It has to be one of the most lop-sided swap deals used to end any hostage situation. The Odisha government agreed to release 27 prisoners, including eight hard core Maoists, in a tradeoff for an Italian national and a state lawmaker held captive by the Left ultras. Early last year, the same government had capitulated in similar fashion after the Maoists abducted Malkangiri collector Vineel Krishna.
'Abject capitulation' is a harsh expression considering the circumstances and sentiments involved in abduction cases, but given the propensity of the Naveen Patnaik government to surrender meekly every time there’s a challenge from the Maoists, nothing describes its actions better. By agreeing to a skewed deal the government has not bought even temporary peace. The hostages might be released unharmed soon, but the Maoists now know they hold the upper hand with Patnaik. So where will it all end?
The same question was put to the government by experts when it decided to drop charges against some top-ranked Maoists in exchange for the release of Vineel Krishna. They had warned the government that it would encourage more abductions. Even Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had cautioned the Odisha government against entering into negotiations with kidnappers. The Union Home Ministry’s guidelines bar any negotiations in a hostage situation.
Abductions by Maoists have grown to crisis proportions. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, there were 923 abductions by Maoists between 2005 and 2011. The motive is mainly to secure the release of the leaders and workers of the outfits. It has helped them that governments have shown no spine against their blackmailing tactics and efforts to drive a hard bargain.
What makes the governments so miserable? To begin with, the country does not have professional negotiators. Second, there’s little coordination between the Centre and the Maoist-infested states at the government level; third, there are not enough go-betweens at the local levels to facilitate easing of tension; and fourth, there’s no serious will to tackle the Maoist problem at any level.
The Union Home Ministry’s no-negotiation policy is hare-brained in the first place. It is not possible for the governments concerned to wash their hands of the abduction victims and watch Maoists kill them. Yes, such a policy sends a tough message to the kidnappers but it is unimaginable that a government would stay inactive in a crisis situation like this, particularly when there is public pressure to act.
Negotiators are crucial in any hostage situation. They bridge the trust deficit between both the parties. A skillful negotiator seeks to secure the safety of the victims by making both the government and the abductors engage in conversation. They can make the abductors scale down their demands and make these acceptable to the other side. They can also help kill time, which makes rescue operations easier.
In Odisha, the government and Maoists are still negotiating about negotiators -- the former have refused to accept some negotiators proposed by the latter and the Maoists have done the same in case of a few negotiators of the government. Before they could come into play, the government has announced the release of jailed Maoists. The faction of the Maoists which kidnapped MLA Jhina Hikaka refuses any negotiation with the government. The latter, meanwhile, is busy in talks with another faction which kidnapped two Italians and subsequently released one. The scene on the negotiation front is dismal indeed.
The Centre and the state haven’t quite spoken after the kidnappings happened. Both are busy blaming each other for non-cooperation. Egos, obviously, are at play here. This is not the way to tackle a menace of such serious proportions spreading across several states. It only allows the Maoists to get bolder. By now they realise they could use abduction as a policy instrument in their ideology.
The Odisha government might have bought temporary reprieve. But rest assured there would be a repeat of the kidnappings soon.