"It Happens Only in India"

Columnist M ZAFAR studies the hijacking of IC-814 and INDIA's role in the whole exercise

On Friday the 24th December '99, Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 with 187 persons on board was hijacked in the course of an international flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. What happened in the wake of this massive security disaster is at once instructive and frightening to the observers of the sub-continental scene.

Hijacking of planes is not a new phenomenon. Over the past fifty years freedom fighters and dissident groups all over the world have often resorted to hijacking to publicise their cause and make bargains with regimes not otherwise amenable to their demands. Hijacking came to the sub-continent through courtesy of the Indian intelligence, when at the height of crisis in East Pakistan in 1971, an incident was orchestrated to provide excuse for banning Pakistani flights over Indian territory. India's own dissident citizens have learnt their lesson well and have since then hijacked about one dozen odd flights on internal routes. All this should have given the Indians vast experience in dealing with such emergencies. However it is clear from the way the current crisis has been handled that Indian bureaucracy has learnt little and remains as archaic in its approach and as excruciatingly slow in reactions as ever.

The paralysis that struck Indian administration was unbelievable. It appeared that India did not have a standing operating procedure that would activate itself automatically in such an emergency. Passing the buck seemed to be the order of the day. And if it was, as is being suggested in some serious quarters, a part of a deliberate plan to involve Pakistan, even at the risk of Indian lives, it was a wicked thing to do.

The hijacking took place at 1645 hrs local when the plane was overflying Lucknow. By 1650 hrs the pilot Mr. Saran had informed Control of his situation. His transmissions were in all probability monitored among others by the plane carrying the Prime Minister of India that was co-incidently in flight in that area. Airliner Captain Saran through his own initiative or on request of the hijackers requested permission for landing at Lucknow. If he were lucky, his ordeal could have been over within minutes. But that was not to be. The plane of the highest authority in the land refused to acknowledge his message of extreme distress. Lucknow did not grant permission to land. Inexplicable.

From Lucknow the plane set course in a northwesterly direction. When it reached the airspace of Lahore International it requested permission to land but was quite correctly disallowed especially when the Indian airstrip of Raja Sansi lay equally close. The pilot landed at Amritsar airport at 1920 hrs local and under instructions from hijackers, asked for fuel. By now the plane had been under hijack for about two and a half hours, time enough to allow streams of adrenaline to travel to the upper stories of even the dodos. But the stewards of Indian Aviation belonged to a different category. Overcome with the fear of the unknown they had gone into limbo and remained mortally afraid to make decisions.

The unsure and tentative handling of the situation by the staff at Amritsar aroused hijackers' suspicions and they forced the pilot to take off regardless of the level of fuel. Surprisingly the runway had not been blocked and neither had the plane been otherwise disabled through ground action. In the event, the plane took off at 1950 hrs local. The brief opportunity of rescue that had come the way of the unfortunate crew and the passengers had gone unutilised. In capital New Delhi, Crisis Management Committee began its session at 1755 hrs one hour after the first reports of the hijack. Even so it had two hours to finalise its plan for dealing with the situation and give firm directions to all concerned including Amritsar. It failed. Criminal.

Having criminally evaded meaningful action and mount a mission to terminate the hijack, Indians in consonance with their inimitable culture of mixing fact with fiction and logic with conjecture devoted their talents to confusing the issue, shifting the focus and finding scapegoats. Even before any hints as to the identity and the aims of the hijackers were available their media with the definitiveness of clairvoyants named Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal jointly responsible for the hijack. Kashmiri freedom fighters did not figure in their calculations. Nor did indeed the Indian Airlines staff whose criminal negligence had made the hijack possible in the first place.

When the plane approached Lahore airport for the second time it was allowed to land. The pilot made it clear that he had exhausted his fuel and if permission was refused he would be forced to make a crash landing in the vicinity. Faced with a problem involving two hundred human lives, the authorities relented and allowed landing in consonance with the international aviation laws. Indian diplomats in Pakistan were promised all possible help in case they wanted to initiate a dialogue with the hijackers. A helicopter was put at the disposal of the Indian High Commissioner for the purpose. For reasons known to Indians alone the third opportunity to start a dialogue was also allowed to slip. The plane received fuel and food here and then it took off for unknown destination. After about four hours it was reported to have landed at a military airstrip in Dubai.

A UAE Prince conducted negotiations with the hijackers and in return for release of 26 women and children ordered supply of fuel for the plane and food for the passengers and crew. Authorities in Delhi remained supremely unconcerned. A minister was sent to travel to Dubai not to conduct negotiations for securing the release of the hostages but to escort back the already released passengers. India had missed the fourth chance of having the hijack terminated. The apparent ease with which Emirate leaders were able to secure the release of women and children at Dubai showed the high degree of influence that they had with the hijackers. The plane was parked on a safe military strip and could have been detained ad infinitum under persuasion or disabled if the need arose. Any way the opportunity was lost and the plane took off again for an undisclosed destination. Three hours later it landed at Kandahar Airport in the Taliban territory.

With the arrival of the hijacked plane at Kandahar options for India were much reduced. India does not recognise Taleban regime and in fact continues to host Rabbani regime representative in Delhi as Ambassador of Afghanistan. After imposition of sanctions UN does not have the usual kind of leverage but a determined approach on a humanitarian problem could not have gone unresponded. The only countries who have relations with Taliban are Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan. A serious Indian effort to get the good offices of the Arabs could have yielded results. In the holy month of Ramazan it would take a heartless Muslim to say 'No' to the envoys from the land of the Holy Prophet. India however seemed more intent to play a larger scale political game than concentrate on the immediate and more limited objective of getting the release of her citizens. Indians approached Russia for moving the UN Security Council, eight other countries whose nationals were among the hostages to intercede on their behalf and as for itself the Government of India engaged in endless 'talkathons' with the cabinet, opposition parties parliamentarians, press, relatives of the hostages. In short they were talking to everybody except those who could have solved their problem-the hijackers and their hosts. Everywhere the ubiquitous Mr. Govinda gyrated in the background to the titillating tune; 'It happens only in India' as if to explain the culture.

Part of the problem seems to be ingrained in India's inflated view of itself. Its leaders are at a loss to understand that how a population of one billion with six thousand years of history having an army of two million men fail over and over again to overawe the world. They have to understand that over one dozen on-going insurrections, failing institutions of state security and governance and abysmal poverty of the masses in a progressively failing national concord tend to bring their credibility under strain. Till the message gets across their frustrations can be extremely dangerous.