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After Jinnah, it's Kandahar's turn

After Jinnah, it's Kandahar's turn

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: August 30, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/198991/After-Jinnah-it's-Kandahar's-turn.html

The hijacking of Indian Airlines' flight IC 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi is back in the news. Maudlin memories of partition, which was perhaps the second best thing that ever happened in this land of ours - the first being the rout of ghazis who tried to perpetuate Muslim rule by propping up a dissolute Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar whose writ didn't run beyond the royal bedchamber in Lal Qila - have been displaced by bogus commentary on the hijacking of IC 814. Exalted members of the commentariat that dominates public discourse have been busy telling fanciful tales which are far removed from the truth and more fiction than fact. Ten years is a long time and sufficient to dull public memory which, in the best of times, is notoriously short. So gibberish can be easily palmed off as the truth and pompous comment as considered opinion.

Since everybody has a 'Kandahar story' to tell these days, I might as well tell mine too; unlike theirs, this story is not conjured out of thin air or based on what the Prime Minister or any of the key Ministers in the NDA Government told me. It's based on notes that I kept during my stint in the Prime Minister's Office as an aide to Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. So, shorn of manufactured dramatic details and whispered confidences, it could prove to be utterly boring. You have been warned.

Mr Vajpayee had gone out of Delhi on an official tour; I had accompanied him along with other officers of the PMO. The hijacking of IC 814 occurred while we were returning to Delhi on Christmas eve. Curiously, the initial information about IC 814 being hijacked soon after its take-off from Tribhuvan International Airport, of which the IAF was believed to have been aware, was not communicated to the pilot of the Prime Minister's aircraft, a derelict Air Force Boeing of 1970s vintage. As a result, we remained blissfully ignorant of the hijacking till we landed in Delhi around 7 pm, a full hour and 40 minutes since IC 814 had been commandeered by Ibrahim Athar, resident of Bahawalpur, Shahid Akhtar Sayed, Gulshan Iqbal, resident of Karachi, Sunny Ahmed Qazi, resident of Defence Area, Karachi, Mistri Zahoor Ibrahim, resident of Akhtar Colony, Karachi, and Shakir, resident of Sukkur City - all exotic places in what remains of Mohammed Ali Jinnah's 'moth-eaten' Pakistan. 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. He led Mr Vajpayee aside and gave him the news. They got into the Prime Minister's car and it sped out of the Technical Area. Some of us followed Mr Vajpayee to Race Course Road, as was the normal routine.

At the Prime Minister's residence, senior Ministers and Secretaries had already been summoned for an emergency meeting. Mr Mishra left for the crisis control room that had been set up at Rajiv Bhavan. In between meetings, Mr Vajpayee instructed his personal staff to cancel all celebrations planned for December 25, his birthday. The Cabinet Committee on Security met late into the night as our long vigil began. On Christmas eve, after news of the hijacking broke, there was stunned all-round silence. But by noon on December 25, orchestrated protests outside the Prime Minister's residence began, with women beating their chests and tearing their clothes. The crowd swelled by the hour as the day progressed. Over the next week, there was a steady clamour that the Government should pay any price to bring the hostages back home, safe and sound. One evening, the Prime Minister asked his staff to let the families come in so that they could be told about the Government's efforts to secure the hostages' release. By then negotiations had begun and Mullah Omar had got into the act through his 'Foreign Minister', Muttavakil. The hijackers wanted 36 terrorists, held in various Indian jails, to be freed, $ 200 million as ransom money and the remains of some terrorists who had been killed and interred in Jammu & Kashmir. Or else they would blow up the aircraft with the hostages.

The moment it entered the premises, the crowd started screaming: "We want our relatives back. What difference does it make to us what you have to give the hijackers?" a man shouted. "We don't care if you have to give away Kashmir," a woman screamed and others took up the refrain, chanting: "Kashmir de do, kuchh bhi de do, hamare logon ko ghar wapas lao." A woman sobbed, "Mera beta… hai mera beta…" and made a great show of fainting of grief. Mr Jaswant Singh, who had been asked to speak to the crowd, made bold to suggest in chaste Hindi that the Government had to keep the nation's interest in mind, that we could not be seen to be giving in to the hijackers. That fetched him abuse and rebuke. "Bhaand me jaaye desh aur bhaand me jaaye desh ka hit. (To hell with the country and national interest)," many in the crowd shouted back. Stumped by the response, Mr Jaswant Singh beat a hasty retreat.

By December 29, the Government's negotiators had struck a deal with the hijackers: The hostages would be set free in exchange of three dreaded Pakistani terrorists - Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Sheikh. Over the next 24 hours the Home Ministry completed the necessary paper work to release the three terrorists from various prisons. Mr Farooq Abdullah fought till the end to prevent the swap as he believed it would be a severe blow to India. At one stage, he broke down and wept bitterly. But by then there was tremendous pressure on the Government to get the hostages back. The media played a dubious role by claiming that the Government was not being sufficiently alert to the gravity of the situation and front-paging treacly stories of families in distress - grieving parents, shocked wives, wailing children.

The CCS met around 8 am on December 31 for a final run-down of the drill. Mr Jaswant Singh informed his colleagues that the IB, R&AW and MEA officials who were in Kandahar and had negotiated the deal with the Taliban apprehended last minute demands and wanted someone "senior enough to take on-the-spot decisions". Mr Jaswant Singh said he had decided to go to Kandahar and left the meeting. Others sat around for some more time. According to the plan that had been drawn up, Mr Jaswant Singh was supposed to travel in an Aviation Research Centre aircraft, while the three terrorists would go in an Indian Airlines plane. Pakistan refused overflight permission for the ARC aircraft minutes before its scheduled take-off. There was no other alternative for Mr Jaswant Singh but to board the plane carrying the terrorists. As things turned out, the Taliban kept their word and the hostages were freed; they landed in Delhi on New Year's eve. And thereby hangs a tale which continues to excite media needlessly.


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