The first major test of India’s supposedly faster, smarter anti-terror system turned out to be a grand fiasco, it has now emerged.
On February 2, television and newspapers reported what appeared to be a well-coordinated operation by India’s security agencies to a mid-air hijack scare aboard an IndiGo flight the previous day.
Instead, proceedings of review meetings chaired by the Cabinet Secretary of India, KM Chand-rashekhar on February 7 and April 17 reveal disparate security agencies found it hard to mount a unified response.
Finally, four hours and five minutes after flight E6-334 first reported a hijack, 163 passengers were evacuated and a passenger, Jitender Kumar Mohala who threatened to hijack the plane, was arrested by the Delhi Police.
The documents, made available to HT, indicate India had yet not fixed the multi-agency chaos and indecision that left 183 dead and revealed massive bungling in the four days it took to subdue 10 Pakistani terrorists on November 26 in Mumbai last year.
The Cabinet Secretary, India’s most senior bureaucrat, convened a series of review meetings after the hijack drama involved IndiGo flight E6-334 from Goa to Delhi. The message: Fix the problems.
Director General (National Security Guard) N.P.S. Aulakh, when contacted, said: “Every issue noticed during the IndiGo operation has been dealt with after the meetings taken by the Cabinet Secretary.”
After the Air Traffic Control (ATC) flashed the “hijack” message, the Flight E6-334 landed at the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport at around 5.20 p.m. and NSG commandos arrived quickly enough at the airport from a nearby base — but without their commander. The officer got late as he had to come in from NSG headquarters in Manesar, Haryana, 50 km south of the airport.
Further time was lost as the NSG team and airport guards from the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) quarreled about who would do what, the documents said.
No one knew who was to run the show, the documents said, citing the lack of “effective coordination” among the NSG, the CISF and the Delhi police.
The confusion wasn’t only about roles.
The NSG and the CISF — a paramilitary force tasked with protecting India’s economic infrastructure -- disagreed even about switching on floodlights around the parked aircraft.
Switch on the floodlights, said the CISF. No, switch them off, said the NSG.
The NSG was set up in 1984 as India’s elite anti-terror force, used most recently in the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai.
The February 1 comedy of errors continued.
Secure hotlines in control rooms did not work and unsecure mobile phones were used instead by intelligence and security agencies.
This behind-the-scenes confusion translated into chaos at the airport. “Many domestic flights faced problems in embarkation/disembarkation of passengers... difficulties in communication were noted as certain hotline equipments in control rooms were not responding properly,” the documents said.
“There was a time lag between stationing of the aircraft in the isolation bay (17.37 hrs) and door opening (19.50 hrs), evacuation process of passengers (21.13 hrs) and final delivery of baggage,” pointed out Nasim Zaidi, Director General of Civil Aviation during the February 7 meeting. Besides, air traffic was disrupted for hours as “the ground handling staff and vehicles could not access many other arriving aircraft that were held up for considerable time before reaching parking stand”.
The Cabinet Secretary has directed immediate corrective measures after two meetings with members of three bodies tasked with overseeing anti-hijack operations: Committee of Secretaries for Aircraft Hijack, the Central Committee and the Aerodrome Committee.
Among those who attended the meetings: Defence Secretary Vijay Singh, then Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta, Secretary (External Affairs) Nalin Surie, Secretary (RAW) K. C. Verma, Director (Intelligence Bureau) Rajiv Mathur, Commissioner (Bureau of Civil Aviation Security) R. R. P. N. Sahi, DGCA Nasim Zaidi and Airport Authority of India chairman VP Agrawal.