January 21, 2000

Bowing to terrorism

Print edition : February 06, 2015

December 27, 1999: Armed Taliban fighters at Kandahar airport. The hijacked Indian Airlines plane is in the background. Photo: REUTERS

December 30, 1999: Taliban fighetrs take position near the hijacked plane. Photo: REUTERS

AS the passengers of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 began their flight home to New Delhi, a quiet celebration was under way in Kandahar. The five hijackers and the three terrorists who were released that morning from Indian jails were driven across the tarmac to the Air Force Officers Mess. There, they were treated by Taliban officials to a slap-up iftar meal. Within 10 hours, driven to the Pakistan border under Taliban escort, the hijackers disappeared.

Eight terrorists celebrating New Year’s eve is a fitting image for the Union government’s proactive policy on Jammu and Kashmir, as it has worked in practice. The forces set off by the Pokhran-II nuclear tests triggered a dramatic escalation of violence and communal killings in the spring of 1999, the war on the Kargil heights in the summer, and finally the winter crisis at Kandahar. The sad lessons of the Kandahar hijacking have ensured that no one concerned with Jammu and Kashmir has reason to feel festive about the coming of 2000.

Air traffic control in New Delhi first received news of the hijacking of IC 814 at 4-40 p.m. on December 24, minutes after the Airbus, which had taken off from Kathmandu, entered Indian airspace. Amazingly, the Crisis Management Group (CMG) led by Union Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar saw no reason to convene immediately. Officials at the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) who had dealt with past hijackings were not even contacted. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra learned what had happened only when they arrived in Delhi from Patna at around 5-20 p.m. Vajpayee proceeded to call an emergency meeting, but just what was discussed is not known.

When Amritsar airport authorities first made contact with IC 814 at 6-04 p.m., they had no orders of any kind. Even 40 minutes after the CMG members met the Prime Minister, they had failed to put the Amritsar, Jammu and Srinagar airports on alert. No one, evidently, made the minimal intellectual effort needed to assess what the flight’s probable destinations in India might be. With Lahore airport authorities flatly refusing the aircraft permission to land, it ought to have been clear to officials that a touchdown at Amritsar was near-inevitable. When IC 814 came down at Amritsar at 6-44 p.m., local officials still had no unequivocal mandate from New Delhi.

Senior Superintendent of Police Parampal Singh Sidhu, District Commissioner Narinder Singh and Inspector General of Police J.P. Birdi were left carrying the can. Birdi, in fact, had received transfer orders days earlier, and was in Amritsar waiting for his successor Bakshi Ram to arrive. Not one senior official had taken the trouble to fly down to Amritsar, just 25 minutes from Chandigarh. Indeed, Punjab Director General of Police Sarabjeet Singh later went on record to assert he first heard of the hijacking past 6 p.m., on television. Sarabjeet Singh’s horrifying claim, if true, illustrates just how inefficient the CMG and the Prime Minister’s Office were.

Amritsar’s own little crisis team, the lowest in the three-tier rung of district, State, and national committees, received little guidance. The first orders the team received from Delhi, at about 6-40 p.m., were to delay refuelling as long as possible. Twenty minutes were lost in the confusion caused by a hoax phone call mandating just the contrary. To add to the chaos, the hijackers refused to talk to Sidhu or Birdi. By the time permission was received from the CMG to send a fuel bowser to the aircraft, carrying Punjab Police commandos trained to deflate its tyres, it was 7-45 p.m. Captain of the Flight D. Sharan suddenly announced he was taking off. “We are all dying,” he said.

It is impossible to say what might have happened if Birdi and Sidhu had initiated a commando operation at Amritsar. To at least some officials, it seemed as if that the risks involved were acceptable. Some 20 minutes after IC 814 landed in Amritsar, Sharan first notified Amritsar air traffic control that the hijackers had Kalashnikov rifles. At 7-25 p.m., he told Amritsar control that the hijackers had started killing hostages, and followed this up with another message at 7-44 p.m. that four hostages had indeed been executed. Although Sharan’s voice was filled with panic, Birdi believed he was merely relaying under duress what he was told by the hijackers.

New Delhi perhaps believed otherwise or did not want to take the chance. The CMG waited for a National Security Guard (NSG) anti-hijack unit to arrive in Amritsar before authorising an armed response. At least one of these units was well out of reach, stuck in Manesar near Jammu. The unit had been deployed there on routine security duties. There has been no official explanation of where other units were, and why at least one anti-hijack team was not on standby as it is supposed to be on a 24-hour basis. Those in Amritsar in turn saw no reason to stick their necks out in the absence of orders, given the risk of civilian casualties.

When IC 814 took off from Amritsar at 7-49 p.m., its right wingtip missed the fuel bowser carrying the Punjab Police’s commandos by just a dozen metres. NSG commandos finally landed after the plane had left, true to Hindi pop film stereotype. Sharan proceeded to make a desperate landing at Lahore, with almost no fuel left and the runway lights turned off. From Lahore, even as a bitter war of words broke out between Indian and Pakistani officials over responsibility, IC 814 proceeded to a military airbase near Dubai. After dumping executed hostage Rupin Katyal’s body and releasing 27 hostages, the hijackers commandeered the aircraft to Kandahar.

Passengers on the aircraft had to wait out December 25 and 26 while the Union government discussed the prospect of opening negotiations. One option was for the government to refuse to enter into a dialogue with terrorists. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani appears to have pushed this line, mindful that a hostages-for-terrorists swap would be politically damaging. It was unclear, however, how public opinion would play if the government washed its hands of the hostages. There seemed to be little international support, either, for an aggressive Indian position. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh argued hard that the Taliban, desperate for international recognition, would cooperate with India in the course of negotiations.

Meanwhile, intelligence officials were desperately trying to work out just who had hijacked the plane, and how. Three persons—Z. Mistry, R.G. Verma, and S.A. Syed—had booked economy-class tickets through Everest Travels and Tours, a Kathmandu travel agency, for the December 27 flight to New Delhi. Two others—A.A. Sheikh and A.S. Qazi—had separately bought first-class tickets for the same flight on the same day. Then, on December 13, all five altered their travel dates, booking seats on the December 24 flight. Gopal Tarmarkar, a Kathmandu businessman with dubious underworld links, had booked on to the same flight, but after some initial speculation, was found not to be part of the hijack team.

Access to Tribhuvan International Airport, officials came to believe, was arranged through Dawood Ibrahim’s Kathmandu network. The Karachi-based underworld figure is suspected to have been put to work by Yusuf Suleiman Motlala, an important Harkat-ul-Ansar financier. Security problems at the airport stem from the fact that Nepal’s second most important economic activity after tourism is smuggling.

Jaswant Singh had his way, and Indian negotiators landed in Kandahar on the morning of December 27. A series of unpleasant surprises awaited them. For one, the hostages released at Dubai had reported that the hijackers only had two .32-calibre revolvers and knives. In Kandahar, they exhibited an enormous 17 kg of RDX, a box of HE 36 grenades, Uzi machine pistols and at least one assault rifle. No one was certain where the weapons had come from, but they appeared shortly after the hijackers were allowed access to the Airbus’ cargo hold. It was now clear the hijackers did have the resources to carry out their threat to blow up the plane.

More important, despite the External Affairs Minister’s public pronouncements, the Taliban was not cooperating with Indian plans. Negotiators Vivek Katju, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Home Ministry official Ajit Doval and Cabinet Secretariat representative C.D. Sahay pushed for a rescue attempt. The Taliban flatly refused to allow Indian commandos on their soil, pointing to the absence of diplomatic relations and expressing unwillingness to risk bloodshed. When the team then suggested that Afghan commandos carry out an operation, with India assuming responsibility for its outcome, Taliban officials said they had neither the inclination nor the technical capabilities to do so.

Discussion of an armed rescue provoked a prompt reaction. Taliban officials moved in tanks and rocket launchers around the hijacked aircraft, an unsubtle move to protect the hijackers from any unilateral Indian military enterprise. Just as talks with the hijackers and Taliban officials reached a breaking point, a third possibility opened up. On December 27, Taliban head Maulana Mohammad Umar told the Pakistani newspaper The News that the hijackers should either leave Afghanistan or surrender. In essence, Umar was stating that the hijack was illegal. If the negotiators got the hijackers on the ground and segregated them from the hostages, Indian officials now believed, the Taliban would be obliged to arrest them.

Working from this premise, Indian negotiators finally began serious discussion on the substance of the hijackers’ demands. The demands for ransom money and for the body of Sajjad Afghani were soon dropped, with a little prompting from the Taliban. Hard bargaining remained on the list of 36 prisoners that the hijackers, increasingly confident there would be no military pressure, had put forward.

Several of the prisoners whose release they demanded were minor operatives, clearly included as a negotiating tactic. Eleven, however, belonged to the Harkat-ul-Ansar or its affiliates, and some such as Nasrullah Langriyal were valued members. In the end, Indian negotiators succeeded in persuading the hijackers to agree to the release of just three prisoners in return for the release of all the hostages.

Just before dusk on December 30, a twin-engine executive jet touched down at Jammu airport. There was only one passenger on board. RAW chief A.S. Dulat had arrived to persuade Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to order the release of two prisoners held in his State for the return of the hostages on Indian Airlines Flight IC 814. Abdullah responded bitterly. “We will have to pay for this,” he told the RAW chief, “and for years to come.” Dulat kept up the pressure, using every trick in the book, but it was almost midnight before Abdullah finally caved in.

Srinagar’s Jail Superintendent was woken up at 1 a.m. and asked to release Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. He refused to do so until he had written authorisation, and had to be threatened with suspension. At 3 a.m., with fog blanketing Srinagar airport, three bullet-proof jeeps drove Zargar out of Srinagar Jail. The Banihal Tunnel was especially opened to allow the police vehicles through. A helicopter, flown by the State government’s crack pilot A.S. Kahlon, was waiting at Udhampur. Masood Azhar was already on the tarmac when Zargar landed in Jammu. Both boarded the RAW jet, landing in Delhi in time to join Jaswant Singh’s flight to Kandahar along with Ahmed Umar Sheikh, who had been released from Tihar that morning.

When Azhar, Zargar and Sheikh arrived in Kandahar, Indian negotiators had in fact achieved many of their key goals. The hostages were off the plane, and had been safely segregated. The hijackers’ weapons and explosives had been removed from the aircraft. But instead of arresting the hijackers and the three released terrorists, as law demands, Taliban officials chose to drive them across the border, towards Quetta. If the fact that 33 of the 36 prisoners whose release had been demanded by the hijackers were Pakistani left anything to the imagination, no doubt was left now on official complicity. Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, who had earlier charged India with engineering the hijacking, now showed no interest in securing the terrorists’ arrest.

Critics charge the Indian government with having moved too fast to secure the release of the hostages, instead of waiting for the hijackers to blink first. Sadly, given the fact that they were secure in Kandahar and perceived no threat from the Taliban, the hijackers could have held out more or less forever. Protracted negotiations would have served little purpose. “What could we have done,” asks one official. “Ordered airborne troops to take Kandahar airport? Washed our hands of the hostages’ fate? These were big decisions that the government ought to have addressed; they were not part of the negotiators’ brief. The Taliban chose to honour promises which common sense makes clear were never meant to be kept.”

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