The stories I get the most satisfaction from are usually about the neglected margins of India, where struggle is enmeshed with life. The ones I will upload have been written for The Sunday Guardian and (the now defunct) Covert Magazine. I'll be putting up any articles here at least until The Sunday Guardian website is up in a couple of months. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Case of the Kidnapped Collector

(a shorter version of this piece will appear as the edit in Sunday Guardian on 27 February)

The deplorable kidnapping of Malkangiri District Collector Vineel Krishna and junior engineer Pabitra Majhi by Maoists situated somewhere along the Andhra-Orissa border, and the harrowing ongoing hostage crisis that has followed, brings light to a number of the most intractable problems the Indian state faces when attempting to deal with the armed insurgency.

From the Indian state’s perspective, its biggest concern is best explained by one of the fundamental problems of Game Theory (and hoary favourite of articles like these), the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma explains why two rational actors might not cooperate even when it is in their best interests. To cut a lot of nigh-on-indecipherable probability theory short, the logic behind it is that both sets of actors (in this case, the Indian state and the Maoists) lack complete information about the other’s motivations. If both mistrust each other, each side ends up choosing the least favourable option available, because of the inherent pressure on both to renege on the agreement.

In this case, after some deliberation, the Indian state prioritised its most favourable outcome, which was to bring District Collector Krishna and junior engineer Majhi home safe. It chose to trust that the Naxalites would fulfill their end of the bargain, and so conceded to all 14 of the demands made. But the Naxals decided they would not keep their end of the bargain, and returned only the junior engineer; custody of the District Collector was their primary bargaining chip, and they chose to extract more from the state.

So how can the Indian state trust this adversary when the majority of prior dealings have ended similarly? What must it do to ensure it does not suffer for choosing the option that, given the initial conditions, would have suited both parties admirably?

It should be noted that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a theoretical tool, at best providing insight into why actors behave the way they do. It does not allow for a number of real-world complexities that cloud almost every instance of hostage-taking (if interested, see Reuben Miller’s study of the 1972 Munich Olympics attack). The most urgent difference in the assumptions made above is that the Maoists are not a unitary actor. This is a nebulous collective (if that) of different groups with differing agendum. Clubbing them together can have grievous implications on life and livelihood in the heartland of India, and must be avoided.

Delving into ground realities reveals a second disturbing aspect of the case, this one a sharp indictment of the role of the Government of India in this Indian heartland. Take a look at the 14 demands made by the Naxalites on the state. Apart from the (almost mandatory, in hostage situations) demand for prisoner-exchange, much of the rest are demands that have been made on behalf of marginalised communities in India. The Naxals ask for: Scheduled Tribe status for certain Andhra communities; the closure of the multi-purpose Polavaram irrigation project; pattas (record of rights) of dispossessed groups; irrigated water supply to two villages in Malkangiri; compensation to two villagers who claim to have been tortured while in state custody; compensation to farmers living in areas submerged by the Balimela reservoir; better governing laws for the out-of-control bauxite mining industry; and the minimum displacement of tribal groups – and their adequate compensation – when development projects close in on their existence.

Here, then, are the failures of the Indian state placed in sharp relief. Indian citizens are being forced to request manifesto-waving brigands to make what are entirely legitimate demands on the state. These are citizens who feel so disempowered, so disenfranchised, by the industry-state nexus that they feel they must use Naxalites, and by proxy, kidnapping, as a conduit. What is this corner that India has painted its own citizens into?

Additionally, viewing the Prisoner’s Dilemma from the Naxalite perspective for a second, they could be entitled to argue that all they have received from the state is a commitment to fulfill their demands, one that might easily be reneged upon once the state functionaries were back home safe. In that case, they might argue that they would be entitled to hold onto the prisoner’s until the fulfillment of the 14 demands the Indian state committed to, including long-winded processes like remedying mining laws and putting an end to Operation Green Hunt. After all, the Government of India’s track record in providing social justice to the unprivileged is hardly more favourable than the Naxalites track record in keeping their end of bargains.

One final disturbing aspect of the case was the reportage that surrounded it, which could be faulted on two issues. A crude rendition of the manner in which the major national newspapers portrayed the 14 demands of the Naxalites is: “release our Naxalites cronies, plus 13 others.” While Times of India did carry an edited list of the demands (on an inside page) the headlines and major chunk of the stories in the national dailies prioritised this solitary diktat. Given the nature of the full set of demands, the media's unwillingness to analyse the Indian state's failure in this regard is shocking. The Naxals ask for an end to Operation Green Hunt. Is the media not required to ask if the Home Minister has now given up on a policy he deemed of paramount importance to national security, even in the diminished form in which it exists today?

Second, a major national newspaper sought to construct a narrative around the Collector’s release, claiming tribals had campaigned to have him released. No other reports from the ground have suggested this is the case; indeed subsequent reports in the same newspaper have failed to develop this angle, suggesting the initial report might have been misleading. This is the kind of patronising approach the Indian State has often been accused of when dealing with tribal communities, viz. presuming to know what is best for them. The media does not do anyone favours by creating a message, favourable or unfavourable, about this battle. What India needs now, as in most wars, is Truth and Reconciliation.