An eight-day ordeal

Print edition : January 08, 2000

V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Chennai

THE experiences of the relatives of the hostages of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 were as harrowing as those of the hostages themselves. On December 24, they turned up at Terminal 2 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport to receive their relatives. But what they received was the news of the hijack. Shocked and anguished, they spent the night at the airport hoping to get answers for their queries from the authorities. Periodic announcements about the location of the aircraft only served to heighten the suspense. The news that the aircraft had run out of fuel and that the hijackers were armed with bombs and pistols unnerved them.

As no information on the passengers' safety or the progress in the negotiations with the hijackers was forthcoming from the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the relatives became restive.

On December 26 some of them stormed into a press conference being addressed by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh at the Press Information Bureau in New Delhi. Led by Sanjiv Chibber, a surgeon, whose six relatives were on the plane, the relatives de manded that the militants named by the hijackers be released in lieu of the hostages. "Has not the government released militants in exchange for the release of a daughter of a Union Minister in the past? Can you solve the Kashmir problem by keeping one m ilitant in jail," Chibber asked. The reference to Rubayya Sayeed, daughter of former Union Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, in December 1989. A visibly embarrassed Jaswant Singh pacified them.

The relatives also resorted to other methods to draw the Government's attention. On December 26, some of them staged a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's house; on December 27, they gatecrashed into the Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan, where the Crisis Manag ement Group (CMG) was holding its meeting. Some others gave vent to their anger and frustration through protests outside the Prime Minister's house.

Embarrassed by the publicity the protests received in the media, the Government deputed the Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), Vasundhara Raje, to talk to the relatives. Vasundhara Raje invited them to her residence for an informal m eeting to calm down the rising tempers. About five representatives of the relatives managed to meet the Prime Minister later.

At the briefing session, tempers continued to run high. The relatives were so angry that they treated the news of the departure of the I.A. plane to Kandahar with officials and doctors, with indifference.

What angered the relatives most was that the relief plane was forced to return for want of clearance by Pakistan to use its air space and owing to minor snags.

When C. Gnanasekaran, a Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) MLA from Vellore, Tamil Nadu, who accompanied the relatives of the Tamil Nadu passengers from Vellore to New Delhi, referred to a CNN report which said that the plane was stinking with refuse, the Civi l Aviation officials presented a fax message received from the Air Traffic Controller, Kandahar. The message said that the toilets in the aircraft were cleaned regularly, and that the passengers and the crew were provided drinking water and food periodic ally. That the message was not true was evident from the versions of passengers who were released on December 31. Reports that the passengers were playing cards and chess, which were conveyed by the officials at the briefings on December 28, also turned out to be false. When the Civil Aviation officials were asked whether the ATC at Kandahar was lying, there was no answer.

On December 29, the daily briefings were cancelled apparently because of the protests the previous day. However, there were no demonstrations or emotional outpourings before the TV cameras as the relatives were glued to television sets for news of the de velopments. They felt reassured by the news of the visit of Indian doctors, and the fact that some hostages were allowed to take a walk on the tarmac.

* * *

ON December 25, the day after flight IC 814 was hijacked, a special relief aircraft of IA brought 27 passengers, including 13 women and 11 children, and the body of Rupin Katyal, who was killed by the hijackers, from Dubai. Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav brought back the released passengers. Chaotic scenes were witnessed at the arrival terminal when the plane landed at 11 p.m. as relatives, friends and mediapersons jostled with the police and airlines personnel.

The passengers were hurriedly taken away from the airport. Among them was Satnam Singh, who had stab wounds on his chin and neck. Satnam Singh, a German citizen, his wife and their child had gone to Kathmandu along with a newly married couple. The hijack ers, angry over the delay in refuelling the aircraft in Amritsar, had attacked him.

According to Captain D. Sharan, Rupin Katyal, who was stabbed for the same reason, died before reaching Dubai owing to lack of timely medical help at Lahore. Rupin Katyal, the 25-year-old member of an affluent family in Gurgaon, Haryana, married 20-year- old Rachna on December 3. He was returning after a brief honeymoon in Kathmandu. The couple had postponed their return to Delhi by two days as their tickets were not confirmed. Rupin's body was handed over to the Dubai authorities on the morning of Decem ber 25. Rachna was released only on December 31, and it was much later that news of Rupin's death was broken to her. Rupin's father, C.P.Katyal, who had waited all night at the airport, took ill out of sheer shock and exhaustion. Rupin's parents had to b e put on sedatives.

* * *

THE first batch of released passengers gave a graphic account of their ordeal. According to them, the male passengers were segregated from the women and children and blindfolded. The women claimed that the hijackers behaved well with them and were affect ionate towards the children.

The five hijackers called themselves Chief (who was their leader), Burger, Doctor, Shankar and Bola. Chief positioned himself in the business class, obviously orchestrating the operation. The hijackers frisked the passengers systematically and blindfolde d them with the help of the headrest cloth kept on the seats.

Rakesh Tayal, 32, a hardware dealer from Delhi, and Sandeep Agarwal, 40, a software engineer from Ghaziabad, gave an account of the hijack drama.

They said:

"The flight IC 814 took off from Kathmandu after a two-hour delay. A quick security check was done without the mandatory physical check. One of the two X-ray machines, which screens baggage, was out of order. The plane had not been cleaned as it had just arrived from Delhi. The airport authorities allowed the plane to take off within half an hour of its arrival.

"After the plane flew over Lucknow, we were served lunch. When we began eating, the food was forcibly removed and the hijackers, wearing masks, announced that the plane was being hijacked. We could sense the plane take off and land several times but we h ad no idea where we were heading. The hijackers said: 'We are flying at a height of 30,000 metres. If we open even one grenade, your family will not even get your bones. So restrain yourself from doing anything'. "

At Amritsar, the passengers were told that refuelling facility had been refused. The hijackers grabbed five passengers sitting in the front seats and tied their hands behind. And then they attacked Rupin Katyal and another person. The passengers thought that the hijackers would open fire... The hijackers had removed the pins from the bombs and pulled out two revolvers. But suddenly the plane took off, and again landed. The pilot was warned that if he did not take off within 30 seconds they would kill th e hostages.

Rupin Katyal, who was killed by the hijackers, and his wife Rachna at their marriage reception.-

"We did not know that we were in Dubai. Some passengers were released. After half an hour, we again landed at some place. Then, again we flew for some time."

At Kandahar the hijackers began to lecture them on the tenets of Islam.

On December 26, "the hijackers began a propaganda against the Indian Government saying that our relatives in India were ill-treated and harassed."

On December 27, the blindfolds were removed but the hijackers insisted that "we raise our hands if we wanted to use the toilet. For the first time, they allowed two passengers to go to toilet at the same time... 'Burger' said some foreign delegations hav e come except the Indian side.

"Burger said that the Indian Government refused to take the passengers back. They threatened to kill us. 'Doctor' talked about the Kashmir problem, saying that India exploited Kashmir. The pilot wanted time to talk to the Indian Government. The hijackers granted the request, but the pilot could not establish contact.

"On December 28, food and water arrived after noon. There was no vegetarian food but the air hostesses used their common sense to separate oranges and chocolates from the non-vegetarian fare and give them to vegetarian passengers.

"On the evening of December 29, the hijackers looked tense and frustrated. The passengers started pleading with them to spare them.

"On December 30, at 2.30 a.m. the hijackers said that the negotiations had broken down. They refused to talk to the Indian negotiators again. They asked us to express our last wish.

The hijackers told us that it was the last day in our life, and that at 1 p.m. they will start shooting us. They warned us at 8.30 a.m., and asked us to pray. We prayed and wept till 12.30 p.m. At 1 p.m. they told us to relax, as the Indian Government ha d accepted 70 per cent of their demands. In the evening, we got a variety of fruits and snacks.

"On December 31, the hijackers greeted the passengers. They shook our hands and took leave of us. We got a special meal. But we refused to have our breakfast, asking the hijackers to first release us.

"Burger loved the children. He distributed apples and presented a shawl, with his name written on it to a woman passenger, Pooja Kataria, who celebrated her birthday on December 27 on the plane.

"Burger apologised to the passengers before leaving, with tears rolling from his eyes. He asked us how we would show our gratitude to the Afghanistan Government. Someone suggested that we donate money. Then the collection began. We collected Rs.71,000. B urger gave the money to Anuj Sharma, a passenger from Mumbai. He asked him to arrange a suitable memento, preferably an airplane with IC 814 and the date of the hijack inscribed on it for display at the Afghanistan museum in Kandahar.

* * *

AT the Tamil Nadu House in New Delhi, there was an unusual celebration on New Year's Day. A group of men wearing garlands, relief writ on their faces, posed for photographs. These seven friends - M. Thulasi, S. Dhanasekaran, R.P. Kannan, Mushtaq Ahmed, R . Kulasekaran, Perumal and C.G. Prasad Babu - from Vellore in Tamil Nadu were guests at the Tamil Nadu Government's Guest House-Information Centre. They were among the seven passengers released on December 31. They had toured North India before reaching Kathmandu, from where they boarded flight IC 814. Also present was, K. Kesava Kannan, another passenger from Tamil Nadu.

That night another reception awaited them in Chennai.

Speaking to Frontline in Chennai, Prasad Babu said: "For eight days we slept in the aircraft, sitting in our seats. Half an hour after the aircraft took off from Kathmandu, five hijackers materialised within seconds, armed with revolvers and grena des. 'Down, down' they shouted. We were kept blindfolded for the first two days. We did not know where we had been taken. They spoke Hindi."

Since six of the seven from Vellore did not know Hindi, they did not obey the commands immediately. This enraged the hijackers. It was later explained to them that these passengers did not know Hindi.

Only 'Burger' remained calm. Others would often fly into a rage and beat up the passengers. R.P. Kannan said: "Ten passengers were beaten up. Prasad Babu and I were also beaten up. Even if we looked up at them, they would rain blows on us.."

A few days into the drama, food no longer became important. The passengers were served only one chappati. Holding up a small white container, Dhanasekaran said: "Two of us shared one cup of water. We reduced our food and water intake in order to avoid v isiting the toilet."

Kulasekaran said: "This is a rebirth for us."
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