Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh has defended the compromise with terrorists during the Kandahar hijack crisis, saying he could not "accept the responsibility" of letting 166 innocent people on board IC-814 be blown apart on the midnight of December 31, 1999, the deadline set by the hijackers.
"The threat was real, it could not be brushed off: what if the aeroplane is blown up? I could not, in any sense, accept the responsibility of letting 166 innocent men and women and one child, some of whom were not even Indian, be blown apart on the midnight of December 31, as the millennium changed.
"For that was the intelligence that had firmly and convincingly come our way, that if there was no resolution, the hijackers would do just that - preferably in a suicide mission, with the aircraft in the air. That was to be their welcome to AD 2000," he says in his memoirs "A Call To Honour" scheduled to hit the stands tomorrow.
"At first I stood against any compromise, then, slowly, as the days passed, I began to change," he says.
Singh also says that the role of forces inimical to India, specifically Pakistan's ISI, in the hijack "became so obvious and visible as events began to further unfold".
The senior BJP leader has been under attack from Congress and others for the compromise under which he took three terrorists in detention in Indian jails in his plane to Kandahar and exchanged them for hostages. Another controversy has been that he paid 200 million dollars as ransom, which does not find mention in the book except as one of the demands of the hijackers.
Singh recalls that even as he was winding up the Kandahar visit, he came to know "that one of the hijackers had mentioned that they had left a 'millennium present for the Government of India on board the aircraft'".
It was also conveyed to him that the Taliban were not prepared to let IC-814 fly and they were delaying its refuelling and were keen to take one bag that belonged to the hijackers.
He recalled rushing to meet Afghan Foreign Minister Vakil Ahmed Muttawakil, apprising him of the problem and requesting him to advise authorities to facilitate the early departure of the aircraft.
"I then advised Capt Suri that we better vacate the plane and get back to the lounge. But the Taliban authorities were still trying to see the hold and look for a red suitcase of the hijackers," the former minister said.
Singh later found Muttawakil's red Pajero parked right in front of the hold with its headlights on. "It could not be confirmed as to who was in the aircraft as it had tinted glasses. Capt Rao had started the engine with a jet starter and the APU (auxillary power unit) was still running. Some workers were still working in the hold and Capt Rao told me at that time that he had seen people taking every red bag from the hold and showing it to the car and taking it back to the hold.
"Two and two put together, we both felt that perhaps either one or more or the hijackers or someone close to them who could identify the famous red suitcase were comfortably parked in that car and were trying out every red bag to identify the real bag and take it out. Capt Suri found out from a local worker that they had found one bag and there were five grenades in it."