SEEMA MUSTAFA. | 5 JULY, 2015
Taliban militia in front of hijacked aircraft IC 814 in Kandahar (Wikipedia archives)
NEW DELHI: One of the biggest cover ups, where just a handful of reporters wrote the truth as it was, has now been brought back into focus by former Research & Analysis wing chief A.S.Dullat with two words, “goof up.” The expression is too mild for a bizarre response by the powerful Indian government to the hijacking of IC 814 --running through the gamut of indecision, chaos, inaction, knee jerk reactions, confusion.
Dulat in his book ‘Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years’ e writes that “no one in Delhi or Punjab wanted to bell the cat.” He speaks of how “everyone shifted the blame to the other” but does not predictably offer an insight into what was the crux of an absolutely shoddy operation that did nothing for ‘national security’, in fact the very opposite by exposing India’s vulnerable underbelly and her complete inability under the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to deal with the hijacking with some modicum of expertise and respectable dignity.
It was not a question of belling the cat as Dulat has put it in his book. It was complete inefficiency, and exposed the inability to take decisions with panicky knee jerk responses passing for thought out decisions and action. The episode was followed by a massive cover up operation with all the players seeking to shift the blame. The effort was not to review the mess-up but to cover up the chinks with the classical game of obfuscation, All the officials involved in a shoddy operation went on to get promotions, one of them is back again in harness today, and the politicians in power worked overtime to cover up what should probably go down in the annals of history as ‘what not to do when faced with a crisis.’ No one was found guilty, no enquiry was instituted, no heads rolled, as the top brass of the establishment were all involved in the seven day display of complete confusion, ineptitude and indecision.
The story goes thus:
On December 24, 1999 IC 814 with 178 passengers and 11 crew members left Kathmandu for Delhi. It entered Indian airspace at 5.30 pm and was hijacked shortly after. According to interviews with the crew later, first a masked man stood up and threatened to blow up the plane.Four others in red masks got up and positioned themselves at different points in the aircraft.
They directed the pilot Captain Devi Sharan to fly to Lahore. Reports at that time suggested that the pilot flew to Lahore, Pakistan clearly worried about the possible consequences of an Indian hijacked plane on its territory, refused permission. The captain of the IC flight then said there was insufficient fuel and persuaded the hijackers to allow him to land the plane at Amritsar.
The government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was thus given the opportunity to intervene directly, block the aircraft from taking off, start negotiations as a first step. Instead in less than an hour the aircraft was suddenly airborne again, went on to Lahore where it was refuelled and asked to immediately leave, went to Dubai by which time one passenger had been stabbed to death and some others injured. Twenty six passengers were released in Dubai. And from there the plane was taken to Kandahar in Afghanistan, under Taliban control at the time.
The hijacking drama stretched over a week, touched four countries, and finally ended in Vajpayee and the government accepting the hijackers demands for the release of three dreaded terrorists, and possibly the payment of a huge sum of money. The ‘goof up’ happened from the time the aircraft landed in Amritsar and took off again for Lahore in the first stage, and then during the negotiations and the final decisions after it landed in Kandahar till the release of the passengers. And the story reveals the complete inefficiency, panic, indecision of the government, the agencies, and of course the Crisis Management team comprising the top officers who were unable to manage their internal differences, let alone the crisis.
Vajpayee had no idea about the hijacking for 100 minutes.
BJP member Kanchan Gupta provided a first hand insight into this, when he wrote that Prime Minister Vajpayee was on board a flight then, and had no information about the hijacking for over an hour. The clock had stopped clearly for the government on the ground, and the passengers and crew members aboard the flight.
Gupta wrote, “In 1999 I was serving as an aide to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO, and I still have vivid memories of the tumultuous week between Christmas eve and New Year’s eve. Mr Vajpayee had gone out of Delhi on an official tour; I had accompanied him along with other officials of the PMO. The hijacking of IC 814 occurred while we were returning to Delhi in one of the two Indian Air Force Boeings which, in those days, were used by the Prime Minister for travel within the country.
Curiously, the initial information about IC 814 being hijacked, of which the IAF was believed to have been aware, was not communicated to the pilot of the Prime Minister’s aircraft. As a result, Mr Vajpayee and his aides remained unaware of the hijacking till reaching Delhi. This caused some amount of controversy later.
It was not possible for anybody else to have contacted us while we were in midair. It’s strange but true that the Prime Minister of India would be incommunicado while on a flight because neither the ageing IAF Boeings nor the Air India Jumbos, used for official travel abroad, had satellite phone facilities.
By the time our aircraft landed in Delhi, it was around 7:00 pm, a full hour and 40 minutes since the hijacking of IC 814. After disembarking from the aircraft in the VIP bay of Palam Technical Area, we were surprised to find National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra waiting at the foot of the ladder.”
By the time the emergency meeting headed by the Prime Minister was held, information that the plane had landed in Amritsar came in.
And it is from here that the government and its crisis management group collapsed. And as Gupta noted, “The hijacked plane landed at Amritsar and remained parked on the tarmac for nearly 45 minutes. The hijackers demanded that the aircraft be refuelled. The airport officials ran around like so many headless chickens, totally clueless about what was to be done in a crisis situation.
Desperate calls were made to the officials at Raja Sansi Airport to somehow stall the refuelling and prevent the plane from taking off. The officials just failed to respond with alacrity. At one point, an exasperated Jaswant Singh, if memory serves me right, grabbed the phone and pleaded with an official, “Just drive a heavy vehicle, a fuel truck or a road roller or whatever you have, onto the runway and park it there.” But all this was to no avail.”
It was announced that the National Security Guards had been alerted. Then reporters were told, or at least found out, that they had been directed to reach the spot. But there was no sign of India’s crack team, trained to tackle hostage situations, at all. It turned out there was no aircraft to ferry them from Delhi where the NSG was stationed to Amritsar, so the quick rapid action required fizzled out from the start. The second version that this writer had not heard of at the time but one that Kanchan Gupta mentioned in his article as well, was that they were stuck in a traffic jam between Manesar and Delhi airport! Whatever be the reason, the NSG failed to show up at Amritsar despite the 45 minutes the aircraft was parked on the tarmac.
Dulat in his book has written that the then Punjab police chief Sarabjit Singh said that he had never been told by Delhi to stop the plane from taking off. But that he had told Delhi that he had “Punjab commandos trained in anti-terrorism operations who could storm the aircraft but Delhi's response was that it did not want any casualties.” At that time reporters covering the event wrote of how an attempt had been made to block the path of the aircraft by moving a fuel truck, but that it was such a clumsy effort that the hijackers were alerted and insisted on the plane taking off for Lahore. The movement of the fuel bowser reflected the chaos in Delhi, as it moved on to the tarmac, stopped and seemed to be waiting for instructions.
After the plane flew off to Lahore - the next stop was Dubai and eventually Kandahar - Dulat maintains that the "CMG degenerated into a blame game...with the cabinet secretary being head of the CMG as one target and NSG chief Nikhil Kumar, another." A major indictment as the Crisis Management Team sat for five hours in the first instance, and clearly was unable to take any decision with sheer chaos reigning.
Diplomacy, with the aircraft landing in three different countries, was knee jerk in the form of desperate phone calls by Minister Jaswant Singh and Advani respectively, to Pakistan to let the aircraft land and then to not let it fly off, to the UAE authorities for the same but who allowed the US Ambassador in the country into the airport but did not give permission to the Indian Ambassador, to the US envoy here in Delhi for help that was not forthcoming. Clearly Indian diplomacy was not working, with not a single government willing to take responsibility for a hijacked plane that the Indian government itself had no idea what to do with.
L.K.Advani in his book wrote that he was in his North Block office, and was informed of the hijack by the then Intelligence Bureau Director Shyamal Dutta. He spoke of the emergency meeting convened by Vajpayee, that Kanchan Gupta noted had been held 100 minutes after the event. So from Advani’s version it is not clear what ensued during the intervening period, or if anything at all. As the first action he writes of was the emergency meeting where “It was decided that our first priority would be to immobilise the plane at Amritsar and make it impossible for it to take off to any other destination outside the country.” But clearly this priority did not work.
The Crisis Management Group (CMG), chaired by Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar, was activated to dispatch the message to the police authorities in Punjab. The CMG decided to send a fuel bowser to the aircraft, carrying commandos who would deflate its tyres. Dulat was a member of the CMG, as was the Intelligence Bureau chief, as was the Union Home Secretary. Minister Jaswant Singh wrote later in his book India at Risk, "I am still astounded as to how that could have happened. The failure to get the NSG from Manesar to Amritsar in time, the failure to organise the logistics is one bureaucratic muddle that still amazes me."
The aircraft went to Lahore that again did not want it to land, but given the very low level of fuel it gave permission on the condition that the aircraft would leave as soon as possible. Jaswant Singh spoke to Pakistan urging them to allow the plane to land. Advani recorded his own conversation with the US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill “seeking urgent American assistance.” But even diplomacy was not at its best and as Advani pointed out, while the US Ambassador to Dubai was allowed into the airport by the UAE authorities., “curiously” the Indian ambassador was not.
And interestingly, instead of introspecting in his book ‘My Country, My Life” of why his government failed to block the aircraft Advani blamed the US, the UAE and of course Pakistan for not doing enough. “I felt that the Americans, with their considerable military presence and diplomatic influence in the Gulf region, could have taken some effective proactive steps to put the hijacked plane out of action, so that Indian commandos could be sent there to rescue the hostages.I was deeply disappointed that they did not even try. A few days after the crisis had ended, when Blackwill called on me, I expressed my displeasure to him. ‘This is not what we understand by Indo-US cooperation in fighting terrorism,’ I told him,” he wrote.
Advani recorded that “the CCS decided to send a team of three officials—Ajit Doval, a senior officer in the IB known for handling tough operations, Vivek Katju, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, and CD Sahay from the RAW—to Kandahar to negotiate with the hijackers as well as the Taliban authorities.” Katju when contacted by The Citizen refused to give details of the negotiations but said that the possibility of passengers being killed had clearly limited options.
Katju is now retired. Doval had gone on to head the IB in 200402005, retired, and after a long hiatus is back in the saddle now as the National Security Advisor. Sahay is with the Vivekananda Institute, the think tank that is perceived as the recruiting ground for top officials in the current dispensation like Doval himself.
Advani of course, claimed in his book later that he was not in favour of exchanging the terrorists with the hostages. Meaningless really as that was exactly what was done.
The crack team of negotiators were unable to make a dent as the aircraft was now in hospitable territory, Taliban controlled Kandahar with whom India had no diplomatic relations. The Taliban surrounded the aircraft with armed militia in record speed --unlike the Indian response in Amritsar---and insisted that this was to protect the passengers. New Delhi read it as a clear effort to prevent Indian aircraft from landing at the airport with commandos for a possible rescue bid.
The passengers relatives had by then gone into hysterical mode in Delhi, with tears, protests making it that much more difficult for the terrified government. An initial report had said that the hijackers wanted a hefty amount of cash, figures varyingm and the release of 103, and then 36 militants in Indian jails. The negotiations brought the figure down to three.
And then came the next ‘goof up’. The three terrorists were sent to Kandahar in the same plane as Indian Minister Jaswant Singh. This created a storm in Parliament that of course subsided eventually. Reporters at the time were unable to confirm it, but the story making the rounds was that Singh had gone not to ensure the passengers safe release alone but with the bounty that the hijackers had asked for. This was never confirmed, and of course will never be, but reports continued to circulate that the hijackers had been persuaded to whittle down the number of men but not the amount of money they had demanded. The Taliban gave them ten hours to ‘disappear’ which they did, to surface again later in terror attacks against India.
Singh defended himself later, "It was not my decision alone. The entire cabinet decided. Advaniji and Arun Shourie were initially opposed to it, even I was reluctant but (then) Prime Minister Vajpayee felt that every effort must be made to save the lives of the passengers hence we all fell in line.”