On Dec. 24, 1999, just a day before Christmas, Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 was hijacked by Pakistani terrorists en route to Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi from Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. The incident has since been a hallmark of the failures of the Indian security and political system.
How did this horrific incident take place and what have we learned since? OTFS investigates...
The region was in turmoil back then. With the Taliban fully in control of Afghanistan (except for some northern areas), extremism was growing rapidly. Only two countries in the whole world - Pakistan and the UAE - recognised the Taliban regime. For India, those were some of the darkest years in terms of International conditions.
In the evening of Dec. 24, 1999, at 17:30 hrs, just after it entered Indian airspace, the captain, Captain Devi Sharan, was 0rdered by five masked men to "fly West," towards Lahore. And so began a journey that none of the 176 passengers on board would ever forget.
The Captain desperately told the hijackers that they did not have enough fuel to reach Lahore Airport. Meanwhile, a Crisis Management Group (CMG) headed by the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was formed in New Delhi to oversee the situation. The Capitan requested that the aircraft be allowed to refuel at Amritsar Airport. The CMG refused and ordered that the aircraft be halted at Amritsar for good.
To that effect, as the aircraft landed at Amritsar, a fuel tanker was dispatched and instructed to block its approach. But as the air tanker neared the aircraft, Traffic Control ordered it to slow down. The tanker stopped immediately and this aroused the hijackers' suspicion. They forced the aircraft to take off without clearance, narrowly missing the tanker.
Due to extremely low fuel, IC-814 requested for an emergency landing at Lahore Airport. It was refused immediately. The Kargil War has occurred recently and Indo-Pak relations were so frosty that neither side wanted to have anything to do with the other. In fact, lights at the Lahore Airport were turned off to keep IC-814 away. Seeing no way out, the Captain tried to land on a patch that seemed to be the runway; actually, it was a road and the Captain aborted the landing just in time.
This threw the Lahore staff into panic as they knew that either they allow it to land or it would crash land in the middle of Lahore. IC-814 was allowed to land and was refueled immediately.
The Pakistanis wanted to have nothing to do with the incident; they even refused to offload women and children. IC-814 was ordered to take off.
The flight then reached Dubai Airport, where 27 passengers (women, children and the ill) were released. However, the hijackers had stabbed 25 year old Rupin Katyal and he breathed his last on the flight, with his newly-wed bride never finding out until the entire ordeal was over. Finally, IC-814 took off from Dubai to Kandahar International Airport, where some of the darkest days for Indian diplomats were about to unfold.
Once in Kandahar, the hijackers finally made contact. This was complicated by the fact that India did not have any diplomatic relations with the Taliban Government and thus, AR Ghanshyam from the Indian Embassy in Islamabad was called on to Kandahar for negotiating. The news he brought was alarming: the hijackers had threatened to kill off each passenger one by one if the Indian Government did not send a team of negotiators. The Vajpayee Government formed a 52-member team immediately and they were sent off.
The negotiators had still more shocking demands to hear. The hijackers demanded the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, a terrorist jailed in an India prison, as well as other militants. Senior IB official Ajit Doval did all the talking. The team used several tactics over the next five days to wear the hijackers down. Doval tried to play to their religious sentiments, telling them that it was un-Islamic to hijack innocent people, to which he received a terse reply: "You don't teach us Islam."
Later, the hijackers threw a list of their demands out of the plane: the release of 36 militants, $200 million and the body of terrorist Sajjad Afghani, who was killed in Jammu. However, the Taliban began to directly intervene and forced the hijackers to withdraw their demand for the money and Sajjad Afghani's body, since this was "against Islam." By now, the Indian Government had made its first contact ever with the Taliban Government through their respective missions in Islamabad. The response was cold. The Taliban pretended to have nothing to do with this, but the IB knew that they were directing everything from the background.
The Taliban pretended to pressurize the plane to leave Kandahar, putting pressure on the Indian Government indirectly. New Delhi was against bowing to any of the demands, but the hijackers kept up the pressure. Finally, a negotiator told the Indian Cabinet, "You do not know in which age these people are living. It's better we agree."
Finally, a deal was clinched and on new year's eve, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh accompanied three dangerous terrorists - Maulana Masood Azhar (notorious for the 2001 Indian Parliament Attack), Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (arrested later for the murder of Daniel Pearl) and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar (now an active militant in PoK) - to Kandahar, where they were freed in exchange for the passengers and crew of IC-814.
For the freed passengers and crew, the ordeal was a nightmare that ended. But its consequences continue to haunt the Indian security establishment even today. Subsequent investigations, including searches conducted during Operation Enduring Freedom, revealed a deep link between the hijackers, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Pakistan's ISI. The bureaucratic delays, the fact that there was no standard procedure for such a situation, the political ineffectualness, the lack of strong Indian influence in the region: all these and more were to be blamed for the hijack.
To this day, the question as to why the Foreign Minister accompanied the terrorists haunts the BJP.
A Lot Harder
Today, any similar hijack would be met strongly. There is a standard procedure and it envisages a no-talks posture with hijackers as well as a set of guidelines to shoot down a hijacked aircraft. India's NSG is far better prepared to handle such a situation (although 26/11 caused that to happen) as is the bureaucracy. To carry a weapon into an aircraft today has become next to impossible with the levels of security. And India's influence in South Asia and the extended region has grown manifold particularly with a friendly Government in Afghanistan and an Indian Air Base in a neighbouring country.
Yet, the danger of a Kandahar-repeat still exist. We saw that despite all the steps taken to clear unnecessary political and bureaucratic delays, there was still such a long response time during 26/11. Whether the steps taken to prevent another Kandahar are working or not, we'll never find out until another rogue group tries. Lets hope that never happens. (OTFS)
PS: I apologise for the delay in publishing this. It was scheduled for mid-June but came out on the last day of June!