In the midst of reports that the police in Odisha has refused to serve in Maoist affected areas if high profile suspected terrorists are released in an exchange for hostages, the helplessness of governments in dealing with the ultra-reds comes even more into focus. Even as the ultras play on both sides of the court – using brutal and lawless techniques to assert their power, even while exploiting every legal right as citizens to gain an advantage – the system continues to be hobbled by the lack of an overall and sound strategy on dealing with the problem.
The solution will have to be, obviously, on several planes – from the fight in the jungles, to reforming the laws, to speeding up the judicial processes. For instance, if there is no law that puts in the dock someone from benefiting from of a terrorist act, about time it was enacted. In the case of Subashree Das, for instance, who is the wife of a top rebel responsible for the kidnap of an Italian national, it should be considered conclusive evidence of her involvement in terrorist activities if she benefits from a hostage exchange. Instead of aborting such exchanges by enacting a punitive law, the system is subverted by what seems to be interference in the judicial process by suddenly pulling an ‘acquittal’ out of the hat for the woman. Were persons in jail to be considered complicit through being part of a terrorist demand, the consequence would be that, in most cases, they would themselves not be prepared to accept such freedom. The law could be further ramped up by making the death penalty mandatory for those convicted of heinous crimes and benefiting from this form of ‘jail-break’. As such, the terrorists who got away because of the Kandahar hijack would be condemned in absentia to be hanged, providing legal cover to Indian agencies to dispatch them at the first opportunity, wherever they are found.
Also, terrorist hostage taking should be declared a ‘federal’ crime, with the CBI and other agencies automatically taking over charge, even as they act in concert with the state police forces. It is possible that some states might consider this a dilution of their powers, but it must be realised that the Maoist and Naxalite menace is not merely a law and order problem. (If they believe it is a state subject, then the states should deal with it effectively!) It is a threat, in the larger context, to the security and integrity of the entire nation. It would also absolve the state leadership from the political consequences of any harsh steps that might need to be taken.
There have also been incidents that have led to the judiciary taking a call based not on the law, but the strategy and general policy on dealing with terrorism, which is the prerogative of the executive. Often, verdicts are delivered that hit at the very root of the security agency’s ability to fight such forces. The governments do not realise the import of such cases, simply because the politicians have little knowledge of practical issues, and the security agencies’ have little scope to push their point of view. (The lack of even basic accord between the Defence Minister and CoAS is a good example.) As seen in the case of Salwa Judum’s banning, for instance, political differences allowed the judiciary to influence strategy. Even in such crucially important practical issues like the right of the police to restrain suspects (handcuffing), a ruling by the SC has meant that most criminals walk hand-in-hand with their police escorts, sending out absolutely the wrong signal, and actually encouraging fraternisation between the two. There were good reasons for the ban, but the cure has proved more damaging than the disease. Unfortunately, the lawmakers have not considered it important enough to legislate to get around this problem, which is a fundamental restriction on the functioning of the police. India’s police force remains the only one in the world doing its job under such a restraint. But, who cares? The life and liberty of the people do not seem to be the priorities of the political class, anyway.