The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court hearing the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 case certainly took its time to arrive at a judgment. Abdul Latif, Dalip Kumar and Yusuf Nepali — who were arrested on charges of conspiracy in the hijack of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999 — were found guilty on Tuesday of helping Pakistani hijackers obtain fake passports and taking weapons aboard the plane.
To recall: flight IC-814 from Kathmandu with 180 people on board was hijacked on December 24, 1999. Indian security forces tragically passed up the opportunity to storm the plane, which had force-landed in Amritsar to refuel, and allowed it to fly to Kandahar in Afghanistan. The weeklong hijack drama ended with the release of three militants, Masood Azhar Mushtaq, Ahmed Zargar and Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed from Indian jails. Although most of the passengers were freed unharmed, the hijackers killed one person and seriously injured another.
The verdict is unlikely to be hailed by many people given the fact that the main hijackers got away scot-free, after the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan gave them safe passage. And it is doubtful if New Delhi has ever stopped ruing the release of Masood Azhar, the most high profile of the three freed militants, who founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed soon after he was liberated. The long trial shows that little has changed on the ground in India when it comes to trying terrorism suspects, with even special courts taking inordinately long to hand out verdicts. If there is a silver lining, it has to be the subsequent welcome change in India’s policy regarding hostage situations, especially in crises involving hijacked aircraft.
The most dramatic sign of this is the sweeping legislation enacted by the government a couple of years ago. Prompted by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, it didn’t take New Delhi too long to adopt a tough hijack policy that allows security forces to shoot down any ‘rogue’ aircraft that is headed for strategic locations. It also recommends establishing a committee of negotiators, psychiatrists and linguists to handle the crisis. Airport personnel would prevent the seized plane from taking off, allowing National Security Guard (NSG) commandos to storm it. The story of IC-814 would probably have been very different if this policy was in place six years ago.