Hostages at sea: pay or fight?


The Somali pirate crisis has lessons for us. It’s not about being a soft or a hard State. It’s about being a State without policy


Illustration: Anand Naorem

THE TAKING of hostages is as old as crime, and crime is as old as man himself. Crime in society is meant to be fought by governments. In India, crime fighting is a state subject, but crimes like hostage taking are normally what in the US is called a federal crime. Such an offence is dealt with by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which both investigates and prosecutes, unlike our IB that only gathers intelligence, or the CBI, which only investigates after a crime has been committed. In that, it is probably like the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), which has an investigative as well as a prosecution role. But the larger question remains — does the Indian State have a policy for dealing with hostage taking? It clearly does not, despite the Kandahar hijacking disaster. Unabated hostage taking has led many critics to say that India is perceived as a soft state — a state that has no policy of dealing firmly with hostage takers, and looks at paying ransom as the first and perhaps only option.

In the case of the Indian hostages with the Somali pirates, I am willing to take a bet that no FIR has been registered to date. This means that as far as the Indian State is concerned, no crime has been committed. The same question was raised during the Kandahar hijacking too and there were no clear answers as to which police station had registered the crime. The feeble coordination to prevent the plane leaving India was put together in the middle of the night by the Cabinet secretary, an untrained babu. So much for our eminent law enforcers meant to create our crime fighting infrastructure. However, the moot question in the present context is whether ransom should be paid, and if so by whom?

The absence of AK Antony from the hostage debate is an example of avoiding responsibility

Normally, the procedure to be followed in a hostage crisis is fairly well known — outside India. The immediate reaction is to get in touch with the hostage takers and put hostage negotiators trained in criminal psychology to talk to them. Talking to criminals through trained experts has a number of objectives.

The first is to pretend sympathy and prevent a hostage being killed. The second is to establish the location so an attack can be planned. The third is to extend the negotiation during which time a rescue attempt can be made. The fourth is to bargain down the ransom money, if eventually it is found that a ransom has to be paid. But there is little doubt that the chief purpose of negotiation is to prepare for a rescue attempt. It has to be understood that the hostage takers themselves are never sure of what is going on at the other side and since they need to transmit messages on the amount of ransom and mode of payment, they are normally keen to establish communications too. During negotiations, the trained negotiators will normally try to psychologically dominate the hostage takers and eventually wear them down. The Union Home Ministry has a Blue Book of trained negotiators whose names and addresses, when I last saw it, were a decade out of date.

In the Somalia case, the money should come from the shipping company that employed the crew. The understanding is that in all likelihood, there will be insurance against hijacking and the company will receive the insurance money on the premium it doles out. But let there be no doubt that in this particular case where the state has broken down and admits to that, the onus lies with the defence ministry. There is no Somalia State to negotiate with. In the Indian case, the absence of Defence Minister AK Antony from the hostage debate is one of the worst cases of avoiding ministerial responsibility.

With the US, the French and the South Koreans having already shown what states are meant to do in a hostage situation, there is a lesson to be learnt. If they can’t be deployed to protect their citizens, the recruiting, arming and training of 10,000 special forces is a national waste.


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