Abduction weapon

The hijacking of the Bhubaneshwar-New Delhi Rajdhani train on Tuesday was a consequence of the West Bengal government’s deal with the Maoists and the release of 21 tribals in exchange for the release of an abducted police officer, Atindranath Dutta, last week. Admittedly it is difficult to make a moral judgment when lives of people are involved, especially when it is the duty of governments to protect lives. But the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government showed itself as vulnerable when it swapped the tribals for the police officer. It may not have been of the order of the swap of terrorists for the passengers of the Indian Airlines aircraft that was hijacked to Kandahar in 1999. Many governments have also released persons in their custody in exchange for hostages. It is true that cost-benefit calculations are difficult in such situations.

The government may have had some points of defence in the Dutta case. Those who were released might in any case have been granted bail in the normal course, since the charges against them were not strong. But that also showed that their arrests were not justified, as the magistrate himself noted, and strengthened the Maoists’ charge that the government was terrorising the tribals.  Since two policemen had been killed by the Maoists, one more killing would have exposed the helplessness of the government. But ironically the deal also exposed the government’s helplessness. Its action was certainly taken as victory by the Maoists.

More importantly, it set a precedent and encouraged the Maoists again to use abduction as a weapon. Thousands of passengers were exposed to danger and tension on Tuesday. The Central government is planning a major offensive against the Maoists and to counter that they are bound to employ more such unconventional tactics. Governments may again be pushed into helpless situations and shown as unable to protect the lives of people. They will not be able to meet the demands even when precedents like the Atindranath Dutta case are cited. It has a lesson: actions to oblige those outside the pale of law become appeasement which feeds on itself. Since they detract from the authority of governments, people also lose confidence in them. Moral dilemmas become political Achilles’ heels. It was fortuitous that the Rajdhani train passengers did not come to any great harm, but next time such a situation can create a more serious crisis.

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