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Moral burden on negotiators is unjust

After the deplorable outcome of the IC 814 hijacking, in which the Government abjectly capitulated to terror, the then Home Minister had declared, "never again", raising expectations that policies, mechanisms and response protocols would be evolved to deal effectively with hostage situations in future. Almost five years later, it is abundantly clear that no such systems have been established, and India remains just as vulnerable to intimidation and blackmail today. This has been unmistakably demonstrated in the national responses to the drama surrounding the three Indian truck drivers held hostage in Iraq.

Nor, indeed, was IC 814 the beginning of the story. Rubaiya Saeed’s kidnapping, and the continuing consequences in Kashmir of the Government’s surrender, must certainly be the most iconic example of the state negotiating on its knees. Before that, however, there had been ten hijacking incidents, beginning with the first in 1971, and the responses had generally been confused, weak, or both (with rare exception, as in the firm termination of two hijackings at Amritsar Airport in 1993). While each of these crises generated great heat in the media and political discourse, none of them led to the institutional changes necessary to deal effectively with this genre of terrorist action.

The current case in Iraq has additional complications. It is unfolding on foreign soil where local governmental authority is weak and, in many areas, nonexistent. It is occurring, moreover, in areas where, and involves groups among whom, India has little or no current leverage. India cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be faulted for its role in Iraq, having maintained a consistent ‘hands off’ policy. There are, consequently, no legitimate ‘grievances’ that the abductors could have against India that could be ‘redressed’.

With almost nothing to ‘trade’ and apparently no coercive instruments available, the Government has also come under unprecedented pressure of round the clock and sensationalist media coverage.

In the absence of clearly defined response protocols, this situation puts the concerned officials and politicians – including the Crisis Management Group (CMG) – under impossible pressures. Since there are no prescribed limits to what can be conceded, the negotiating strategy is ‘wide open’. In case the Government is not perceived by the public to have ‘given enough’ or been sufficiently ‘flexible’, it will be thought to be ‘insensitive’ and to have jeopardized the lives of the victims. On the other hand, as is currently evident, yielding too much under the constant glare of the media has its own attendant risks: the abductors are provoked to continuously escalate demands to unrealistic, even absurd, levels, till someone is forced to say no. Under those circumstances, the abductors may well be goaded to harm or execute one or more of their hostages, if only to demonstrate their ‘seriousness’.

The moral burden on the CMG and the negotiators, in these circumstances, is unrealistic and unjust, as any error of judgment may well constitute an inadvertent sentence of death for the hapless hostages.

In this situation, to condemn the Government for having ‘mishandled’ the situation – as some Opposition leaders, who were themselves part of the predecessor regime that did nothing to evolve a coherent policy of response, have done – is inappropriate. This Government’s responses have been no worse – and on some measures, may have been marginally better – than those of earlier regimes in comparable cases.

It is imperative, today, that a clear, detailed, unequivocal and unremitting policy for dealing with hostage situations be defined at the earliest. But this cannot happen unless the various political parties, which constitute the diverse coalitions that currently rule the country, realize how errors or inaction at one point of time in one part of the globe, can seriously affect the interests of the country at another point in time and space.

Historically, moreover, a hostage situation is considered to have been ‘resolved’ once the release of the victims has been secured. This is an error of perception that needs urgent correction. First, a ‘resolution’ can be considered to have occurred only after the security and political impact of the crime has been neutralized. Second, such crimes are ‘resolved’ only when the perpetrators and the organizations behind them are eventually brought to justice or otherwise neutralized. These considerations must be an integral part of a future policy of response.

(Published in The Week, August 22, 2004)





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