For a country that has been battling militancy for years, abductions are a nightmare that cannot be wished away. Unfortunately, the Centre has failed in handling such situations and the recent killing of Food Corporation of India (FCI) official PC Ram in Assam, allegedly in cross-fire between Ulfa militants and security forces, again proves this. Ram was abducted by militants on April 17 and Rs 21 crore sought as ransom. Later, their demand was changed to seeking the release of two Ulfa leaders. Thanks to the lack of credible guidelines on negotiations and poor intelligence gathering, Ram was in the clutches of the militants unduly long. Police denied that they knew Ram was with the group, but later added that they had an idea that the senior FCI officer was “somewhere in that area”.
There have been hundreds of similar abductions all over India that never make it to the front pages. If we take Assam alone, Home Ministry records show 82 abductions in 2001, 97 in 2002, 89 in 2003 and 27 in 2004. Considering one in six Indians lives under insurgency, it is criminal not to have a protocol on abductions in place. In 2005, India announced a no-nonsense policy that addresses terror in the skies: no negotiations with terrorists, directives to ground hijacked aircraft and authorisation for the air force to shoot down the plane. But abductions, especially internal, have been glossed over. This lack of stated policy and not knowing who takes the call in times of crisis has led to goof-ups that have often resulted in avoidable deaths.
There will always be a surprise element in the way abductions happen and there can be no hard-and-fast rule on how to deal with different situations. But we do need a framework within which trained negotiators can operate and rescue operations are conducted. There is always a possibility of failure and room for manoeuvre should be allowed to the person handling the crisis. Today, local police officials handle hostage situations even though they are not trained to do so. The government needs to create the capacity and structure for an effective mechanism. Finally, political interference should be minimised and the focus should be on saving the life of the person kidnapped.