The huge furore over the meeting between Ved Prakash Vaidik – a former editor of a Hindi newspaper and now a Ramdev aide – and Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), brings to the fore the very vexed question of negotiating with terrorists that governments have to occasionally grapple with.
One thing is clear, notwithstanding the Congress’s allegations that the meeting was at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office: it is extremely unlikely that this encounter was a back-channel sortie of the Narendra Modi government.
As this analysis points out, back-channel contact is usually handled a lot more discreetly and not entrusted to figures like Vaidik who release pictures to the press and “become the story himself”. The Modi government may have a theoretical interest in communicating messages or threats to Saeed in an effort to forestall the possibility another major attack on India, but Vaidik is an unlikely vehicle for that purpose and it is inconceivable that PM Modi would risk undercutting his strongman image with such methods.
Given that home minister Rajnath Singh has emphatically ruled out negotiations with Maoist insurgents within India, the government’s hand in the Vaidik-Saeed meeting seems far-fetched.
The controversy does, however, prompt the larger question of dealing with terrorists, especially when it is in your interest. The practice is not as uncommon as one would think.
The release of 46 Indian nurses this month from the captivity of the group in Iraq that calls itself the Islamic State is a recent example. Indian authorities could not have ensured their release without a measure of direct transaction even though intermediaries in Saudi Arabia and Baath party figures and military commanders from the Saddam Hussein era were reportedly involved in the process.
There are, of course, numerous examples of “terrorists” graduating to the negotiating table. The US recently negotiated a prisoner exchange with the Taliban and has been willing to do a deal with the group under certain conditions, after 2194 American soldiers have died since 2001 fighting Afghan insurgents.
Israel called Yasser Arafat a terrorist for decades but negotiated with his Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) even while the group was orchestrating attacks against Israel. The Irish Republican Army’s Gerry Adams, once Britain’s most wanted terrorist, is now a mainstream politician with a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
India too negotiated a (failed) ceasefire in 2000 with the Hizbul Mujahideen, a group responsible for the death of numerous Indian soldiers in Kashmir. And the union government has been negotiating for nearly 17 years with Naga insurgents of the NSCN Isak-Muivah faction which previously waged war against the Indian state.
Security specialists point to several conditions that need to be met for discussions between adversaries to commence. A military stalemate between insurgents and the state usually provides the context for negotiations.
Both parties see little incentive in perpetuating violence and they are able to identify political payoffs that satisfies constituencies on both sides. Militants must renounce armed struggle openly to make talks politically acceptable for an elected government, while the latter discreetly scales back operations to build trust with the other side.
Time is another factor. Public memory needs to fade – crimes committed, say, a decade ago need to fade from public imagination so that unacceptable actors morph into newer identities. Political calculations to secure the future then, problematically, take precedence over demands for justice concerning the past.
These conditions are, of course, not relevant to Hafiz Saeed. He is an internationally designated terrorist and an ideological figure committed to waging war on India.
The LeT is believed to have attacked the Indian consulate at Herat in May and Saeed recently blamed India for US’s decision to designate Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) as a terrorist organisation. And public memory about Mumbai attacks is too vivid to countenance any contact or understanding with Saeed.
The Vaidik controversy, which may run its course soon, is an interesting reminder of the calculations governments need to make when dealing with militant groups. It may even offer Hafiz Saeed a glimpse of how unacceptable he is to world opinion, in case he plans to venture into mainstream politics should JuD’s funding ever choke.