A few months ago, I was having a conversation with someone who had spent a sleepless night during the 1999 Christmas vacations, guiding the government’s response during the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane. As he looked back, I asked him, what were the thoughts that ran through his mind? “It has to do with us as a nation,” he said. “We have made a fine art out of not remembering. Look at the Israelis — would they have ever forgotten something like this?”
By the time you read this, yet another court that has tried yet another bunch of ‘terrorism accused’ people in absentia will be getting ready to deliver yet another verdict. Seven years after virtual oblivion, the case of the millennium eve hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane is expected to reach a conclusion today in a court in Patiala. You will hear from experts how the plot was hatched in Bangladesh and Nepal. You will hear how the Taliban and their friends in Pakistan and the militants in Kashmir are to blame. But it’s not about any of them really. It is not about Pakistan. It is about us.
Even if the hijackers had come from Timbuktu and gone to Atlantis, we would have had the same story all over.
It is about India’s luxury of forgetting. The IC-814 trial is yet another trophy in India’s tattered and moth-eaten response to terrorism and threats to national security. It is also a testament to how Indian police officers often excel even in the abysmal absence of infrastructure and tough laws, and never get recognition. Thanks to some brilliant footwork by the Mumbai Police, the IC-814 hijack was perhaps the only hijacking ever anywhere in which the identities of the hijackers were known even before the drama ended. The identity of, at least, one of them, Masood Azhar’s brother and the main hijacker Ibrahim Athar, was confirmed during that time to the media by Mullah Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the Afghan information minister.
So here is the lesson that those tackling terrorism in India get from the hijacking: They can blow up our former PM, they can attack our Parliament, they can occupy our land in a mountain raid, they can come and kill civilians in our temples and our public places, and they can have explosions ripping through trains. Terrorists have an assurance from India that we will forget, and decide to move on. We cannot utter a word against the LTTE because there are certain somebodies in the South whose sensibilities may get hurt. We have to watch our mouths when we talk about Islamic terrorism because Muslim voters might get upset. Hell, we cannot even act against the Hindu rioters of Mumbai in 1992, indicted by a commission of inquiry, because certain somebodies in the Congress have a soft corner for the Hindu leaders of the riots. This is, after all, the country where our leaders have the most warped, twisted sense of secularism which allows Muslims to block roads and offer namaz, and Hindu kanwariyas to choke roads and then burn cars, bringing highways to a standstill.
Look at the IC-814 trial. Why on earth was a watertight case of this kind not settled over seven long years? A terrorism trial of this magnitude was heard by an ordinary local court for a year. But do not blame the judge. The system did not prepare him for this. Was he an expert in handling terrorism cases? A special designated court had been ordered to be set up but was not. This court, set up under the anti-hijacking laws, became functional only in March 2001. There were 120 witnesses to be examined. In 2003, the hearings were shifted to inside the Patiala prison, which was opposed by defence lawyers. They boycotted the trial for over a year.
But let us not blame the judicial process alone. This is a country with 10.5 judges per 1 million people, compared to ten times that number in developed countries. Most of our judges are not specialists in terrorism trials. Prosecutors are no experts either — which is why it is no surprise that the conviction rate for state police in terrorism cases in 20 per cent. That is the bigger problem: handling terrorism is a state subject. When militants recently attacked a paramilitary camp in Rampur, the UP government and central authorities were on the job right away — fighting over who alerted who first, and whose fault it was.
India is just not spending enough money and attention on fixing problems. State governments have information-sapped databases and information-sharing with other counterparts is tardy. Those databases are rarely accessible in real time — after a hijacking, for example, it will be a dream if police officials in Maharashtra can access details about a suspect in Bahraich on the Nepal border. We have about 75-odd border checkpoints and less than half have computers. Even fewer are connected to databases.
So don’t be surprised at the way India dealt with the most audacious hijacking it has ever dealt with — after all, as the Comptroller and Auditor-General told us, taxpayer money meant to fight terrorism has been used in this country to renovate kitchens, repair pump sets and buy guesthouses.
(Neelesh Misra is the author of 173 Hours in Captivity: The Hijacking of IC-814)