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Counterpoint: The Surrender of IC-814

It is shameful that the BJP should use ‘tough on terror’ as a campaigning slogan when actually the opposite was true of the party’s time in office, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Jun 21, 2008 23:07 IST

One unexpected consequence of the publicity blitz surrounding the publication of LK Advani’s autobiography has been the return of the controversy over the hijacking of IC-814 in December 1999.

Because public memory is short it might be worth recalling the events of that fateful winter. The aircraft was on a scheduled flight from Kathmandu to Delhi when it was hijacked by men claiming to be Kashmiri militants. They first took it to Amritsar, then to Dubai and eventually to Kandahar where it sat on the ground for several days.

The hijackers made several demands but eventually the government of AB Vajpayee was able to negotiate them down to the release of three terrorists held in Indian jails: Omar Sheikh, Maulana Masood Azhar and a Kashmiri separatist known as Latram. It was rumoured that a ransom was also demanded but the government denied that any money changed hands.

After holding firm for several days, the Vajpayee regime capitulated on December 31. The three terrorists were put on a plane and sent to Kandahar. Also on the plane was Jaswant Singh who had gone to receive the hostages.

The current controversy relates not to the circumstances of the hijacking but to the suggestion that LK Advani, Home Minister at the time, was opposed to the swap and was unaware of the decision to send Jaswant to Kandahar.

The Advani controversy is easily disposed of. But now that IC-814 is back on the agenda, it is worth remembering that
nobody comes off well from the episode.

In his book, Advani does not actually say that he was opposed to the swap. That suggestion came in the interviews he gave to promote his autobiography. But on the day of the release, his people suggested he was so unhappy that he was considering resigning.

Much has been made of George Fernandes’ claim that Advani was present at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) where the decision to trade the terrorists and send Jaswant to Kandahar was taken. And indeed Advani was present — as the minutes of the CCS will demonstrate.

Moreover, Advani has another problem. As rumours about his impending resignation swirled, he actually issued a public statement supporting the swap.

So can he really disown the decision?

Well, yes and no. It is possible that Advani was always opposed to the exchange but gave in when Vajpayee took the decision and the Cabinet sided with him. As Home Minister, he was bound by the principle of collective responsibility and obliged to support the government, no matter what his own view was. The public statement can be interpreted in that light.

That’s not the problem. The trouble is that Advani wants to have it both ways. He wants to go along with the Cabinet decision (the line he takes in his book) and yet distance himself from it. That’s the bit that’s unacceptable. If he was, in fact, opposed to the release of terrorists, then he should have resigned as Home Minister. Otherwise, he’s obliged to keep his mouth shut and back his government’s decision — in public anyway.

Uncharacteristically, I feel a little sorry for Jaswant Singh. I don’t think he ever intended to escort the terrorists to Kandahar.

What happened was this. On the morning of the 31st, when the swap was negotiated, the Cabinet authorised Jaswant to go to Kandahar to oversee the exchange. Apparently, there were logistic issues to be sorted out and a minister needed to be on the ground to take last-minute decisions. There’s a cynical view to the effect that a ransom was paid and that the minister was there to see that the money reached the right hands.

The decision to send Jaswant was not necessarily wrong. The problem was one of logistics. Indian Airlines was sending a plane to bring back the hostages. The released terrorists were due to fly to Kandahar on that aircraft. Jaswant had no desire to take that plane. He asked the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) to give him one of its aircraft. But the ARC, a top-secret branch of R&AW, was unwilling to let India’s enemies see its planes. So, on security grounds, the ARC refused to give Jaswant a plane to go to Afghanistan. Nor would Indian Airlines provide a second aircraft.

So, poor old Jaswant had no choice but to share the cabin with three terrorists. It was one of those logistic issues which makes you uncomfortable at the time but which, equally, you never think will come back to haunt you forever.

But that’s precisely what happened to the old dear. To this day, Jaswant Singh is known as the man who escorted terrorists.

No matter what you think of Jaswant’s role and Advani’s claims, there’s no doubt that the BJP comes off very badly. Basically, the government funked it. The terrorists were ready to blow up the plane on the night of December 31 (perhaps with the passengers inside) and that prospect terrified the Cabinet.

You could argue that any government would have been scared of carnage on New Year’s Eve. But the events of that day sit uneasily with the BJP’s original position: we will never give in to terrorists. And they make a mockery of the party’s current rhetoric about never being soft on terror. It’s easy to now claim that the UPA has failed to fight terrorism because it repealed POTA. But when it came to the crunch, it was the BJP that lost its nerve. It released Omar Sheikh, who went on to kill Daniel Pearl; Masood Azhar, who joined the jehad against India; and Latram, who returned to Kashmir.

Pakistan also comes off badly. Even if you deny the ISI link, nobody can dispute that the three released terrorists were given safe haven in Pakistan (as were the hijackers). Even now, with all this talk of peace, no one in a position of authority in Islamabad is offering to send Masood Azhar and Latram back to India to serve out their sentences. (Omar Sheikh is in jail for murder.)

Nepal behaved badly too. The weapons were smuggled on board the aircraft at Kathmandu. There was inadequate security at the airport and, yet, when the facts were known, Nepal brazened it out and denied all responsibility.

Worst of all was the role of the US. In that pre-9/11 era, America had no interest in fighting terrorism when it affected non-Americans.

Advani gets a few details wrong in his book (Bob Blackwill was not the US ambassador at the time), but his basic thrust is correct. For almost the entire period of hijacking, America was on vacation. Nobody gave a damn about an Indian plane and Indian lives. Ironically, many experts believe that IC-814 was a dry run for 9/11. Many of the same techniques were used by the hijackers (including the murder of a passenger early in the hijack to show that the terrorists meant business). Washington was foolish to have ignored IC-814 — and America paid the price.

Our own counter-terror mechanism failed completely. We had no intelligence about the hijacking. The huge R&AW station in Kathmandu was in the dark. When the aircraft landed in Amritsar, the authorities were asked to prevent the plane from taking off. But officials took so long to get their act together that the hijackers flew away. The Crisis Management Group took hours to assemble and valuable time was lost before it formulated a response. IB was as ignorant. Assuming Advani really did not know that Jaswant was on the same plane as the released terrorists, then that’s a pretty sad commentary on the quality of the briefings the Home Minister was getting from the director, IB.

We still don’t know where the hijackers are today or, even, who they were. After the 2001 Parliament attack , some intelligence officers claimed that one of those shot dead was ‘Burger’, the hijacker who was Masood Azhar’s brother. Others deny that it was the same man. And even within the R&AW, they are divided on such issues. Years later, they are still groping.

But the final lesson of IC-814, and one that Advani and his party would do well to remember, is that it never pays to use terrorism for domestic political gain. In such matters, bipartisanship is the only way.

It is shameful that the BJP should use ‘tough on terror’ as a campaigning slogan when actually — as IC-814 and the Parliament attack demonstrate — the opposite was true of the party’s time in office. There is no difference between the Congress and BJP governments when it comes to terrorism. Both are as inept, incompetent and ineffectual.

But the BJP thinks it can play fast and loose with the facts. It has tried that over IC-814.
And it has ended up with this mess.

First Published: Mar 29, 2008 22:36 IST