A tale of shattered credibility

Print edition : January 22, 2000

How the Government emerged from the crisis with its incompetence exposed and its credibility in the mud.


IN Kargil, the jawans' valour and blood made up for the incompetence of the Government. In Kandahar, its own mettle was tested and found wanting. The Government emerged from this grave crisis with its incompetence exposed and its credibility in the mud. The nation has suffered grievously for the misdemeanours of the momentary stewards of its affairs.

It was all too evident from the very outset that the hijackers of IC 814, which took off from Kathmandu on December 24, 1999 with 189 passengers, were ruthless desperados. Any government worth the name would have taken the top leaders of the Opposition, the chiefs of the defence services, and the President into confidence and alerted the nation to the menace. Internationally, it should have put aside every consideration, put a satisfactory end to the crisis and sought support wherever it could, eschewin g what Kennan called "megaphone diplomacy", abrasive rhetoric and dogmas which in the modern world of murky regimes count for little.

The crisis ended on December 31 on terms that were available on December 25 and with the Government's credibility shattered at home and abroad. The Opposition and the nation were lied to. The chiefs of the services were ignored till December 29. An aspec t widely overlooked is that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee met President K. R. Narayanan only on December 30 after the deal had been agreed to and thus confronted with a fait accompli to avoid having to answer awkward questions. Internal intr igues became the order of the day. The Cabinet disintegrated. Defence Minister George Fernandes apparently needed an "invitation" from the Prime Minister to return to New Delhi from his tour in northeastern India on the night of December 27. They met the next day. Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav was sent to Dubai to shoot his mouth off. Home Minister L. K. Advani kept aloof. Amazingly, it was not he but External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh who was in charge; incongruously of diplomacy as well as information, messing up both.

Governments for decades have valued the counsel of the veteran, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). On January 1, he roundly accused the Prime Minister of "misleading" the Opposition parties by not inform ing them about the decision to release three militants in exchange for the hijacked passengers. He had spoken to Vajpayee at 2 p.m. on December 31 but was not informed that the Government had agreed to swap terrorists for passengers. He was merely told t hat Jaswant Singh was leaving for Kandahar for negotiations. Minutes after he took off, Brajesh Mishra announced the deal.

Surjeet repeated the charge four days later: "Even after the deal was struck in the morning and Jaswant Singh was to leave for Kandahar in the comfortable company of the released militants, the Prime Minister informed me at 2 p.m. that the hijackers had scaled down their demands and that he was sending Singh to Kandahar for further talks. Why he was hiding the fact that Singh was accompanying the released extremists, is something difficult to comprehend" (The Hindu, January 5).

Former Prime Minister I. K. Gujral complained that "although the Prime Minister rung up to say that Singh was going, he did not breathe a word of the deal that had already been struck with the hijackers. He told us half-truths" (The Indian Express , January 8).

Vajpayee met the chiefs of the defence services - General V.P. Malik, Air Marshal A. Y. Tipnis and Admiral Sushil Kumar - on December 28 for the first time during the crisis and that too after the press had reported their disquiet at their exclusion from the crisis management group.

C. Raja Mohan reported that "through the day (December 30), the Government kept denying that it had accepted the demand of the hijackers to set free Maulana Masood Azhar and 35 other terrorists from the Indian jails. These reports suggested that India wa s either ready to release the militants or was bargaining over the numbers. Other reports indicated that India was already looking at the modalities of the release.

"But sources in the government continue to insist that there is no question of India accepting the demands of the hijackers. Such a choice, they insist, would invite a huge political backlash, and the BJP Government has no desire to commit harakiri. Barg aining with the hijackers, the sources point out, will be a big setback for India's recent international campaign against terrorism" (The Hindu, December 31, 1999).

The spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs, Raminder S. Jassal, "emphatically denied it", saying, "there is no such agreement" (Celia W. Dugger of The New York Times).

On January 1, a day after the hijack ordeal ended, crew members of the plane call on Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee at his residence in New Delhi.-KAMAL NARANG

However, Neena Vyas reported: "On December 30, 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Security met for an hour and the three Service Chiefs attended it... Soon after the Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister, A. B. Vajpayee, called on the President, K. R. Narayana n, to apprise him of the developments. This was the first meeting between them after the hijacking of the plane on December 24.

"As disturbing agency reports continued to come from Kandahar suggesting that the negotiating team had begun discussing the 'list' of terrorists in Indian jails whose release the hijackers have been demanding, the Government denied this. When Jaswant Sin gh was directly asked if the Government was negotiating the release of terrorists held here, his response was 'it has already been denied'." (The Hindu, December 31, 1999).

Vajpayee met the President after the outlines of the deal were already settled so that, confronted with a fait accompli, the President would not ask searching questions. This is how the President was treated in breach of Article 78 of the Constitu tion, which imposes on the Prime Minister personally the duty to keep the President informed.

We have the testimony of five hostages on when the deal was struck. Talks had broken down at 2 a.m. on December 30, only to be revived hours later. Ravi Kumar, a hostage, said that the hijackers informed the passengers that day that "they had struck a de al" at 12 noon (The Asian Age, January 2) Prashant Kharwadkar told The Times of India (January 3) that they were informed at 2-30 p.m. that 80 per cent of the deal had been agreed on. An hour later he was told that the rest had also been se ttled. The pilot Captain Devi Sharan's co-pilot, Rajender Kumar Goud, said: "On December 30 at 3 p.m., the hijackers walked over to us and told us '80 per cent is over, 20 per cent is left'. After some time, their chief shouted kaam ho gaya (the t ask is accomplished)... It took another 18 hours for anyone from India to inform them of the approaching end to their ordeal" - at 10 a.m. on December 31 (The Statesman, January 5).

Anup Sharma has the same complaint: "Not a single member of the Indian negotiating team came inside the plane to see how the passengers were faring, even though the hijackers had given them permission to do so... Even 72 hours after the hijacking, no Indian official was in sight. But officials of other countries whose citizens were on board had reached Kandahar airport." Within two and a half hours of the resumption of talks on December 30, they heard that "a settlement has been reached". Jaswant Singh and Sharad Yadav made their respective trips only to extract "political mileage", he rightly said. (The Telegraph, January 4).

Abhinav Khandelwal said: "At 2 p.m. on the 30th the hijackers hugged each other and began celebrating. It was like a party - Pepsis and burgers after seven days of eating oranges."

The Government could communicate its approval around noon on December 30 only because it had taken the decision hours earlier - at the Cabinet meeting. Thereupon Vajpayee deigned to call on the President. The Hindustan Times reported (January 1) t hat informally the decision had been taken in the night of December 29: "The militants-for-hostages swap was decided collectively by Prime Minister Vajpayee, Home Minister Advani, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau and the Secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing late on Wednesday (December 29, 1999). Hence, the rumours in Delhi on December 30 - and the denials by Jaswant Singh and Jassal.

While the President and the Service chiefs were ignored till the last, the nation was treated to one lie after another. Count them. On December 31, Vajpayee said in his address to the nation: "The hijackers had demanded the release of 36 terrorists. We w ere able to substantially scale down their demand." That very day The Hindu's Special Correspondent wrote: "It is, indeed, a strange coincidence that the three militants released by the Government in exchange for the freedom of the hostages are th e very same the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, Mr. Chaman Lal Gupta, had indicated a day after the hijack."

Gupta had said as much in the morning of December 25 to correspondents outside the Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan from where the Crisis Management Group was functioning. He had specifically mentioned Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and a third person who se "name was not audible" to him in the phone call he had received. The disclosure earned him a reprimand from Vajpayee and reproach from Jaswant Singh (The Hindu, January 1).

The hijackers had raised their price - 36 militants, $200 million and Sajjad Afghani's dead body - only to increase the pressures. There never was any doubt about their objectives or of the leadership of the hijackers - Azhar's brother, Ibrahim.

The Government spoke with a forked tongue even on the United Nations' role. "India has not approached them (U.N.). They must have come there (Kandahar) on their own," Vajpayee said at Ghaziabad on December 26 (The Hindu, December 27, 1999). In New Delhi on the same day, Jaswant Singh said the direct opposite: "Mr. Erik de Mul (the U.N.'s Islamabad-based representative for Afghan Affairs) has gone to Kandahar at our request to find out at first hand the conditions prevailing there" ( The Hindustan Times, December 27, 1999). Which of them was speaking the truth?

Jaswant Singh fancies himself as a wordsmith of sorts. It is not pedantic to point out that the word "comfortable" is not one that a person of sense and sensitivity should ever use of hostages - comfort is "a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint," the Oxford English Dictionary holds - even in a qualified form, "in the circumstances". But, in order to silence the kith and kin of the hostages, Jaswant Singh repeatedly certified that they were "comfortable". Either he did not know of their true state - in which case he was reckless - or he did and was simply untruthful. "All passengers and crew members were as comfortable as can be under the circumstances." Blankets and food had been supplied to them, he merrily said on Decem ber 25 (The Statesman, December 26, 1999). The record is shocking. They were among the worst treated hostages, ever.

Two days later, de Mul quoted the pilot as saying that the physical and mental condition of the hostages was "bad". The next day, the U.N. official said that they were given food - only rice and dal - that morning (December 28) "after almost 24 hours". B ut our Minister refused to confirm reports of denial of food the previous day - despite de Mul's observations in Kandahar - and expressed his satisfaction with the sanitation facilities, and said "there is no shortage of water on the aircraft". In deed, Kandahar was only about as cold as Delhi, perhaps warmer (The Statesman, December 29, 1999). The next day (December 29) he went one better: "The condition of the hostages is comfortable, notwithstanding the adverse circumstances as also their long and enforced incarceration." Maximum possible attention was being given to hygiene and sanitation; food and water were being regularly supplied and also given on demand (The Telegraph, December 30, 1999).

An Indian diplomat who was flown from New Delhi to Kandahar said on December 28: "The condition of the passengers continues to deteriorate with every hour" (The Hindustan Times, December 29, 1999 - the day the Minister renewed his certificate).

Captain Sharan has revealed: "There was no food, no water and the toilet was not cleaned at Kandahar. Once there was no water for 24 hours" (Afternoon, January 9). Another witness said that the plane had turned into a living hell by the end of the second day. When passengers wanted to use the toilet on the morning of December 26, it was already overflowing with urine. It seeped into the passenger area along with used toilet paper. They survived three days in such miserable conditions befor e the toilet was cleaned and one door kept ajar to allow ventilation. The toilets were cleaned only twice during the entire stay in Kandahar (The Telegraph, January 2).

So much for sanitation. Sample some more. A. K. Ahmadzai, an AFP correspondent, reported from Kandahar on December 28 that "the stench from inside the plane... is overwhelming" (The Asian Age, December 29, 1999). A Taliban spokesman remarked: "The situation for the passengers is getting worse" (The Telegraph, December 29, 1999).

A U.N. official who entered the plane said that the quality of air inside the passenger cabin was "very bad" and the whole area smelt of vomit (The Times of India, December 29, 1999). Note that all the three papers had published these depressin g reports on December 29, the day Jaswant Singh testified to the comfort of the passengers and the sanitation in the plane with even greater assurance than before. Whatever prompted our Minister to act as a public relations officer for the hijackers? It was both a lack of moral courage to face the relatives of the hostages and a cynical disregard for the truth.

Jaswant Singh said on December 27: "I am not going by media reports," after he had done just that the previous day by alleging at his famous and disastrous press conference that the hijackers had arrived at the Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu by a Pakista n International Airlines (PIA) flight and had, from the arrival lounge, walked straight to the departure lounge, where someone was waiting for them with tickets for the Delhi-bound Indian Airlines plane (The Hindu, December 27, 1999).

He was contradicted instantly by all three concerned - the PIA, Nepal and uniquely for a Minister, Indian Airlines. Arif Abbasi, Managing Director of PIA, was able to point out with great relish that here was more than five hours' interval between the tw o flights. Bhekh B. Thapa, Nepal's Ambassador to India and a respected diplomat, confirmed that. "Also, the waiting lounge was vacant in the intervening period" (The Asian Age, December 28, 1999). Indian Airlines denied (December 27) that any PIA passenger had directly boarded its flight.

Whatever drove Jaswant Singh repeatedly to make statements that were patently untrue? On September 26, 1999, he declaimed: "India, being a great country, cannot and should not remain preoccupied with what Pakistan does or does not do and should look beyo nd the Indo-Pakistan bilateral context." This was said in New York even as he was bidding for American support for a purportedly anti-terrorist programme but whose main objective, despite disavowal, was the isolation of Pakistan. He made little headway. It was unsubtle and squandered the diplomatic gains of Kargil.

When the hijacking crisis broke on December 24, Jaswant Singh could not hold his tongue for more than 24 hours. He lashed out at Pakistan on December 26. It was worse than petty. It was harmful. From the groundless premise of the PIA flight he brought in Pakistan's past conduct and, linking the two with the string of Azhar, charged official complicity and ruled out a wild cat operation by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. Its ancestor, Harkat-ul-Ansar's kidnapping and killing of the foreign tourists in 1 995 had embarrassed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vis-a-vis her American patrons. But she was unable to control them. Moreover, in precisely such circumstances have we not sought Pakistan's intercession with the thugs to whom it gives protected sa nctuary? Reportedly, one such incident occurred in 1991 when Naheed Soz, daughter of Saifuddin Soz, was kidnapped by the Kashmiri militants. (For documentation on Pakistan's wider culpability, refer the writer's essay "Pakistan's complicity in terrorism in J&K: The Evidence and the Law"; Indian Defence Review, January 1992.)

States which sponsor such groups do bear ultimate responsibility, but not specifically for each operation that the group conducts. We ought to know that. On May 11, 1984, 11 armed Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) member s abducted a newly-wed American couple from their home at Jaffna beachside - Stanley Bryson Allen (30) and Mary Elizabeth (18). A note in the name of its armed wing, the People's Liberation Army, delivered the next day, demanded the release of 20 "politi cal prisoners" and Rs. 50 million in gold as ransom by noon on May 14, failing which the couple would be executed.

India was embarrassed for three reasons. First, the EPRLF was haplessly dependent on the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and had joined Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and Eelam Revolutionary Organisations (EROS) to form the Eelam National Li beration Front (ENLF) with "Indian blessings", as M. R. Narayan Swamy of AFP records in his definitive book Tigers of Lanka (1994). Secondly, "to cap it all, the EPRLF - whose members were then undergoing training in India - had virtually implicat ed New Delhi by demanding that the ransom be paid to the Tamil Nadu Government". Lastly, it took place on the eve of U.S. Vice-President George Bush's visit to India.

But, of course, only an idiot would have held India responsible for this crime. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appealed to the EPRLF to release the couple, saying that the abductions had caused India "great concern". He did not denounce the EPRLF. The U.S. did not denounce India either. Such indulgence is out of place in the midst of a crisis.

An angry M. G. Ramachandran (MGR), the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, put his trusted Director-General of Police (Criminal Investigation Department), K. Mohandas, to work. His memoirs MGR: The Man and the Myth (Panther Publishers, Bangalore, 1992) record (pages 91-93) how Varadaraja Perumal and colleagues were arrested and duly made to work on their followers. They ordered the Allens' release. "Four hours and 68 cigarettes later," the couple were free. U.S. President Reagan thanked the Prime Minis ter and MGR.

True, U.S. relations with India were qualitatively different from Indo-Pakistan relations. Here too wariness, even scepticism, is in order; but not malice. Nothing prevented us from riding the crisis out, securing such help as was available, and c ollecting the evidence for publication after it was all over. It would have shown concern for the release of the hostages overriding the penchant for scoring points in the Indo-Pakistan Cold War. Jaswant Singh betrayed not only a lack of such concern, bu t also a lack of maturity.

To pursue the analogy, the Taliban are very much an ISI creation. But theirs is not the first instance of a protege acting independently of the mentor. Theirs is a revolving regime on every count. But one must size them up for what they are, coolly. On O ctober 5, just a week before the Army coup, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke of a war against terrorism. His brother and Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbhaz Sharif, was explicit. He accused the Taliban of "breeding sectarian terrorists for engaging them in sect-cleansing operations in Pakistan" and expressed "resentment over the indifferent attitude of the Taliban Government for not just letting the terrorists use the Afghan soil but also denying the Pakistan Government already sought (sic.) a ssistance in laying a hand on them". Pakistan had "concrete proof of a training camp in Afghanistan" where men "wanted in (sic) sectarian terrorism in Pakistan were being trained". Its help was sought but the Taliban "refused to extradite or h elp Pakistan arrest the terrorists" on Afghan soil (Nation, Lahore, October 6, 1999).

We dwell in the grey zone but our swadeshi Dulles sees an international conspiracy of Islamic fundamentalism very much as his earlier and "distinguished counterpart", to use Jaswant Singh's favourite expression, saw an international communist conspiracy the world over, not nationalists who in desperation became communists.

Mature states handle grey situations differently. The Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and his family. He was cousin to King George V. The British handled the situation deftly as Robert Brue Lockhart described in his delightful memoir: "The Foreign Offic e insisted on keeping my own position as vague as possible. If in the House of Commons some irate interventionist wished to know why in the name of decency the British Government maintained an official representative with a government of cut-throats, who boasted of their determination to destroy civilisation, Mr. Balfour or his Under-Secretary would then reply quite truthfully that we had no official representative accredited to the Bolshevik Government. On the other hand, when some revolutionary-minded Liberal charged the British Government with the folly of not maintaining an accredited representative in Moscow in order to protect British interests and to assist the Bolsheviks in their struggle with German militarism, Mr. Balfour would reply, with th e same strict regard for the truth, that in Moscow we had a representative - an official with great experience of Russia - who was charged precisely with these duties" (Memoirs of a British Agent; Penguin, 1950; Page 258).

Politicisation was particularly foolhardy in view of what had happened earlier in Amritsar and twice over in Lahore. It was incompetence in New Delhi which led to the lapses in Amritsar. "There are 101 ways of blocking the take-off of a plane," K.P.S. Gi ll, the former Director-General of the Punjab Police told The Asian Age (December 26, 1999). Air Vice-Marshal (Retd.) Samir Roy held the same view (The Statesman, December 29, 1999). The plane had landed in Amritsar over two hours after the hijacking was discovered. Yet, the Crisis Management Group in Delhi did not give clear instructions. The Prime Minister was not informed for 40 minutes. Opinion is unanimous on one point even if it is divided on the blocking. Refuelling would ha ve "taken at least an hour or so", gaining precious time. But New Delhi asked Amritsar to delay, not the process of refuelling but the refuelling itself. As Goud testified on January 2: "Had there been no delay in refuelling at Amritsar, the killing a nd injuries to the passengers wouldn't have probably happened. Though we were waiting for the fuel bowser, there was no response. The fuel bowser was kept at a distance of 200 feet from the aircraft. The hijackers were scared that some commandos migh t be nearing the aircraft and forced the crew to take off to Lahore." A tanker went at top speed to the plane only to screech to a stop when asked to drive slowly. The hijackers panicked. "After there was a delay at Amritsar, the hijackers went berserk," Sharan confirmed.

As for Lahore, permission to land was first refused, leaving the pilot no option but to land in Amritsar, thus providing an extra hour for deliberation. It landed in Lahore, as Brajesh Mishra said on December 24, after India had requested Pakistan to allow the plane to land there. Even so, as Sharan said, he virtually crashlanded there. The runway lights had been switched off. Permission was accorded when "I had fuel only for a minute and a half" (Afternoon, January 9).

But Advani had given a different version at his press conference three days earlier on January 6: At the Indian pilot's request, air traffic control (ATC) in Lahore declined permission for the plane to land. But on its way back from Amritsar, after the c hief hijacker spoke to ATC Lahore about the need to refuel, the plane was allowed to land (The Indian Express, January 7). This was one of the six "tell-tale" pointers that he cited to prove that Pakistan is "neck-deep in this dirty game of hijack ing". Captain Sharan could not have failed to read Advani's version. It is a measure of his integrity that he spoke as he did, without the varnish of the hijacker's call. No wonder The Telegraph correspondent at the press conference felt that Adva ni "could not present an air-tight case against Pakistan". Little does New Delhi realise that gimmickry would so affect its credibility as to impair its case even when it presents solid evidence. Pakistan, true to form, retaliated with its own falsehoods , citing the 1971 hijack.

BRAJESH MISHRA made an important remark on December 24: "Now diplomacy takes over." It did not for 72 hours; then only under threat from the hijackers, and after both de Mul and the Taliban had expressed their impatience at India's "indifference". Jas want Singh was clueless about how diplomacy is to be conducted in such a situation and was dogmatic about mediation and the procedures. He said on December 29 that the hijackers' demands were made available to the government formally and for the firs t time in writing only on December 28. "Till then, the government had no basis with which to engage them," he said (The Telegraph, December 30, 1999).

This is shocking. It implies that had they not done so, he would not have any "basis with which to engage them", their demands - made verbally on December 24 and 25 known to the entire world - would have been ignored. He added: "We have contacted various friendly countries which have diplomatic relations with the Taliban. We have requested them to use their good offices to help in the early resolution of this hijacking." Saeed Naqvi reported that "contrary to the statements made by the Foreign Office, i nquiries made with the Saudis reveal that no such contact was made either in New Delhi or in Riyadh" (The Indian Express, January 7). Nor does it make any sense to accuse Pakistan of complicity on December 26 and ask it to play a "positive moderat ing role" two days later, which no conspirator could or would.

The Minister's statement on December 25 reveals his approach. He preferred a rescue operation to talks, little realising that the talks are an essential preliminary even to commando action. "We expect their cooperation in terminating the hijacking . The Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, confirmed that he had been asked to cooperate in a rescue operation. Jaswant Singh was no less insistent that 'no third party interference will be allowed'." (The Hindustan Times, December 26, 1999). Besides mediation, there are other forms of help an outsider can offer - good offices, as a facilitator, proximity talks, and so on. It is paranoid to imagine that mediation on hijacking can be used as a precedent for Kashmir. But as early as on December 25 the U.N. was asked in writing not to "get involved in the negotiations with the hijackers" as its spokesman Fred Eckhart revealed on December 27. Eventually, it was the Taliban who mediated. The U.N. does not mediate in such situations . But a wide brief to de Mul or any other U.N. representative would have been more beneficial to India's interests than the Taliban's intervention. They acted in their own interests, as everyone does. But hubris and ignorant dogmatism prevent India, time and again, from acting likewise. Having ruled out talks for three days and mediation subsequently, the Government submitted to the hijackers' demands under pressure from them, the Taliban, and its own people. It was a sorry but inevitable end to a week of arrogant ineptitude. The episode is over. But the mindset it reflected is certain to produce one diplomatic failure after another.

One such has occurred already. On January 3, the Prime Minister spoke of a diplomatic effort to ensure that "the U.S. takes an initiative" to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin's reply was offensive. "It doesn 't behove other countries to tell us how to exercise our law." His insolence apart, if the U.S. forges an anti-Pakistan alliance with India, will it be without a price? Vajpayee is apparently willing to pay it.

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