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Hostage to Apathy

There is an enormous perversity, a gross distortion, in the entire approach and orientation to the tragic abduction and brutal murder of Indian engineer K Suryanaraya by the Taliban in Afghanistan. With this single case, questions are abruptly being raised on the security of Indians working in Afghanistan, and India’s future policy and presence in that country.

It is, consequently, useful to put Suryanarayana’s murder in context. Even while this drama was unfolding on television, 52 persons had been abducted by the Maoists in Chhattisgarh; 15 of them were brutally killed. The incident was only cursorily reported in the media. And as Suryanarayana’s body was brought back to India, 34 Hindus were dragged out of their homes in Doda and Udhampur and killed in cold blood.

The Suryanarayana case, tragic as it is, is only one small link in a continuous chain of terrorist atrocities directed against India, seeking to influence its policies. If each civilian and security force personnel killing forced a review of national policies in particular regions, we would have had to review these nearly 20,000 times in Jammu and Kashmir alone.

This pattern of distortion is not new. When three Indian truck drivers were abducted in Iraq in July 2004, TV cameras were located in each of their homes; government officials made several daily statements and family members of the abducted persons—poor and bewildered villagers—were immediately asked to comment on various aspects of national and foreign policy, as well as on the inane, repeated and cruel question about ‘how they were feeling’.

Interestingly, at roughly the same time, 24 non-tribal traders had been abducted in Tripura by the National Liberation Front of Tripura, and were taken across the border to Bangladesh, where they were held in atrocious conditions for over a month. Seven of the abducted traders eventually died in custody. The remaining 17 were released on July 26, 2004, (at the height of the drama in Iraq), after a ransom had been paid. The national media failed to notice the event.

Current political, public and media discourse particularly on hostage crises, and generally on terrorism, is, consequently, entirely warped. It fails to generate an objective and realistic assessment of the issue and is, in fact, more in the nature of perverse theatrical entertainment—the pornography of other people’s suffering—than serious debate on crucial issues of national policy and security.

There is enormous need for greater clarity and sustained focus on the issues involved in hostage crises and the larger enterprise of terrorism in the region. Crucially, this must include the articulation of an unambiguous and comprehensive national counter-terrorism strategy.

To focus on the latter, it is necessary that clear response protocols be defined to eliminate the patterns of confusion, of conflicting perspectives and priorities that delay and undermine effective responses in the wake of a hostage incident.

Moreover, the absence of parameters within which a settlement may be reached places an unrealistic and unacceptable moral burden on negotiators, who, in the absence of some clearly articulated limits on what can and cannot be conceded, are perceived as being solely responsible for the lives of the hostages.

A crucial element of a hostage policy is the understanding that a ‘hostage situation’ does not end with the release or death of the hostages; it ends only after the perpetrators and organisations behind such incidents have been brought to justice or are neutralised.

It is significant that the Foreign Secretary, after the Suryanarayana incident, stated that the country would do everything to bring the perpetrators to book. It remains to be seen whether this is just a posture, or if it will be translated into actual practice.

India has a disastrous record in hostage negotiations, prominently including the Rubaiya Saeed abduction and the IC 814 hijacking, for which the nation continues to pay an enormous price. If the country is to project strength and a deterrent capacity against the unrelenting assault of terrorism, this record will have to be drastically altered, sending out a clear message to terrorists and to their state sponsors, that such acts will not only have no possible impact on the nation’s policies, but more significantly, will attract drastic consequences.

Such consequences may include, but are not exhausted by aggressive military action, and must comprehend the entire range of instrumentalities —diplomatic, covert, economic and political—to inflict unbearable costs on such state and non-state entities.

(Published in Daily News & Analysis, Mumbai, May 09, 2006)






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