February 06, 2008
Source: Indian Express
G. Parthasarathy : Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Peripheral accomplices in the 1999 hijacking are convicted. But what has India learnt from that episode?
When news networks announced on the afternoon of February 5 that Abdul Latif, Yusuf Nepali and Dilip Kumar Bhujail had been awarded life sentences for their involvement in the fateful hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 in December 1999, painful memories returned to me about that time. I was in the Indian high commission in Islamabad on the afternoon of December 24, 1999, when Zee News announced that an Indian Airlines flight bound for New Delhi had been hijacked on take off from Kathmandu.
Having handled two hijackings as consul general in Karachi in 1984, against the backdrop of militancy in Punjab, I had the uneasy feeling that like aircraft hijackings in the past, even this one would inevitably have a Pakistani connection. The ISI had in 1984 actually provided a pistol to the hijackers at Lahore airport. Having observed the working of the Pakistan military during a hijacking in 1984, I had no doubt that General Musharraf would behave no differently in dealing and colluding with the hijackers from General Zia-ul-Haq, in 1984. In 1984, however, Indira Gandhi had no intention of yielding to the demands of the hijackers, who were soon repatriated to India from Dubai.
It is not the purpose of this article to narrate all that transpired between December 24 and December 31, 1999. The full records of every conversation, including talks with Taliban diplomats and actions taken, were meticulously recorded by the high commission. They should perhaps be made public. But, it would suffice to say that New Delhi was totally unprepared to deal with the situation. Things were messed up in every respect, ranging from the inability to act decisively to terminate the hijacking in Amritsar, the insensitive manner in which the relatives of the passengers were treated and the media handled, to the entire fiasco of sending a hotchpotch team without an empowered senior and universally respected negotiator to Kandahar. One could not also understand the refusal to make public the fact that the high commission had sought and obtained an assurance from the Taliban that the aircraft would be stormed by them if even a single passenger was harmed by the hijackers. The Taliban felt compelled to give this assurance because they were warned of the serious international consequences of any harm coming to the passengers. Sadly, the Clinton administration was too engrossed in its last Christmas holidays of the 20th century to offer any tangible support, or mount any pressure on the Musharraf dispensation, which was working hand in glove with the Taliban and the hijackers.
On December 31, 1999, New Delhi caved in to the demands of the hijackers and released three notorious terrorists, in a move that was to have far-reaching international consequences. At our insistence, the Taliban informed us on December 26 that the leader of the hijackers was one Ibrahim Ather, whose brother Maulana Masood Azhar was in Indian custody. The hijackers made it clear that their main demands included a huge payment of ransom and the release of Masood Azhar and two other jailed terrorists — Omar Syed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, arrested for attempting to kidnap western tourists in India and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, a psychopath who proudly listed the names of all those he had killed.
Maulana Masood Azhar returned to Pakistan from Kandahar to a rapturous hero’s welcome. He soon returned to Kandahar to thank Taliban supremo Mullah Omar for his help and to seek ideological guidance from Osama bin Laden. Returning to Pakistan from Kandahar, Azhar set up his own terrorist group, the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Ignoring these developments and the attack in January 2001 on the Red Fort by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, New Delhi chose to invite General Musharraf, who had colluded with the hijackers, for a summit in Agra, with no prior agreement on how the crucial issue of terrorism would be handled. The summit was a fiasco and on December 13, 2001, members of Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked the
Indian Parliament, an attack that led India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
On his return to Pakistan, Omar Syed Sheikh was handled by one Brigadier Ejaz Shah, now Musharraf’s director general of the Intelligence Bureau. Sheikh was the conduit for transferring $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the leader of the hijacking teams which carried out the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Sheikh has been sentenced to death for his involvement in the brutal assassination of American journalist Daniel Pearl. There is evidence to suggest that the sentence has not yet been carried out because Sheikh’s links with the ISI would be exposed.
Mushtaq Zargar is in Muzzafarabad, busy participating in the ISI’s jihad in Jammu and Kashmir.
Pakistan has also not escaped the blowback of its involvement in the IC 814 hijacking. The Jaish-e-Mohammed has joined the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to wage terrorist attacks on its erstwhile mentors in the Pakistani military establishment. General Musharraf himself has been targeted by Masood Azhar’s followers.
Has New Delhi learnt any lesson from the Kandahar hijacking fiasco? Evidently not. While the government has recently announced a policy of not yielding to terrorist demands, such a policy will carry little credibility unless it is backed by a unanimous Parliament resolution, supporting legislation and public will. During the Kandahar hijacking, the Taliban continuously reminded us of how we yielded during the Rubaiyya Sayeed kidnapping in December 1989. Would New Delhi refuse to yield to hijackers or other terrorists if VIPs or their relatives are kidnapped? Would we be prepared to cross borders covertly to deal with those who seek to wage undeclared war against us? Sadly, given the widespread impression that we are a “soft state”, our adversaries do not yet appear to believe that we will be unyielding and firm on such occasions.
The writer was India’s high commissioner in Islamabad when IC 814 was hijacked to Kandahar
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