Her hair is pulled back tightly in much the same way as her grief and her rage are firmly contained within her tiny frame. Her face does not betray her deep trauma and when she speaks it's almost a steely whisper, dignified and economical with words. I'm listening to Sunita Induwar, whose husband
- a police inspector - was abducted by the Maoists and then beheaded - leaving behind their 10-year-old to confront the brutality inflicted on his father. Extraordinarily - Sunita has never dwelt on the fact of her husband's headless body being left on a highway, tossed aside like the remains of the day. Instead, she has always fallen back on common sense - asserting that the Maoists must not repeat such grisly acts that would widow women and orphan children; pleading with the administration to provide more transparent governance and better amenities so that the citizenry is not alienated. Her focus has always been on how to stop the next crisis before it erupts.
But as we lurch from abduction to abduction - each one played out in the full and dangerous gaze of the media, each one diminishing the authority of the State for its inability to set the terms of negotiation - we appear to be living one headline at a time and learning nothing much in the rare moments of peace. The public debate around what the right response is to a hostage situation has got trapped in the dialectics of TV debates that thrive on artificial binaries of 'For' and 'Against.' Yet, both the truth about what is possible and what is not, as well as the national consensus on what ought to be done is reasonably self-evident. Most of us do not believe that there can be a one-size-fits-all hostage policy that will apply across situations and types. Even Israel - considered the anti-thesis of a soft State - most recently released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to bring home a soldier from a five-year-long captivity.
In India, the state considered to be the toughest in its treatment of Naxal violence - Raman Singh-ruled Chhattisgarh - is now involved in complex negotiations to secure the release of abducted Sukma collector, Alex Paul Menon. Speaking realistically, most of us understand that often there may be no alternative to such negotiations. What is more important, instead, is to focus on the absence of trained negotiators for such situations. And what is even more important is what happens after a hostage is released. That is the time to put into place institutional mechanisms to prevent the next abduction, instead of breathing easy when one crisis ends happily and hyperventilating when the next one - never too far away - is at your door.
It is true that while we are pragmatic as a people about the need to talk to hostage-takers in many circumstances - we see negotiation as distinct from abject surrender. Negotiation involves a give-and-take algorithm driven by strategic calculations. Surrender is a form of humiliation and defeat. For instance, I don't have a problem with the Naveen Patnaik government acceding to some demands made by the Maoists to secure the release of their MLA Jhina Hikaka. But, if it is true that resigning from the Legislative Assembly will be the cost of his freedom, then that is an affront to the very notion of democracy.
It has been instructive for me to meet some of the passengers who were on-board the ill-fated IC-814 more than a decade ago. I had expected them to be filled with acute bitterness at the criticisms heaped upon the decision to swap dreaded terrorists in exchange for their security. I thought they would say no one could imagine the agony of what they went through unless they were there on that plane. Instead, Romesh Grover - a Delhi-based businessman - was firm in his pronouncement that what happened was wrong - even if it meant that it bought him his life. He spoke of the operational failure to stop the plane at Amritsar. But Grover - who has saved the boarding pass and the clothes he wore in captivity to mark that moment in his life - also spoke of living with the guilt and anger he felt at Masood Azhar's release from a prison in Kashmir, especially after the attack on Parliament.
So, there is, in fact, national consensus on a number of things. We have no patience for the romanticism of Maoist violence in the name of the poor. Abduction as a form of protest has to be condemned unequivocally. Security personnel who operate in these areas remain for the most part unsung, unappreciated and under-prepared in infrastructure and amenities. Equally, we expect the State to be accountable for its excesses and failures. Reports, for instance, that the police investigating the abduction of the Sukma collector thrashed innocent villagers as they sat down to a frugal lunch of rice further erode the credibility of institutions already under attack. Incentives have to be created for the few good men (and women) working honestly in the tribal interiors of the Red Belt. The whisper campaign that suggests that Alex Paul Menon is somehow responsible for his own trauma because he was warned that he may be kidnapped is unacceptable. Are we now to punish a young bureaucrat for doing his job - after all he was addressing a village gram sabha when he was taken prisoner?
And what is absolutely unacceptable to the people of India is the politicisation of the debate around the Maoist challenge. In any case, a dire hostage situation is a great leveller in the way that it challenges stated ideologies and positions, rendering them almost irrelevant, pulling down every political party onto a grim level playing field. Will our politicians still wait for the next crisis to unite them?
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.