The recent kidnapping of two Italians (one of them has been released) and a legislator in Orissa by the Maoists has again brought up a question that has been confronting successive Indian governments for the last 25 years: how should the Indian State tackle a hostage crisis, be it involving the Maoists or terrorists? Should the State negotiate with such groups or follow a no-negotiation policy on hostages? Even though a 2006 guideline of the Union home ministry bars negotiations in a hostage situation, the hard reality for a democratic country like India, with competing political forces at play, is that a firm no is fraught with difficulty. Starting with the 1989 abduction of Rubaiya Sayeed by Kashmiri militants to last year’s abduction of IAS officer V Krishna, not to forget the infamous IC 814 case, parties in power have faced enormous pressure to negotiate. There is another facet to such cases: the families of the security forces often oppose releasing arrested Maoists/terrorists in exchange for the abducted people, as we have seen this time too. Thanks to such different and competing emotions and demands, India can no longer afford the luxury of continuing with a policy of ad hocism on this crucial issue.
There is no dishonour in negotiating — even the so-called 'hard' State, Israel, had to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners to get back the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit last year. But what India needs, even to negotiate effectively, are professionals who know the business well. For example, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation has a crisis negotiation unit that manages such requirements. So does Israel. But unfortunately in India, negotiations are left to well-meaning individuals who may have sympathies for the Maoist cause. While the political leaders should decide on the 'give and take' details, negotiators should be employed to be the go-between and also to buy crucial time.
India has not managed a unified policy till now because of the lack of a cohesive political approach on security-related issues. While the BJD-led Orissa government has been complaining about the fact that the Congress-led UPA government has not been helpful enough in tackling the latest hostage crisis, let's not forget how its chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, along with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, objected to the setting up of the proposed anti-terror hub, the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), saying that it would infringe upon the states' powers. It is in the interest of all that India takes a unified approach against terror, no matter where it emanates from. We cannot start putting the house in order when the danger is at the door. We have to keep it fortified well in advance.