The weak-kneed capitulation to forest brigand Veerappan adds to a growing list of incidents that reinforce Indias image as a "soft state". Going by the record, giving in to terrorist demands seems to be the rule rather than the exception. When push comes to shove, India always seems to be the first to blink.
Starting with the release of five militants in exchange for then home minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeeds daughter in 1989 - which inspired a series of copycat kidnappings - to the more recent hijacking of IC 814 and of course the lifting of terrorist cases against people Veerappan wants freed in exchange for actor Rajkumar, Indias capitulation to the whims of kidnappers, terrorists, hijackers and the like seem endless.
"Is India a country with clear goals, determination and willpower?" asks security analyst Brahma Chellaney. "Lack of these attributes would automatically make India a soft state. And any layman can tell you which side of the fence India is on. We have not even defined our national interests. There is international realisation that states have to compete for relative advantage. And in this competitive environment, nations that do not promote their core interests aggressively either fall by the wayside or are at a significant disadvantage," he asserts.
"After 1971, why have we remained at the receiving end from our principal regional adversaries? Why do they always seem to have an upper hand against us? This calls for serious reflection," says Chellaney. "And going by our track record over the past 50 years, if we remain on that course, we are courting more problems," he warns.
"When the other state has enough clout, India is a soft state. It is very strong when dealing with a state weaker than it. It is rather like a bully. It will buckle down and compromise if it needs to," says K.N. Panikkar of Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Veerappans is a classic case of compromise. But on Kashmir, our policy is very muddled. On the one hand they say make a compromise with the militants but on the other they dont want to talk to those who are crucial to making such a compromise work. It is a myopic political attitude. We are full of self-contradictions."
People in government have often been guilty of submitting before blackmail. Even though intelligence reports warned of trouble at Ayodhya in December 1991, then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao failed to act. And even as the Babri Masjid was being demolished, he played Nero. L.K. Advani, for all his tough posturing, could do little but talk peace with Bal Thackeray when he threatened to dig up cricket pitches and disrupt an India-Pakistan Test series. Then there was the instance of five Latvians, convicted in the Purulia arms-drop case, being granted Presidential pardon following pressure from old ally Russia.
"India is a also tough state in the sense that it fought an insurgency in the northeast for 20 years at a time China was fomenting rebellion and insurgency, or in Punjab where K.P.S. Gill fought bullet for bullet, as he put it." - prof Sumit Ganguly
"India is not a soft state but the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are. Its unworthy of any state government to cave in before the threats of a bandit." - M.G. vaidya
M.G. Vaidya, member of the rss central executive committee, however, feels that the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft and Veerappans demands cannot be bracketed together. "India is not a soft state but the governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are. Its unworthy of any state government to cave in before the threats of a bandit. Besides, if (Nakkheeran editor R.R.) Gopal could reach him and if Bisleri water could be provided to him in the jungle, then its obviously not impossible to nab Veerappan. Such governments have no moral right to govern," he says. "The hijacking was different. The drama largely happened on foreign soil and there was every chance of the passengers being killed. But while we can understand the Taliban or Pakistan not cooperating with us, why cant the two state governments cooperate and nab this bandit?" But Vaidya concedes both instances send "wrong signals, that anybody can dent our resolution and there is every chance of undermining the states authority."
"Operation Bluestar was a rear-guard action, an action of last resort. As for the Maldives, it was done under US encouragement and with it blessings as (US President) Reagan did not want to get involved. We are not just a soft state but a fluffy state." - Brahma Chellaney
"When the other state has enough clout, India is a soft state. Otherwise it is very strong when dealing with a state weaker than itself. We are full of self-contradictions." - K.N. Panikkar
Prof Sumit Ganguly of the University of Texas, however, feels "India is both a soft state as well as a hard state. It is soft partly because politicians are concerned about a backlash from the voters for taking hard decisions. Like when people were wailing outside the PMs house during the Kandahar hijacking crisis and the Congress went to town with the situation. There was a similar sort of fear of backlash during the kidnapping of Mufti Mohammad Sayeeds daughter. But that situation included a feudal mentality as well. You could not sacrifice the daughter of a Union home minister but you could sacrifice a poor mans daughter. Even the 50 years of namby-pamby socialism have not rooted out feudalism. Third, there is a degree of organisational slackness. India is great at conceiving plans but putting them into effect seems problematic. For example, why were there no contingency plans for the hijacking? Supposedly we do have some sort of hijacking police - all major nations nowadays have plans for such crises. Four, Indians are truly the worlds best crisis managers - they can deal with immediate plans like floods, disease and so on. But there is no follow-through once the crisis is over."
But he adds, "India is (also) a hard state in the sense that it fought an insurgency in the northeast for 20 years at a time China was fomenting rebellion and insurrection in the country. Or in the Punjab when K.P.S. Gill fought bullet for bullet as he put it, or when India tested nuclear weapons, or when we crushed the Naxalite movement in West Bengal in the 70s."
"We can be called a lax state rather than a soft state," says retired major general Ashok Krishna of the Institute of Peace and Conflict studies. "We need to take the activities of the isi more seriously. And we should get our judicial processes to work much faster. What happened with Mufti Mohammad Sayeeds daughter was wrong - even there it was a form of corruption among the politicians which led to that situation. In the case of the hijacking, we dont really know what the limitations were under which Jaswant Singh was acting which led to the release of the militants. But after their release we should have gone ahead and trapped and killed them. That is what the Israelis would have done."
There are some, however, who feel that being "soft" is part and parcel of being the worlds largest democracy and that when occasion demands, India can be tough and ruthless. They cite examples like Operation Bluestar, the sending of troops to Bangladesh in 1971 and to the Maldives and Sri Lanka as evidence of Indias ability to be tough when necessary. "Basically, the collective attitude of any civil society about exercising coercive power or force depends on its culture, its ethos, and its social and moral value systems," says former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit. "India, with its Hindu majority, is basically tolerant, with an inclination towards peaceful compromises and an aversion towards decisiveness and violence. All this gets reflected in its policies and attitude, especially so in a democratic form of government. Therefore, India is generally a soft state but when subject to extreme provocation and direct and immediate threats, it can react with strength." Citing the ipkf operation in Sri Lanka, Dixit says: "Going in was a hard decision. Pulling out was a soft one."
"I dont think that India is being a soft state when it comes to an issue like Veerappan. I think it is being an emotional state," says Gen Krishna. "Our processes of justice are very slow and the criminalisation of politics is what has led to the Veerappan case. There were many chances to capture him in the past but corrupt politicians got in the way. These same politicians are now trying to play on the voters sentiment. In the case of Kashmir," he adds, "we are pursuing a correct but not ruthless policy. Its a policy of restraint and must not be misconstrued as ruthless. We dont want the locals to be caught in the crossfire. But when we heard about the camps for the terrorists across the border, set up by the Lashkar and the Harkat, we should have got ready in a better way. We should have got our act together much quicker. We should be less reactive and more proactive."
But Chellaney is quick to rubbish the examples of India being a hard state. "Operation Bluestar was a rear-guard action, an action of last resort. As for the Maldives, it was done under US encouragement and blessings, since Reagan did not want the US to get involved. We are not just a soft state but in fact a fluffy state," he concludes.