Friday, September 10, 2010

The politics of kidnapping

Our world shuddered with horror when one of the four Bihar policemen kidnapped by Maoists was murdered in cold blood. Three were released unharmed – and we rejoiced. But is this the end of this cruelest of political games?

Of course not. Within days of the Bihar release, three insurance agents were kidnapped somewhere near Kolkata by suspected Maoists. Why insurance agents? The question is really irrelevant because any human beings will do for militants around the world. They may be policemen, civil servants, children, women, journalists or air/train passengers. Human lives are the best bargaining chips.

Bihar had seen, according to police records, 32,085 kidnappings between 1992 and 2004. As much as 20 percent of these were for ransom. Politicians were widely believed to be partners of the kidnap gangs. Lalu Prasad’s regime was branded by the scandal. Bihar-UP even developed the “ Pakatuah Shadi” system in which families with marriage-age girls would kidnap eligible bachelors, preferably IAS candidates, and get them forcibly married. There were cases where the bridegrooms were beaten up to make them amenable.

Lalu’s Bihar might have taken kidnapping to the level of an everyday business. But whether it is a doctor kidnapped for ransom, or a busload of passengers hijacked by an aggrieved policeman as in Manila, there is a unique fear factor in this business. When Mumbai-based American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by terrorists in Pakistan, video footage released by the captors, masked men holding guns to the kneeling victim’s head, terrorised the whole world. Then that innocent young man was beheaded. The extraordinary cruelty involved in many kidnappings makes this perhaps the most vexatious problem of our times.

That could also explain why most politically motivated kidnappings are successful. The Iran hostage crisis lasted 444 days in 1979-81 following the seizure of the US embassy in Teheran by militants. It lasted that long because neither side wanted a bloodbath. The Americans staged a military rescue operation, but it failed. Eventually diplomatic negotiations by third parties led to the release of all 66 American hostages.

The Tupamaros guerilla movement in Latin America succeeded in ending the myth of American invincibility. Their most dramatic operation was the kidnapping of the US ambassador near his home in Rio de Janeiro in 1969. In two weeks the Brazilian Government capitulated and agreed to release 15 Leftist prisoners. In 1970 the German Ambassador in Guatemala was kidnapped. But the Government refused to free prisoners in exchange and the hapless ambassador was killed.

The Indian Airlines hijack saw the most abject of surrenders. One passenger was killed and many wounded. Even then Delhi not only released the prisoners named by the terrorists, but Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh personally accompanied them to Kandahar. The need for that special tribute to terrorism still remains unexplained.

By contrast, Veerappan was rather decent the way he treated the captured Rajkumar in 2000. The Kannada hero was held captive for 108 days. The desperate Karnataka Government was willing to release the prisoners Veerappan mentioned, but the courts barred any release. In the end money changed hands, though nobody admitted it. But the point was that Rajkumar was safe and sound – and rather more philosophical about life, as was evident from the grace and dignity with which he met the press upon release.

Kidnapping ordinary people is an easy crime to commit. Hence its appeal to those who operate beyond the lines of legitimacy. Religious terrorists do it for a doomed cause. Political terrorists may cite a more plausible cause such as fighting for the rights of the poor and exploited. But all are terrorists and all are taking advantage of the helplessness of the unprotected.

We don’t know what bargains were struck to save at least three lives in Bihar. But we know that more kidnappings, more cowardly acts like train derailment, will take place as long as the problem of basic deprivations of people is not addressed. The more is the pity.