The release of three policemen who had been held captive for nine days by Maoists in Bihar's Lakhisarai district comes as a relief to their families and well-wishers. Without sounding like a damp squib, however, one should realise that providing such incremental relief could very well be a calibrated strategy of the Maoists.
If no long-term solution is sought and found by governments both in Maoist-affected states and at the Centre, what happened in Bihar can be the harbinger of many more such hostage situations.
It is important to take note of the relieved comments made by the released victims and their loved ones on Monday. One happy survivor of the ordeal explained that he was alive due to 'god's grace' and the 'blessings' of his parents and of his family. The wife of one of the policemen went as far as to thank her 'Maoist brothers' who released her husband.
In other words, the message that comes out of the mess is that it's in the sole power of the Maoists to 'giveth and taketh away'.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is the latest uncomfortable symbol of the State's inability to take the battle to the Maoists. India is no Israel or Russia. A policy of 'no negotiations with anti-State hostage takers' doesn't apply because no government is bold enough to bite the bit and short-circuit the fundamental source of political hostage-taking.
What didn't apply in 1999 Kandahar still doesn't apply in the 2010 India. So we have the spectre of the proverbial monster seeking out a blood sacrifice from the village folks - translated into real terms, more kidnappings in exchange of demands whether it be the release of captured Maoists or even policy changes.
At some point, state and central governments have to take a call on whether they want the Maoists to be the arbiters of the life and death of people who work for the State. Fear, like love, can be a powerful ingredient for loyalties in a terrain that is still coming to terms with differentiating between Maoist 'sympathisers' and 'victims'.
In all the celebrations around the release of the policemen, we should have the time and energy to ask the question that the family members of Lucas Tete, who was slain four days ago by the same Maoists, are now asking: why was Tete not shown the same 'humanitarian concern' that his more fortunate comrades were shown on Monday?
The answer lies in strategy, not in a sudden show of Maoist benevolence. India and its people should bear that in mind.