The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 9, 2000
Lead Article

Caught off-guard
By K. V. Prasad

IT was an ordeal the like of which has not been seen by the country before. And one hopes it would never experience again.

Ever since the Indian Airlines IC-814 Kathmandu-Delhi flight was diverted by air pirates on December 24, the nation was hooked on to the crisis that ended, eight days later, on December 31.

With television channels providing round-the-clock updates with intermittent live coverage, the country had a chance to witness the hijacking episode as it unfolded itself.

  The sordid affair had the trappings of a thriller — suspense, dramatic twists and turns, emotion and, in the end, a happy reunion. The only difference was that this was for real.

Between Christmas and New Year, most people forgot all about being at the threshold of a new millennium. The focus was on the fate of the 160 people and the crew who were held as hostages.

Little would have the 189 people who boarded the flight at Kathmandu on the fateful evening imagined what they were getting into. They were to reach their destination some two hours later but it took them almost 200 hours. One passenger, young engineer Rupen Katyal, killed by the hijackers for committing the crime of taking a peek at them.

When his body was offloaded at Dubai, the penultimate destination of the flight, the pathos was not lost. His wife, with whom he had gone on a honeymoon, was left behind on the plane along with 161 other passengers. Another passenger, Satnam Singh, escaped with stab wounds which the hijackers inflicted in an attempt to force the pace at Amritsar, the first touchdown the plane made after being hijacked. Prior to it the aircraft was forcibly turned towards Lahore but Pakistan had closed the airspace. It was opened subsequently.

The fiasco at Amritsar, where the plane landed and stayed put for 40 crucial minutes, cannot be pardoned and an inquiry may only reveal what the authorities would like the people to know. Nevertheless one thing is clear that someone in authority who was supposed to act, did not. Whether it was delay in sending instructions or taking decisions, the inertia cost the nation heavily.

A full-fledged inquiry into the whole episode which has been ordered may firm up certain leads that the government has. These leads point an accusing finger at Pakistan and its Inter Service Intelligence as being the mastermind behind the operation.

There were several aspects to the crisis-- the covert support of some authorities in Pakistan, the on-off role played by the Taliban regime with which India has no diplomatic relations, the plight of the hostages, domestic pressure and the clinical and cruel methods employed by the hijackers. All things put together made the government give in to the demand of the hijackers —release of three hardcore terrorists in exchange of freedom of those whom they held captive.

The political leadership groped in the dark for nearly two days of the crisis. For one, it had to deal with two nations --- the military regime in Pakistan and the Taliban militia. By this time, the domestic pressure started to mount with news networks showing clips of the demonstrations by the relatives of the hostages urging the government to swap terrorists in lieu of their loved ones aboard. After that, events set their own momentum.

For the first two days, the posture of the Taliban offered little solace. It issued repeated threats of forcing the hijackers to leave its territory, thus showing it did not want to hold someone else’s baby and in the same breath ruled out any commando operation.

It was only after the Majlis-e-Shoura meeting that Taliban chief Mulla Omar took a firm view that the Taliban would not allow blood to be spilt on its soil. The silver lining was the warning to the hijackers that the Taliban would storm the plane if any harm was done to any of the hostages.

This statement altered the situation radically and also helped to allay the fears of the distraught relatives in India about the safety of the hostages. Other steps were also initiated by the government which became more communicative, and from protests the relatives turned to prayers.

Having handled one aspect of the relatives through which the government reduced the intensity of domestic pressure, the core group handling the crisis became more focused on the issue and its resolution.

The core group comprised the Prime Minister, the External Affairs Minister, the Home Minister, the Defence Minister and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister with the Chiefs of Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing meeting at frequent intervals.

The political aspect was also taken care of. After the Kargil war, during which the opposition parties accused the government of keeping them in the dark, the government acted swiftly by calling an all-party meeting. Though it did not quite get the backing of the Opposition, at least no questions were raised during the management of the crisis.

Two independent channels —diplomatic and religious — were activated in an attempt to put pressure on the hijackers for an early end to the

ordeal. While the External Affairs Minister and his ministry appealed to at least two dozen countries, at home, an exercise was launched to mobilise the opinion of the Muslim clergy and intellectuals against the hijacking especially in the holy month of Ramzaan.

Practically all forces were put into operation but the storming of the plane was kept in abeyance in view of the rigid stand of the Taliban as well as reports of arms, ammunition and explosives on the plane. There were reports that RDX was also on the aircraft. This information was supplemented by inputs that additional arms and weapons like AK-47s and Uzi pistols had reached the hijackers between Lahore and Kandahar. This was contrary to initial reports that the hijackers were only armed with knives and a grenade when they diverted the flight somewhere over Lucknow on December 24. How and where the hijackers got the additional weapons is a mystery that the probe team will have to solve.

Despite all this, the logjam continued. Direct negotiations between the hijackers and India started only on Day 4 (December 27) of the episode when the Indian team of negotiators headed by Vivek Katju, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, reached Kandahar --- a day after the hijackers dropped chits listing their demands. Thirtysix militants, including Mohammed Masood Azhar, whose freedom they sought on Day 2, the coffin of slain militant Sajjad Afghani and U S dollars 200 million (Rs 860 crore approximately). The next day (December 29), the Taliban held another Shoura and pronounced that barring the release of militants, the other demands were ‘unIslamic". The hijackers promptly dropped them.

The Taliban had effectively moved in. It allowed Indian negotiators, international media, the UN Commissioner and the International Red Cross access, thus showing its human face. But at the same time it conveyed that the Indian government resolve the crisis in the next 48 hours, or "we will force the plane to leave Kandahar". The dice was cast.

At one point of time, around 2 am on December 30, there was a deadlock with the hijackers snapping links. It was resumed nearly 12 hours later. The events thereafter moved rather rapidly though on the surface there seemed to be little movement either way.

By Wednesday evening it became increasingly clear that some militants would have to be released. The bargaining began and by the next evening necessary instructions were issued to start the legal formalities. The cases against Masood Azhar, the Pakistani cleric, his compatriot Ahmed Omar Syed Sheikh, and Kashmiri militant Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, alias Mushtaq Lataram, were to be withdrawn before they could be released by Indian jails.

As is known now, the hijackers had agreed to set free 70 of the 150-odd hostages in exchange of Masood and 10 more for every additional release from the list. The other option was to allow them to pick two militants of their choice plus Masood.

On the penultimate day of the crisis, the External Affairs Minister is said to have pleaded with his colleagues in the Cabinet to bear with the crisis for a day more, promising he would bring happy tidings the next day.

The Cabinet Committee on Security met early Friday morning and cleared the swap plan with both the Home Minister and the Defence Minister not fully in agreement with the deal.

While Masood and Mushtaq had to be flown in from Jammu and Srinagar, respectively, to Delhi, Sheikh had to be shifted from Tihar Jail and transported to the special aircraft which took them along with Jaswant Singh to ensure that there were no last- minute hiccups.

Between 2 pm and 9 pm on December 31, events moved at a fast pace and the hostages were set free. So were the hijackers and the three terrorists.

The fight against terrorism continues to another day. With due apologies to Winston Churchill, it could be said that though the terrorists have won the battle this time, it remains to be seen who will win the war.