The philosopher George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He was probably talking about Indians, even though he did not quite say it. The Orissa government’s decision to concede all fourteen demands of the Maoists, in exchange for its collector R. Vineel Krishna and junior engineer Pabitra Majhi, marks yet another surrender by an Indian state to the armed might of a militant group. Clearly we have learnt nothing from the fiasco of the IC 814 hijack of 1999 or the release of Rubaiya Sayeed in 1989.
In part, the problem seems to be in our muddled response to Maoism. Because they claim to speak on behalf of the people and have organised poor tribals to fight what they say are the depredations of the state, there is an assumption that they are some kind of Gandhians who use guns only when compelled to do so. That is simply not true and let us not fool ourselves: The Maoists have obtained their ends by threatening to execute the two officials. Looked at any way, this is an act of terrorism.
There will be people who will say that the Maoist demands were largely reasonable. That is true, but the masters of public relations that they are, they have taken care to camouflage their real demands—the release of imprisoned senior cadre—with the ones which show them as friends of the poor and the exploited. So, it is true that some good ends will be served by the episode—justice may be nudged a bit on behalf of tribals who lost their land because of a NALCO project, the Orissa government will harden its existing opposition to the Polavaram dam project in Andhra Pradesh, trumped up cases will be withdrawn against some tribal activists, and so on, so forth. But, all these have been obtained with the real threat of death hanging over two people.
The consequences of this surrender are bound to be negative. The next time the Maoists want to spring a colleague from jail, they will kidnap another functionary of the state, perhaps some lowly policeman and threaten to kill him. If the official is relatively junior, the state may not even react and the hapless person could be executed.
I wonder whether the alacrity with which the Orissa government acted had something to do with the fact that the officer in question is from the Indian Administrative Service, and that the officials advising the Chief Minister on the issue are also members of the same prestigious service which is known to look after its own to the exclusion of everyone else.
Another consequence of the state kneeling before the Maoists will be in the conduct of the anti-Maoist operations. Already, as one of the pre-conditions for the release, the government has suspended anti-Maoist operations in the jungles of Malkangiri. If Maoist cadre, presumably arrested after a great deal of effort by the police, can get away like this, why should the police personnel waste their time and effort, and risk their lives, in actively pursuing them ?
The penalty for the Orissa surrender could be long lasting. Even today the country is dealing with the consequences of releasing five Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front militants for the kidnapped daughter, Rubaiya, of the then Union Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed. This disastrous decision gave the still fledgling Kashmiri militancy its greatest boost in December 1989. For the first time, the Kashmiri militants felt, they had actually bested the Indian state. The result was that tens of thousands of young Kashmiris went across the Line of Control to receive arms training from the waiting Pakistani handlers.
Ironically, the militants had been on the verge of releasing Rubaiya anyway. The public opinion may have been heavily influenced by the JKLF’s azadi propaganda, but the outfit itself came under a great deal of social pressure for the dastardly act of holding a young woman hostage.
Yes, Kashmir was still in its age of innocence. Farooq Abdullah, then Chief Minister of the state was aware of this and he refused to release the jailed JKLF leaders, Hamid Sheikh, Sher Khan, Javed Ahmed Zargar, Noor Mohammed Kalwal and Mohammed Altaf Butt. However, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s ministerial colleagues in Delhi— Arun Nehru, I.K. Gujral and Arif Mohammed Khan—recommended to Prime Minister V.P. Singh that he be overruled and the JKLF militants were released.
The next historical lesson came from the IC 814 hijack. A passenger aircraft with 176 passengers aboard was returning from Kathmandu to Delhi when it was hijacked on December 24, 1999 by some Pakistani Harkat jihad-e- Islami terrorists. The authorities bungled in not being able to stop the aircraft when it landed in Amritsar, and so it went to Lahore, then Dubai and finally landed in Kandahar, then under the control of the Taliban. Twenty-seven passengers, including one Rupin Katyal— who had been stabbed several times and who later died— were released in Dubai.
On the ground, the aircraft was surrounded by Taliban personnel who claimed they were there to protect the aircraft and its passengers, but in reality had been deployed to prevent any Indian military action. After several days of negotiations, the hijackers obtained the release of Masood Azhar, a top terrorist leader who had been in jail since 1993, Ahmad Sayeed Omar Sheikh, a British-Pakistani terrorist who was in jail for kidnapping several foreigners in New Delhi in 1994, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, a Kashmiri militant leader under arrest since 1992.
After their release, Masood Azhar split with the Harkat jihad-e-Islami and set up the Jaish-e-Mohammed which was involved in the attack on the Parliament House in New Delhi in December 2001 and other terrorist acts. Sheikh’s career has been even more notorious. He was reportedly involved in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, as well as in the assassination plots against President Pervez Musharraf. He is currently in a Pakistani jail. Both Azhar and Zargar remain free.
The result of the IC814 hijack and the 9/11 incident in the United States in 2001 compelled New Delhi to adopt a tough anti-hijack policy. India would not negotiate with hijackers, authorities had pre-authorisation to immobilise aircraft on the ground, the air force would, under certain circumstances, shoot down an aircraft under the control of hijackers.
But the whole can only be the sum of the parts. The Union government can only do so much, the states need to do their bit, especially in the case of the Maoist movement which confronts the state with a complex problem. It feeds on poverty and deprivation and the systemic injustice and exploitation in many parts of the country. But it is also a fact that the leadership cadre of the Maoists are a bunch of cold blooded killers who ruthlessly run an empire of extortion and exploitation of their own.
There is little point in lamenting over what has happened. The Union and the Orissa state governments must now focus their efforts in retrieving the situation to the extent they can. Instead of going easy on the Maoists, they should press on with the anti-Maoist campaign.
This does not mean a relentless military effort, but a sophisticated strategy which separates the Maoist fish from the waters in which they are swimming through effective political engagement with the locals, more development work, better security for government officials, and an overall resolve to press the campaign into a fight to the finish.
Mail Today February 24, 2011