Published on Mon, Dec 01, 2008 at 16:13 , Updated at Thu, Dec 04, 2008 at 13:04
Source : Network18 biz magazine special
MUMBAI: If terror groups had hoped to force India into negotiations with last week's terror attacks in Mumbai, they were disappointed. Departing from past practice, the government stoutly refused to hold talks with terrorists and went on the counter offensive from the first minute.
Even as hundreds were being held hostage at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Oberoi-Trident and Chabad House, Maharashtra police chief Anami Narayan Roy made it clear in a telephone interview with Network18 that there would be no negotiations.
According to newspaper reports, Deccan Mujahideen, the group that claimed responsibility for the strikes, wanted to negotiate. “Ask the government to talk to us and we will release the hostages,” a man who identified himself as Imran Babar and a member of the terrorist group, said in a call to a television station.
These reports could not be confirmed independently and the police chief said the terrorists had not attempted to start talks, but the policy was clear from the start. “Our policy is to not negotiate.”
This is a marked change from years past, in which India has readily entered into negotiations in hostage situations. Most painfully memorable is the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814. The government was forced on its knees during the negotiations. It had to release three militants in exchange for the release of 155 hostages.
One of the released men went on to create Jaish-e-Mohammad, a major Islamic terrorist organisation in South Asia, and a second was later convicted of murdering US journalist Daniel Pearl. That is the price India and the world paid for negotiating with terrorists. The current policy of the Indian government may have been shaped by that bitter lesson.
Peter R Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London, says, “This (hijacking) is the thing that politicians are thinking about right now. They look backwards, and they also know there is a precedent to set going forward.”
Terrorism experts agree that when a government chooses to negotiate with terrorists, they risk setting a dangerous precedent of yielding to their demands.
“If a government releases the prisoners when demanded, there is a vicious snowball effect globally,” says Aaron Richman, co-director of the Institute of Terrorism Research in Response in Jerusalem. “In future incidents, the terrorists know they can succeed by negotiation.”
The 1999 negotiation response may have also inspired subsequent terrorism attacks, says Neumann. “Governments who have not negotiated have had fewer terrorist situations, because then people know they will not negotiate.”
But Neumann also says that every government or police force wants to initiate some kind of communication with terrorists. “As long as they are kept talking, less people are killed and the government and police force can buy time to prepare their rescue operation.”
Even as rescue operations were underway at all the three locations, the Indian government never openly communicated with the terrorists. Instead, it was uncompromising in its pledge of non-negotiation, similar to policy exercised by Israel, Russia and the US.
Yet even Israel, which is known for its hard-line stance on non-communication with terrorists, has resorted to negotiation in the last few years. Richman cites the recent release of hundreds of prisoners to save one captive Israeli soldier. Israel also negotiated the return of the corpses of Israeli soldiers by releasing 100 incarcerated men this year.
Russia has opted for negotiation with the Chechen rebels in the Moscow theater hostage crisis in 2002 and the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004. “Of course when they are attacking you, you must respond,” said former president of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev in 2004. “The problem of Chechnya will only be solved by negotiating, negotiating with all involved."
Dr Adam Dolnik, director of the Centre of Transnational Crime Prevention at the University of Wollongong, Australia, says in a situation such as the Mumbai hostage crisis, most Western countries would have negotiated. “It would have bought time for building a blueprint about how to go about this,” he said. “That is what Western countries would have done. But instead, the Indian government kept announcing that it was just about over when it wasn’t.”
The George Bush administration has said that it does not negotiate with terrorists, perhaps even more loudly than Israel or Russia. But it has made concessions when the lives of hostages seemed in certain peril. In 2006, the US released six of eight Iraqi women held by Coalition forces in exchange for Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, who was being held in Baghdad.
The US denied that this was a case of negotiation, attempting to stamp out perception of the US as being weak. Perhaps the administration was also trying to erase the memory of 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, during which president Jimmy Carter’s negotiation was unsuccessful in freeing 52 US diplomats held hostage by a group of Islamist students for 444 days.
Similarly, India has sought to extinguish the flames of previous policies over the past few days. Yet the consequence has been grave: The loss of nearly 200 lives and more than 300 injured. Neumann says, “It is the ultimate dilemma: Weighing whether to save the hostages now or take a hard line and save lives in the future.”
The Indian government, however, seems not to have weighed the idea of negotiation at all. Israel National News reported that terrorists’ offers for negotiations for hostages in the Chabad House were met with the Indian government’s resounding: “No deal.”
Continuity of policy like this is crucial, says Richman. “If the government starts out not negotiating, they have to continue that. They must maintain that policy, unless they themselves determine to change it. The acts of the terrorists must not change it.”
As the whole world watched, India never wavered. “In a hostage situation, the actions of one government can have implications for the world,” said a top NATO official on the dilemma of negotiation. With hostages held not only from their own country (as has been the case in negotiations in Israel, the US, and Russia), but also from the West, this could never be more true.
The government has made it clear this time. Roy’s admonition that India would not negotiate seems to have been bona fide.
Yet while no reports have been made of negotiation, Richman points out that one cannot be sure what is happening behind closed doors. “What we see is what the media reveals to us,” he says. “Behind the scenes, we do not know.”
Elizabeth Flock is a reporter associate at the new business magazine to be launched by Network18 in alliance with Forbes, USA