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#1444, 27 July 2004
Policy to Counter Hostage-taking
Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee
Director, IPCS

The recent incident of three Indians taken hostage in Iraq has highlighted once again the dangerous world we live in. Hostages have been taken throughout history. What makes it so urgent today is its increasing link with international terrorism. This evil is spreading and few nations will be spared its terrible impact. It is important to be clear about what it entails and how to respond.


Kidnapping and hostage taking have emerged as a major weapon of coercion in Iraq. It is also often a purely criminal act for profit. Absence of law and order, enormous quantities of readily available weapons, little employment and something of a ‘cause’, provide enough cover for it to flourish. It is to be hoped that this situation will end well, for it appears to be a criminal act and there is little leverage with the terrorists. But, the Indian state has the responsibility and indeed a duty to protect its citizens wherever they are and whatever be their conditions and take necessary counter measures. 


Let us have no illusion that this will be the last incident in Iraq or elsewhere. Hence, it is time to ponder Indian doctrine and policy to deal with such an eventuality. I suggest we have had neither in the past and have responded entirely in an ad hoc manner and seldom effectively.  


The Rubaiyya Sayyid kidnapping in December 1989 is perhaps the worst example in recent history anywhere. The complete capitulation of the Indian state was arguably the single most important cause for the subsequent insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. It also set a terrible precedence. By meeting every demand of the terrorists, the Government sent a clear message everywhere that it will surrender if its senior officials were to be the victims. A decade later at the Millennium eve aircraft hijack case, the plea of the victims’ families was that no difference should be made now in their case. The Indian state then not only capitulated once again, but the foreign minister personally escorted the released criminals to Kandahar. The errors of commission and omission in both situations were staggering.


It is important and necessary to be clear about future action. National response has to be at two distinct levels.  One is operational, that is the mechanisms and procedures for response. This will include clear responsibilities, designated channels of command, well trained capabilities, necessary resources, fine tuning modalities for operation, creating competence in negotiating techniques and others. But, this cannot operate without clarity at the first level, that of doctrine and policy.


Faced with blackmail through hostages what should be the national response? There can only be one single option. That is: never ever surrender to the blackmail demands of criminals. A sovereign nation that values its honour, independence and respect among the comity of nations and wishes for independence of action, cannot allow itself to be held to ransom. Besides, submitting to the demands of terrorists is not a policy, but the absence of policy and capitulation only encourages future blackmail. There is no dearth of examples from around the world that shows clearly how each situation of surrender only encourages future hostage taking. The national doctrine in hostage situations must then be a clear no surrender policy.


This does not entail that there will be no negotiation. Indeed, skilful negotiation is an integral part of tactics in evolving a rescue plan and to break down the resistance of the terrorists. But, at all times there should be a clear resolve that there will be no surrender to blackmail.


Following from that, the state must declare, whatever the condition, wherever the terrorists, the nation will make every effort and spare no resource to bring them to justice. This will not merely be informing the Interpol, but exploring the possibility of every overt and covert means to bring pressure on the gangs as well as individuals who perpetrate these acts. There will be issues of international law as well as other constraints over operations and it is not my contention that these should be violated. But within reasonable limits every effort must be made to respond pro-actively.


This will not be a policy that will be easy to sell at home. Long used to a soft state which can be pressured over every factional interest and which has succumbed to pressures more often than it has resisted, a sudden shift in policy will be neither easy to declare nor implement. But, then we are today in a new war, which is being fought with new rules or perhaps absence of rules, where there are no clear frontiers and no recognisable enemy. Given these ambiguities in today’s world, doctrinal clarity and clear policy are vital for national security.

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