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The weak are never at peace

Even as news of the release of the three Indian hostages in Iraq was breaking, a crisis on a monumental scale was unfolding in Russia, where some 350 people, including over 200 school children, were taken hostage in a school in North Ossetia, by Chechen terrorists. A day earlier, on August 31, Islamist terrorists of the Ansar-al-Sunna slaughtered 12 Nepali hostages in cold blood, sparking misdirected retaliatory violence in the Himalyan kingdom.

Clearly, even as the three Indian hostages are brought home amidst the Government's celebration of its "success" in securing their release after 42 days in captivity, it is now time to face the hostages issue-and India's persistent lack of coherence of response and policy-frontally. The Government has, against this backdrop, finally made some noises about defining a policy on hostage situations.

But this is hardly the first time that we have been faced with this acute predicament; nor, indeed, is such wisdom-after-the-event anything new. The Government has certainly made such grand declarations of intent in he past as well. After the disgraceful outcome of the IC 814 hijacking, in which the Government abjectly capitulated to terror, it will be recalled, the then Home Minister had declared, "never again", and had promised 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 the conduct of the Government in the Iraq hostage "crisis" around the three abducted truck drivers demonstrated, once again, that India remains just as vulnerable to intimidation and blackmail today. The Government has, of course, sought to maintain a fig leaf of respectability by arguing that it did not "directly negotiate" with the terrorists-but this is both unconvincing and, given the very high profile political projections through the course of the hostage drama, untenable.

Worse still, the sheer hysteria generated by the abduction of just three truckers in Iraq-a hysteria that was substantially reflected in the almost daily Government statements, often at very high levels, that were issued through the crisis, as well as the overreaction surrounding the return of the hostages to India-signals that we are far from an realistic appraisal of the enormity of the potential threat we confront.

The current crisis in Russia- with the lives of hundreds of children at stake-is an indicator of the scale, as well as the emotional and moral burden, a hostage situation can impose on those who are charged with dealing with such situations. Indeed, the Russian record, both of hostage takers and of state responses, is truly extraordinary, and deserves close examination by those who plan to define India's policies and tactics to deal with such situations. On October 25, 2002, Chechen rebels took 800 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. All 41 attackers were shot dead, and 129 hostages also died as a result of the anaesthetic used to immobilise the terrorists.

Earlier, on Janurary 16, 1996, six Turks and three Russians held 255 hostages on a ferry in the Black Sea, but were forced to surrender after three days. On January 9, 1996, militants seized as many as 3,000 hostages in Kizlyar. They were eventually attacked by Russian troops, and at least 78 persons were killed. On June 14, 1995, rebels took 2,000 hostages in Budyonnovsk. In this case, Russia eventually negotiated the release of hostages in exchange for the rebels' escape, but more than 100 persons were killed during the crisis.

In comparable situations, India's leadership would inspire little confidence. Hysteria, compounded by confused and ad hoc responses, has been characteristic of the state's reaction to most high profile hostage situations in the past. 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 10 incidents of hijacking of Indian passenger planes, 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.

In a realistic discourse on a policy, it will be sufficient to simply articulate a generalised "no negotiations" policy, or a determination to look into "related aspects like subsequent action and assessment of captors" capabilities. It will be necessary, rather, to confront the most horrific possibilities that could manifest themselves-including one that was almost realized in India during the December 13, 2001, attack on India's Parliament. The equipment and explosives that the terrorists had brought to that incident appeared to suggest that their intent was to hold a large number of Members of Parliament, including possibly some Ministers. What would be the state's response if, not just three poor truckers, but rather such an assembly was held hostage? Or, again, if the lives of several hundred school children-particularly in an upper class school in one of the metropoli, even the capital-were threatened.

Hard answers will have to be given to the many questions of morality, policy and tactics raised by these horrific possible scenarios. 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, realise 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. The fight against terrorism needs an ideological commitment far beyond the political expediency that currently dominates our polity, as also the policies of most other countries.

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 organisations behind them are eventually brought to justice or otherwise neutralised. These considerations must be an integral part of a future policy of response.

Crucially, moreover, there can be no coherent policy for "hostage situations" in the absence of a coherent counter-terrorism strategy and policy. You cannot tackle terrorism by responding only after terrorists act. They must be engaged and neutralized where they originate. If we keep trying to tackle terrorism at the nodes of its greatest intensity, it will be constantly replenished, and will last forever. But to direct our efforts at the points of origin will require immense clarity of vision and the courage to act, persistently, consistently, and on principle, against state and non-state entities that constitute the support base and breeding grounds of terror.

Regrettably, we are everywhere witness to the spectacle of the state negotiating on its knees-with terrorists, with states that sponsor terrorism, with front organisations of terrorists. And everywhere, the liberal democratic state seeks to mask its growing weakness by negotiating opportunistic "deals" with the very entities that threaten the most fundamental principles of its existence.

The harsh truth is that the weak are never at peace. This is as true of nations as it is of men; it is not a choice, or a moral predicament, but an inexorable law of nature.

(Published in The Pioneer, September 4, 2004)





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