Chhattisgarh model offers template for hostage talks
Home minister P. Chidambaram is examining the possibility of evolving a uniform hostage policy as a consequence of the increasingly frequent abductions of government officers and civilians by Maoists.
In Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Odisha and most recently in Chhattisgarh, the Maoists demanded that the state governments release their imprisoned cadres in exchange for hostages.
The Chhattisgarh government's handling of the recent hostage crisis could provide a template not only for a general hostage policy but for tackling the after-effects of police highhandedness.
In both Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the state governments chose to negotiate instead of mounting an armed operation. However, certain advantages of the Chhattisgarh model of negotiation stand out.
The Odisha government gave in to the Maoist demands for releasing their jailed cadres in the recent kidnapping of two Italians and an MLA, Jhina Hikaka. This policy of capitulation had been followed earlier in February 2011 when the district collector of Malkangiri, Ravella Vineel Krishna, and a junior engineer, Pabitra Majhi, were abducted.
The Odisha government, like the Andhra government earlier, used its own officers to directly negotiate hostage release. That left the government with very little room to manoeuvre as any commitment by officers, even in informal discussions, got sanctified and could not be re-negotiated.
Moreover, negotiations by government officials in Odisha made the political leadership of the state — especially chief minister Naveen Patnaik — directly responsible for the safety of the hostages. If things went wrong, he would bear the brunt of criticism. Even if he succeeded — and success is difficult to measure in a panic-driven situation to concede Maoist demands — he would still be called weak-kneed.
The Chhattisgarh negotiations were a departure from this model and surprised even the critics of the BJP which is usually raring to go against the Maoists.
The Raman Singh government did not release any Maoist prisoners in advance and yet managed to secure the safe release of the kidnapped district collector of Sukma, Alex Paul Menon. It also set in motion a process with the potential to address a major grievance of the Maoists — indiscriminate arrests and jailing of innocent tribals after every clash with the Maoists.
The Chhattisgarh government set up a cabinet sub-committee to oversee the negotiations. This committee included all potential critics from within the government. Besides Kedar Kashyap, a minister from Bastar, it comprised three other leaders who could have challenged the chief minister in case the negotiations failed — home minister Nanakiram Kanwar and two former home ministers, Brijmohan Agarwal and Ramvichar Netam. Once they were on board, the success or failure of the negotiations would be a collective one.
The Opposition was also made a stakeholder by calling an all-party meeting which put its weight behind the negotiations. This effectively prevented party politics impacting the hostage crisis.
The negotiation was not conducted by serving government officers. Once the Maoists named their mediators — former IAS officer B.D. Sharma and later, professor Hargopal from Andhra Pradesh — named after lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former MLA Manish Kunjam of the Communist Party of India refused to mediate on their behalf — the government also chose interlocutors with experience both in government and civil society organisations.
It chose Nirmala Buch, a former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh who had worked for more than two decades in the NGO sector and the former chief secretary of Chhattisgarh, S.K. Mishra. Buch was senior enough to command the respect of Maoist mediator and former civil servant Sharma. In this way, just as the Maoists were once removed from the negotiations, so was the state government.
The cabinet sub-committee did not get involved in the details of the negotiations. Instead, it chose to provide only broad guidelines to the government's interlocutors, leaving them free to explore options.
Simultaneously, the top political leadership of the state and the bureaucracy established direct contact with the hostage's family.
CPI leader Manish Kunjam was persuaded to take up the humanitarian mission of carrying medicines for the captive district collector to where the Maoists were keeping him.
Constant dialogue ensured that the family did not issue desperate public statements converting the crisis into another Peepli Live and collector Menon into a hapless Nathhu, derailing the negotiations.
The Maoists' demands were known — stop Operation Green Hunt, release innocent tribals arrested in false cases from Dantewada and Raipur jails, remove the names of the accused in a case involving an attack on a Congress leader in Konta subdivision, and release eight Maoist prisoners whose names were duly provided.
The government reassured the Maoist negotiators that no pro-active operations by the state forces were going on against the insurgents. The Maoists wanted immediate release of their eight comrades once negotiations began. They were told that the release of prisoners through a fiat was unconstitutional and that it was a Maoist misperception that the judiciary was a handmaiden of the executive.
The state was, however, willing to establish a framework for speeding up the prosecution and investigation of those in jail. While the courts could release the prisoners, the possibility of withdrawing cases or not opposing bail would be reviewed in each case on its merits.
The government interlocutors proposed a four-step plan: One, collector Menon be released forthwith; two, the government set up an empowered committee to review all cases of those languishing in jail; and three, this committee be notified within one hour of the hostage being released; and four, the committee start its work immediately. The two sides decided that Nirmala Buch would head the review committee and its other members would be the state's chief secretary and the director-general of police.
The Maoists were thus offered a transparent process instead of releasing their comrades as a quid pro quo. While the review would cover prisoners in all jails, they were assured that the tribal areas would get priority. The agreement was then cleared by the cabinet sub-committee and the cabinet informed.
Thus the resolution reached was also broad-based within the government.
Menon was released two days after the agreement was signed by the interlocutors. At 6.55pm on May 3, he called the chief secretary and the chief minister from his personal mobile phone informing them that he had been freed. Five minutes later, at 7pm the review committee was notified.
The committee began its work at 8pm the same night and by midnight it had cleared 22 cases, recommending bail in four cases. One of them got bail on May 9. The Maoist interlocutors have given a list of only 117 cases for review but the committee will go through all cases in Chhattisgarh jails.
The "Chhattisgarh strategy" then involved finding a broader institutionalised solution to an issue which continues to alienate the tribal population. It situates the problem raised by the Maoists — of police high-handedness in insurgency affected areas — in a larger context. Its success, however, will have to be judged in the long run to see how many innocent but jailed tribals are eventually released.
As for the immediate hostage crisis it faced, in the end, neither the state nor its political leadership was damaged. This would have been the case even if the negotiations had failed.