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CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

 

FROM THE DIRECTOR'S DESK
SEEMA MUSTAFA | 7 JULY, 2015

THE REAL STORY: KANDAHAR HIJACKING, NOT A ‘GOOF UP’ BUT A MAJOR COVER UP

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.

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