The Maoists have been increasingly resorting to abduction as one of their tactics for cowing down the State and society and for demonstrating their ability to enforce their will on the State.
The recent incidents of abduction of two Italian nationals and a member of the legislative Assembly of Odisha to force the State--unfortunately successfully-- to concede their demands for the release of some arrested Maoists have been followed by the abduction of Alex Paul Menon, the32-year-old Collector of Sukma district in Chattisgarh, on April 21,2002.
Citing Ram Nivas, Additional Director of Police in charge of Naxal operations in the state, media reports have stated that a group of 20 Maoists killed the two personal security officers of the Collector and abducted him while he was having a meeting with some villagers in the Majhipara village of the district. The Collector had reportedly gone to the village on a motorcycle as part of a Government-initiated campaign to wean the villagers away from the Maoists. S.K.Vaidya, a Sub-Divisional Magistrate, who had accompanied the Collector, was not abducted.
The young Collector, like other officers of different services serving in the areas affected by the Maoist insurgency in different states of India, deserves the highest praise from the citizens of this country for his personal courage and devotion to public service. Unmindful of the dangers faced by him, Menon had kept up his village touring in order to interact with the people and address their grievances against the state. It is the courage and devotion of officers like Menon which gives us hope that we will ultimately prevail over the Maoists despite the gloomy situation that prevails at present. It is important to underline this before discussing the options available to the state in dealing with the use of repeated abductions as a tactic by the Maoists.
Denying success to rural insurgents operating from forests who indulge in such tactics is always much more difficult than denying success to urban terrorists who operate from urban hideouts. Collection of preventive and operational human intelligence is more difficult in rural areas --particularly with a heavy forest cover--than in an urban area. Technical intelligence is equally difficult to come by since rural insurgents do not use modern means of communication like the urban terrorists do.
Confronted with a situation of almost zero intelligence regarding the specific plans of the Maoists, the only preventive option is a heavy security cover for touring officers and political leaders and a saturated security presence in the areas worst affected by the insurgency. It is not an uncharitable criticism of the young officer to state that one was surprised that Menon ventured into an area reportedly heavily affected by the insurgency with a very thin security cover. One is not certain whether Menon was accompanied by a police contingent in addition to his two personal security officers. Apparently not, because otherwise, there might have been an encounter between the police contingent and the Maoists who came to abduct him.
It is important for our officers and political leaders to keep travelling in those areas without letting themselves be cowed down by the insurgents. At the same time, they should ensure that they do not neglect the importance of a heavy security cover in the form of personal security officers and a protection contingent which would provide area protection.
Touring officers and political leaders probably avoid a heavy protection contingent as the presence of a large number of policemen in their entourage might unnerve the villagers and defeat the purpose of their touring for interaction with the people. But this cannot be helped. There is no point in venturing out into such areas without a satisfactory security cover.
The Maoists have also been abducting not only public servants, but also innocent civilians as one saw in the case of the two Italian tourists. It would become difficult for the state to provide dedicated protection to all civilians who have to travel in the areas under the control of the Maoists. All that the State can do is to brief them periodically on the dangers that they might face and what precautions they should take.
The Maoists have been using two tactical weapons effectively in their attempts to intimidate public servants and discourage them from touring-- the use of road mines and abduction. We still do not seem to have an effective answer to deal with the use of landmines by them. This calls for action on various planes such as preventing the flow of explosive material and mines into the hands of the Maoists and effective mine-clearing operations in the areas where the Maoists are active.
To ensure that normal village administration and village touring for interactions with the villagers is not affected by the intimidatory tactics of the Maoists, we should provide helicopters to all districts in the areas affected by the insurgency.
There is no satisfactory answer to the question as to how to deal with an abduction in a rural or forest area. The basic principle is never concede the demands of the insurgents to secure the release of the abducted persons. Once a person is abducted, various pressures start operating on the political leadership and the administration--from the relatives, sections of the political class itself, human rights activists etc. It becomes difficult for the political leadership to resist these pressures and stick doggedly to the principle of not conceding the demands of the insurgents, come what may.
Dealing with abductions is partly a game of patience, partly a psychological game and partly a game of calculated risks. Patient negotiations with those involved in the abduction are necessary to give the police and the intelligence agencies time to collect intelligence and to the special intervention forces to prepare themselves for a possible rescue operation. The psychological game involves giving the abductors cause for hope that the state may concede their demands while sticking to the principle of not doing so. The game of calculated risks is about undertaking a rescue operation if there are reasonable chances of success.
The difficulties faced by our political leadership in dealing with an abduction in a rural or forest areas arises from two factors-- the lack of precise intelligence as to where the abductors have kept their captive and the absence of a specially trained force for interventions in the rural and forest areas. The National Security Guards is more a special intervention force for urban than for rural areas or forests. The time has come for us to think in terms of a special intervention force for rural areas and forests.
Ultimately, the decision as to what the state has to do has to be taken by the political leaders and professionals jointly. There will always be political and public criticism of their final decision. If they concede the demands of the abductors they will be accused of being soft. If they stand firm and the victim is killed by the abductors they will be accused of being heartless and incompetent. It is an occupational hazard for a public servant having to deal with terrorism or insurgency. He should act according to his best judgement unmindful of the brickbats that might follow.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies