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A bleeding shame

Exactly six years ago, hours before the onset of the new millennium, India capitulated to the demands of hijackers of an Indian jetliner so disgracefully that it advertised itself globally as an attractive target for further terrorist attacks.

india Updated: Dec 31, 2005 00:36 IST

Exactly six years ago, hours before the onset of the new millennium, India capitulated to the demands of hijackers of an Indian jetliner so disgracefully that it advertised itself globally as an attractive target for further terrorist attacks. In a surrender unparalleled in modern world history, then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh personally chaperoned three jailed terrorists to freedom in a special aircraft. The bitter fruit of the Kandahar deal has been a sharp surge in terror that has seen India emerge as the world’s worst victim of terrorism.

By breaching the fragile global consensus against surrender to terrorist demands, India lost not just international respectability. Once a nation lowers its esteem in its own eyes, it opens the path to continuing compromises on national interests. That is what Kandahar did.

It was such a defining moment for the new millennium that India has continued to slip and sink. As the already-forgotten New Delhi bombings of two months ago show, India is increasingly unwilling to go after transnational terrorists and their sponsors. Contrast that with the unforgiving British response to the bombings in London that killed fewer people. Is it any surprise that terrorists are now emboldened to strike in India’s Silicon Valley?

Kandahar set in motion a process from which India has found hard to recover due to its leadership deficit — the further softening of this country, mirrored in its growing forbearance towards terrorism. As it has repeatedly in recent years, India will invite another major terror attack before long, but one already knows how it will respond — with bold, empty words that will do little to hide its lack of both a coherent counter-terrorism strategy and the political will to go beyond mere reprobation. The ruling and opposition leadership, ensconced in a commando ring, cares little about ordinary citizens falling to terrorists.

The Kandahar ignominy has hung from the nation’s neck like the proverbial albatross, exacting continuing costs. Indeed, after Kandahar, terrorism rapidly morphed from hit-and-run strikes to daring assaults on military camps, major religious sites and national emblems of power, like the Red Fort and Parliament.

Pervez Musharraf accomplished through this ISI-scripted hijacking much more than what he had set out to achieve with force in Kargil just months earlier. The IC-814 hijacking, as Strobe Talbott wrote in his book, came “as a personal victory for Musharraf, who was widely believed to have masterminded the incident…” Within five months, Musharraf won an invitation to a summit in Agra, an event that lifted his semi-pariah status internationally. Since then, he has progressively upped the ante to the extent that today he is able to hold the weapon of terror to India’s head and still show off an ‘irreversible’ Indian-initiated peace process.

The ISI, for its part, used the hijacking to bring home its two main assets from Indian jails — Harkat-ul Ansar chief Masood Azhar and the abductor of Western tourists, Ahmed Omar Sheikh — and then re-employ them for more vicious terrorism.

Azhar, through his new terror outfit, Jaish-e-Muhammad, has killed many more Indians in attacks than the number of hostages for whose freedom he was freed along with Omar Sheikh and another terrorist, Al-Umar’s Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar. Omar Sheikh went on to help finance the 9/11 attacks and murder reporter Daniel Pearl, who was investigating the ISI’s role in fomenting global jehad.

Yet, there has been no mea culpa from the architects of the Kandahar capitulation, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and company. Not even a casual acknowledgement of guilt.

While they were in office, they frustrated any inquiry effort to get to the bottom of how they ended up negotiating with the terrorists on bended knees. Lest the CBI inquiry uncovered the culpability of Brajesh Mishra, who bungled in the take-off of the commandeered plane from Amritsar, the Crisis Management Group claimed to have maintained no records. Its members even feigned loss of memory on key details. Equally unsavoury was how security agencies were used to orchestrate demonstrations by hostages’ relatives to help build a public case for succumbing to the hijackers’ demands.

Even in opposition ranks, Vajpayee and company have maintained a conspiracy of silence. No explanation has been offered as to why the foreign minister had to hand-deliver three monsters. In fact, the publicity-hungry Jaswant Singh even wanted to take a media team with him. Singh had whipped himself into such a hallucinatory loop of delusion that when the flight landed in the terrorist retreat of Kandahar, he actually rejoiced, telling newspaper editors that it presented a golden opportunity to drive a wedge between the Taliban and its sponsor, Pakistan!

Lord Acton’s maxim that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” may explain why Vajpayee and company had begun to lose touch with reality. The intoxication with heady power was manifest from Jaswant Singh’s Alice-in-Wonderland briefing to newspaper editors and Vajpayee’s consent to his foreign minister to escort hardcore terrorists, as if they were kids and needed a guardian.

More than the shame it brought on India, the capitulation’s significance lay in the manner it helped raise the threshold of shame for Vajpayee and company. After Kandahar, they increasingly became anaesthetised to disgrace, as they took the nation on a wacky roller-coaster ride with an ever-shifting policy on Pakistan and terror. Today, they and their party are unable to stand up for any principle because they showed in office that they have no convictions. Scandal and sleaze have become the nemesis of a party incapable to play the role of an effective opposition.

Every time Azhar’s Jaish-e-Muhammad claims responsibility for a terror strike that murders or maims innocent Indians, the same question must haunt Vajpayee and company that did Lady Macbeth: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” In fact, close to the first anniversary of his release, Azhar sought to pay his debt to those who freed him by sending a terrorist squad to kill them. But for the valiant security personnel, six of whom laid down their lives, the attackers would have stormed into Parliament.

Kandahar remains a bleeding shame. No lesson has been learned. No plan is in place to prevent another Kandahar-type ignominy.

What India needs is a concerted, sustained campaign against terror. But what it gets is more political rhetoric and dubious declarations. A new anti-hijacking declaratory policy threatens to shoot down an aircraft that deviates from the assigned course in such a way as to take its flight track close to sensitive sites, such as the presidential or prime ministerial house.

If a rogue plane over Delhi aims to crash into such a site, the government will have less than a minute to take a decision and execute it. When India failed to keep Flight IC-814 grounded at Amritsar after it landed there, despite advance information that it was headed to that city, how can anyone expect the country’s doddering, dithering leadership to take a decision within seconds to shoot down a plane?

As an open, untreated sore on the Indian body politic threatening to become gangrenous, Kandahar has brought India under increasing attack from terrorism. Turning this abysmal situation around demands a new mindset that will not allow India to be continually gored and treats terrorism as an existential battle. That in turn means a readiness to do whatever it takes to end the terrorist siege of India.

First Published: Dec 31, 2005 00:36 IST