From The Archives

From the archives: Terror on Indian Airlines Flight 814

Updated 26 Dec, 2016 07:41pm
Gunmen surround IC-814 in Kandahar | AFP
Gunmen surround IC-814 in Kandahar | AFP

Rupin Katyal and his bride Rachana could not have hoped for a more picturesque setting for their honeymoon. For a newly married couple, what could be more romantic than the spirit, colour and vistas offered by the only Hindu kingdom in the foothills of Mount Everest? What they could not have imagined, though, was that their trip back home on Christmas Eve would turn out to be a journey into hell.

As it turned out, the 25-year-old Rupin Katyal became the lone casualty in the drama enacted on board the Indian Airlines flight IC-814. And although he was stabbed to death within hours of the hijacking, his 20-year-old widow remained unaware of the tragedy throughout her eight nightmarish days on board the hijacked plane.

When news of the hijacking first broke, few believed it would last for as long as it did. Many predicted early death for the hijackers, regardless of the place they could possibly take the aircraft to. In this day and age, hijacking is fast becoming a crime that doesn't pay, mainly because no country is prepared to provide refuge to air-pirates.

Some of the decisions taken by the Indian authorities in the wake of the crisis raised many questions.

Besides, increasingly strict security at international airports all over the world has made it virtually impossible to smuggle on board the weapons required for the act. And lastly, governments all over the world are rapidly moving towards a policy of not negotiating with hijackers. Yet the five men who hijacked the Indian airliner in mid-air not only managed to smuggle weapons including hand grenades on board the aircraft, they eventually succeeded in forcing the Indian government to bow to their demands.

It was the ultimate humiliation for the hard-line Hindu nationalist government of Atal Behari Vajpayee. For years, the Bharatiya Janata Party has propagated the policy of not negotiating or bargaining with Kashmiri separatists. However, this policy fell apart when the Indian prime minister and his team wilted under growing domestic pressure, mostly from the relatives of the 155 hostages, and gave in to the hijackers' demands.

Left with no choice after a war of nerves which lasted for eight days, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh had to fly out to a country that his government does not recognise, taking with him the three prisoners that the hijackers had asked for. Once in Afghanistan, Singh had to hand over the Kashmiri separatists in the presence of the Taliban, whom most Indians love to hate. No wonder that he returned to his country, along with the freed hostages, only to face a fresh debate over the price that India had been forced to pay for the 155 passengers on board IC-814.

Masked hijackers and Taliban leaders guard IC-814 at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan | Reuters
Masked hijackers and Taliban leaders guard IC-814 at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan | Reuters

Given the increased security environment, most modern-day hijackings inevitably draw criticism against the authorities, especially those of the affected state. But the hijacking of IC-814 must be ranked as the most bizarre of its kind. Well after it has been brought to an end, most of the questions surrounding the episode remain unexplained.

From the identity of the hijackers to the security breach at the Khatmandu airport, and from the 'mishandling' of the crisis by the Indian authorities to the 'disappearance' of the comrades-in-arms in Afghanistan, nothing can be explained clearly. In fact, the only clear aspect of the whole drama was the sudden but steady escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan, as the two governments and their respective media locked themselves in an exchange of vitriol reminiscent of Kargil.

Regardless of who was involved in the hijacking and how the gun-men managed to smuggle their weapons onto the plane, some of the decisions taken by the Indian authorities in the wake of the crisis raised many questions. Why was the hijacked plane not allowed to land at Lucknow, where news of its hijacking was first received? What was the justification behind asking Pakistani authorities to allow the plane to land at Lahore? And finally, why was it allowed to leave for Lahore after it had already landed at Amritsar?

Click here for a transcript of the conversation between IC-814's pilot and traffic controllers at Amritsar

A more charitable view would describe it as criminal mishandling of the case by the Indian authorities. But that is only one side of the coin. Many, including the hawks amongst Pakistani television commentators, have gone to the extent of describing the hijacking as an Indian conspiracy to malign Pakistan. In this no-holds-barred propaganda battle, it has become impossible to determine the truth.

As the events unfolded and more details of the circumstances in which the hijacking took place came to light, it was evident that even in their hour of trial, the Indian authorities did not forget to use the opportunity to malign Pakistan.

It was evident that even in their hour of trial, the Indian authorities did not forget to use the opportunity to malign Pakistan.

Many independent analysts believe that the Indian strategy in the first crucial hour of the crisis was aimed primarily at ensuring that the hijacked plane goes to, and remains in, Lahore. By all accounts, the initial Indian response appears to be a highly calculated attempt at throwing the crisis into Pakistan's court.

And according to a senior defence analyst, it was evident from the manner in which some of the Indian satellite channels spewed venom against Pakistan — portraying it as a "terrorist state" and its army as a "rogue army" — that the presence of the hijacked plane at Lahore would have suited Delhi's interests ideally.

Also read: The 'new' face of Nawaz Sharif

Another factor which shielded Pakistan from the barrage of Indian criticism was the fact that the hijacked plane, after flying off from Lahore, could not go to Afghanistan straight away. Instead, it first went to Dubai, where the UAE authorities adopted the same policy as that of Pakistan: ignoring India's request that the plane be prevented from leaving, the authorities in Dubai refuelled the aircraft in exchange for a few passengers, and allowed the hijacked plane to leave the Gulf state.

But despite this sequence of events, the Indian propaganda machinery continued to harp on Pakistan's alleged involvement. In fact, if the week-long discussions on the various TV networks in India and some insinuations made by senior Indian officials such as Jaswant Singh are to be believed, the hijacking was entirely a conspiracy hatched by Pakistan whereby the hijackers were sent on a PIA flight to Khatmandu, where they somehow managed to bypass the Nepalese security system to board the Indian Airlines flight IC-814.

Freed passengers of the hijacked plane prepare to board a minibus | Reuters)
Freed passengers of the hijacked plane prepare to board a minibus | Reuters)

Propagated by several Indian commentators, this theory often concluded in a demand that Pakistan should be declared a "terrorist state". But despite enjoying complete domination of the airwaves in the region, none of the Indian satellite channels were able to provide any concrete evidence to link Pakistan with the hijackers.

The counter-campaign launched by Pakistan, mostly through the state-run television, was no different in content. From the chief executive's official spokesman to commentators who are known India-haters, PTV brought on just about everyone who was willing to describe the hijacking as part of an Indian intelligence plan to embarrass Pakistan internationally. The 'Ganga hijacking' incident kept cropping up on PTV throughout this period and, at one point, even the foreign minister got carried away. Instead of reacting only to the statements made by the Indian government, he even started responding to the wild allegations that channels like Zee TV were levelling against Pakistan.

As the two governments locked horns in a propaganda war and Kandahar witnessed its last sunset of the millennium, curtains fell on what must be one of the most successful hijackings in recent years. Not only did the hijackers succeed in having their three friends released from Indian captivity, they also managed to keep their identities secret. In fact, the only person who came close to revealing their identity was the Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil.

Had the game plan succeeded, it would have put Pakistan in a no-win situation.

The day the Indian aircraft arrived in Kandahar, Muttawakil told the BBC’s Pushto service that one of the hostage-takers was Maulana Masood Azhar’s brother, Ibrahim. Understandably, Pakistan’s initial response to the revelation was complete silence: given the situation, Pakistan would have found it highly problematic to challenge the statement of the Taliban foreign minister. Later, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar took a highly intelligent position on the matter. While strongly condemning the act of hijacking, he declared that Pakistan would like the criminals to be punished irrespective of their nationality.

With several question marks still hanging around the sordid affair, news of the involvement of Maulana Azhar’s brother in the hijacking did shed some light on the role of Harkatul Mujahideen (HUM) in the whole affair. In the first few days of the hijacking, HUM tried to distance itself from the events in Kandahar. Like many other anti-India Kashimiri groups, it denounced the hijacking for being against the principles of jihad. But once the hijacking saga was over, senior members of HUM in Muzaffarabad were willing to admit in private that all five hijackers belonged to their group.

In fact, if some of them are to be believed, two of the hijackers were from Indian-held Kashmir while the other three were from Azad Kashmir and Pakistan. They were also confident that the hijackers and the three liberated ‘heroes’ would soon make it to Kashmir. Of course, they were not prepared to reveal the identities of the hijackers. They have no reason to do so now, especially when neither the Taliban nor the Indian negotiators insisted on it. Interestingly, throughout the period of the hijacking, the chief of Harkatul Mujahideen, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, remained conspicuous by his silence. All statements were issued by the party’s spokesman.

Also read: When Pakistan and India went to war over Kashmir in 1999

One interesting spin-off has been the good press received by the Taliban for their role in handling the crisis. Not from India though. The Indian government has traditionally supported the Northern Alliance, and most Indian commentators consider the Taliban to be supporters of terrorism. In fact, in the first two days of the hijacking, the Indian media openly blamed them for the act. But once the Taliban agreed to mediate, both Delhi and its satellite television started to portray them as “good guys” and “highly responsible people”.

But as soon as the whole issue was over, the Taliban were again relegated to their earlier status and their role in securing the release of the hostages became “insignificant”. In reality, if anyone had a significant role in this entire episode, it was the Taliban administration. For the first time since assuming control of Kabul, they emerged as an authority which was keen to discourage crime and terrorism on its soil.

At the same time, however, they recognised the need to stay actively engaged with the hijackers. At one point, when the hijackers suddenly included a monetary element in their demands and asked for 200 million dollars in ransom beside the release of 36 Kashmiri fighters, the Taliban expressed their annoyance openly and told the gunmen to be reasonable. Within 24 hours, the hijackers dropped their additional demands and agreed on the release of all the passengers in exchange for Maulana Azhar and two other Kashmiri fighters. After that, they had to decide on the crucial question relating to the fate of the hijackers and the three released prisoners.

Masked hijackers and Taliban leaders guard IC-814 at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan | Reuters
Masked hijackers and Taliban leaders guard IC-814 at the Kandahar airport in Afghanistan | Reuters

Although the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Omar, declared that the hijackers would have to leave Afghanistan within 10 hours, he was not entirely unsympathetic towards them. In fact, it was the main reason why the Afghan authorities ensured that the hijackers’ identity was not revealed to anyone. The sympathy perhaps emanates from their solidarity with Harkatul Mujahideen. Otherwise, there was nothing to stop them from arresting or punishing the hijackers.

While the ordeal may be over for the hostages, the hijackers, the Kashmiri prisoners and the authorities in Kabul and Islamabad, the Indian government continues to reel in its aftermath. The badly battered authorities in New Delhi are trying to cover up India’s humiliation by making public promises of revenge.

However, regardless of when and how this promised revenge is exacted, many analysts believe that the hijacking has dealt a major blow to the Indian government which had, until now, been claiming that it had crushed the uprising in Kashmir. Many fear that the release of the three fighters may have set a bad precedent and could end up inspiring other separatists, not just in Kashmir but in several other parts of India where insurgencies have been underway for years.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been lucky to have come out relatively unscathed. But it was certainly a close call. Hopefully, Pakistani policy makers and others with links to the militant groups will now realise that some of these groups are rapidly getting out of hand to pursue their own agendas. Since most Pakistanis consider the struggle in Kashmir to be a just cause, Indian accusations that Pakistani nationals are fighting in Kashmir are unlikely to create too many problems for Pakistan. But if its nationals, especially those belonging to militant organisations, get involved in acts of terrorism such as hijacking, Pakistan may find it impossible to defend itself against the charge of being a rogue nation.

This article was originally published in the Herald's January 2000 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.