It is India’s great fortune that we have not had a repeat of IC-814 incident. Had another plane been hijacked under similar circumstances, we would have known how much of “we-don’t-negotiate” bombast of the current politicians survived public pressure.

So, the Congress can count its blessings and continue berating the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for releasing three terrorists in return of the passengers in the hijacked aircraft. Let us hope the Congress is never put to a similar test.

“Let me say, we goofed up… what was upper most in everybody’s mind was security of the people,” former RAW chief AS Dulat said on the Kandahar hijack during an interview on India Today television on Thursday. Dulat is right.

A file photo of Talibanis praying near the hijacked IC-814 flight. REUTERSA file photo of Talibanis praying near the hijacked IC-814 flight. REUTERS

A file photo of Talibanis praying near the hijacked IC-814 flight. REUTERS

During the six tense days of the hijacking drama — from the moment the plane left Nepal and reached Kandahar — there was not even a moment when the Vajpayee government had the option of sacrificing the passengers and crew. Visuals of shabbily dressed Talibanis circling the plane with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, the murder of Rupin Katyal, who was stabbed by hijackers, the mounting pressure from relatives of passengers, the prevailing mood in the nation and the emotional subtext of the coverage of the event had left Vajpayee with no other option.

To complicate matters, the drama was played out on the land of the Taliban and the hideout of Osama bin Laden. The West had refused to help India in its fight. There was no way Vajpayee could have allowed the slaughter of innocent Indians on the eve of a new millennium. He had to give in to the demands of the terrorists.

On New Year’s Eve (1999), when passengers were finally freed and brought back to Delhi, the scene at the airport was of jubilation and relief. Thousands of people had gathered for the welcome, the crew was garlanded as victorious heroes, there were drums, music, cheering and dancing; not even a hint that India had capitulated.

It is not difficult to imagine how this emotionally-charged crowd had reacted if the passengers were brought back into body bags and coffins. The country would have erupted in anger. “We got back our 155 for their three. My thanks to Jaswant Singh,” an anxious relative had told newspapers then, summing up the opinion of the majority.

Jaswant Singh, who took the ridiculous decision of accompanying the freed terrorists, was not a symbol of a soft state then. He was seen as a representative of a state that saved 155 lives. Vajpayee, back then, had decided to fight another day.

Just to put the record straight, here are two instances of the Congress surrendering to militants. In 1991, an executive director of Indian Oil was kidnapped by militants in Srinagar. To secure his release, the then home minister SB Chavan released nine militants. Two years later, nearly four dozen JKLF militants were allowed safe passage from the Hazratbal shrine, where they had held 170 civilians hostage for six weeks.

It is difficult to imagine the Congress could have had the courage to act differently when asked to choose between the lives of IC-814 passengers and Maulana Masood Azhar and his cronies. But Dulat is right in blaming the Vajpayee government for lack of quick response to the hijacking.

Soon after the terrorists entered the plane’s cockpit, its pilot Devisharan managed to send a timely SOS to the air traffic controller. To give the government adequate time to react, he even slowed down the speed of the plane significantly and convinced the terrorists to allow him to land for refueling in Indian territory.

But, as Dulat says, the Indian government froze. “So instead of giving out clear instruction to Punjab police, which was in charge on ground there… nobody was willing to say this plane should never be allowed to leave Amritsar. That nobody said, because nobody was willing to take that call. Everybody thought what will happen if people die,” he said.

But, back then, even Dulat had been criticized for not being able to pre-empt the incident. As the RAW chief, it was, after all, his job to track terrorists and ideally foil their plans. The hijacking was, in fact, an example of the failure of the entire Indian machinery. To argue today that 155 innocent people should have paid the price of the state’s inefficiency is pure hypocrisy and insensitivity.

Link to original: 

Ex-RAW chief’s book: Dear Cong, IC-814 was Vajpayee govt’s fault, but what would you’ve done?