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Holding the nation to ransom?

Since the release of five Maoists in exchange of an IAS officer and a junior engineer, a debate has surfaced whether the judgment of the Orissa government was an appropriate response to a difficult situation. The home minister was asked by media whether the central government agreed with the state governments handling of the situation.

Reports quoted the minister’s reply that it is “not important whether we (Centre) agree or disagree, the matter was sensitive and was handled by the state government to the best of its ability”. Hardly surprising, given that law and order is a state subject.

At this time, it is not relevant whether the swap deal has set a dangerous precedent. We have a few of them in the past. Instead, going forward, the focus needs to be on what is the administration’s firm position of dealing with such situations in future, given the rise of Naxal insurgency and other terrorist activities. Does the government have any guidelines and instructions that the states must adhere to when dealing with hostage negotiations?

If so, what are they? If not, it is time for the government to formulate a comprehensive policy on hostage negotiations. Among other things, such policy should detail whether or not to conduct talks in hostage situations and, if so, the parameters within which they should be conducted and the exigencies under which deviations can be made. Additionally, roles and responsibilities of the central and local government need to be established and it will be helpful to have a list of trained negotiators who can be called to intervene in such situations.

But a policy is never the solution. It’s merely a roadmap, giving directions. Almost similar to CPR instructions always carried by paramedics, but perhaps never referred to when dealing with an emergency. The policy needs to be followed by institutional and legal arrangements that can see through the agenda which the policy details.

The government has been successful in the past and a case in point is the government’s approach to disaster management. Starting with a well-thought-out policy, the government followed it up with a remarkable legislation that created the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Even though the NDMA was constituted for different purposes, given its structural infrastructure, one wonders why hostage situations were not included in the definition of a “disaster” under its statute which includes grave occurrences in any area, arising from natural or man-made causes.

Hostage situations need to be tackled by stern action. Internationally, the official position of many countries is that under no circumstances will negotiations take place in any hostage situation. The no-negotiation-with-abductors policy followed by Israel is regarded as being exemplary.

But what also needs to be noted is that the official policy is different from the ground realities. Despite its hardline approach, even Israel is believed to engage in negotiations. The difference is that such negotiations are conducted outside public view, so that its official position isn’t diluted.

What needs to be recognised is that the goal of any abductor is to try to instil fear in the minds of ordinary folks. The abductors, especially when kidnappings take place in undeveloped backward areas, attempt to win over the local populace by trying to demonstrate the administration’s indifference for these inhabitants. Every time the state gives in to their demands, they score a moral victory against the state.

There is research to support that a majority of hostage situations are driven by emotions or a desire for respect and attention. It is for this reason that experienced negotiators dealing with hostage situations first try to address the emotions at stake before addressing the substantive issues involved.

Thus, is policy the panacea to deal with hostage situations? Will knowing where the government stands on hostage situations deter potential kidnappings? Perhaps not. But, it’s a necessary starting point. In crisis situations, the biggest challenge can be the lack of coordination between various agencies and the absence of clarity on the role of various stakeholders. If the response is planned and the stakeholders trained, better results can be achieved. Also, knowledge of the state’s level of preparedness can even act as a deterrent for abductors.

Given the changing world order, it is important to dispel all notions of India being a ‘soft target’ and giving in every time a gun is put to the head of an ‘important’ person. Economically, such perceptions will hamper investment. From a strategic perspective, they don’t bode well for India’s external and internal security image. Let us not wait till the next ‘important’ individual is abducted before we act.

First Published in the Economic Times on April 16, 2011

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