had trained negotiators in every state. Let there be no negotiation about it. 

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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