The Ghosts Of Kandahar
A no-deal-with-terrorists policy is the best long-term solution to the problem. But in a democracy, the only solutions that work are those that the public accepts, writes Vir Sanghvi.
So, LK Advani was against releasing three terrorists from Indian jails in exchange for the lives of the passengers on IC-814 in December, 1999. Or was he?
My own memory of those events is quite clear. I remember the hijacking. I recall the agonising negotiations with the terrorists and the difficult decisions that the Cabinet had to take. By December 30, it was clear to me — and to most other journos who were covering the crisis — that the government would cave in. A team of Indian negotiators in Kandahar had persuaded the hijackers to scale down their demands: they had originally asked for the release of two dozen prisoners but had finally agreed to let the passengers go if three terrorists were released. There was enormous pressure on the government — the families of the hostages were on TV every hour demanding that their relatives be brought home safely. And I guessed that Prime Minister AB Vajpayee would make the trade.
On the morning of December 31, the last day of the millennium, the Cabinet met to authorise the deal. Two of the terrorists — Maulana Masood Azhar (whose brother was one of the hijackers ) and Omar Sheikh — were in central jails and planes were dispatched to fetch them. A third, known as Latrum, was in Kashmir and the Centre had to persuade Farooq Abdullah, then Chief Minister of J&K, to agree to the exchange.
What followed was pretty shameful. Jaswant Singh asked at the Cabinet meeting if he could go to Kandahar to greet the released hostages. The Prime Minister agreed. But what nobody seemed to have worked out was that the three released terrorists would have to fly with Jaswant. In effect, it seemed as though India’s Foreign Minister was personally escorting three murderous terrorists. Jaswant Singh further embarrassed himself on the tarmac at Kandahar by hugging the Taliban leadership and parading arm-in-arm with the thugs who then ran Afghanistan.
By the time, late in the night of December 31, Jaswant and the released hostages landed in Delhi, public opinion was mixed. There was relief that the passengers on IC-814 were safe. But there was widespread revulsion over Jaswant Singh’s behaviour and a growing sense that India had surrendered to blackmail.
It was at that stage that LK Advani made his move. Journos on the BJP beat were briefed by the Home Minister’s staff. The great man was upset, they were told; he had opposed the exchange. In fact, he had even considered resigning.
In those days, I was editor of the HT and when the story landed on my desk, my first reaction was to try and obtain some independent confirmation of Advani’s alleged opposition to the trade. No minister who was present at the meeting where the decision was taken remembered Advani saying anything against the deal. Moreover, Advani had not even opposed Jaswant Singh’s shameful little day trip to Kandahar.
The HT tried to secure a response from the Prime Minister. As I was to later learn, Vajpayee lost his temper, phoned Advani and demanded to know where these stories were coming from. Advani denied all knowledge of them. “In that case,” barked Vajpayee, “you should clarify the situation to the press.”
And so, late in the night, PTI put out a story quoting Advani as denying that he had ever opposed the trade — which was interesting because, at that stage, no paper had actually carried the news of Advani’s opposition. (Then, the Advani plants appeared the next morning.) And that should have been that. But last week, Advani once again suggested that he had been against the trade. And naturally, Vajpayee went ballistic again.
So why does Advani feel obliged to keep repeating (or perhaps, pretending) that he opposed the Kandahar deal? Why does he think that there is still some political advantage in making that claim?
My guess is that Advani hopes to tap into our own ambivalence over dealing with terrorists. We all know that there are countries — such as Israel and the US — that refuse to negotiate with terrorists under any circumstances. And we believe that India should follow a similar policy.
Certainly, there is a strong, logical basis for such a policy. Each time you give in to one set of terrorist demands, you lay the grounds for a dozen more such demands. If terrorists know they can get what they want by hijacking planes or threatening to kill hostages, then they will do it again and again.
There’s also the danger that by agreeing to release terrorists in return for the lives of hostages, you are putting society at risk. Take the three people exchanged at Kandahar. One of them, Omar Sheikh, was later to kill Daniel Pearl. Another — Latrum — re-entered Kashmir and resumed his terrorist activities. The third, Maulana Masood Azhar, recruited fighters in Pakistan whom he then sent across the border to create trouble in India.
And yet, as logical as all this is, I don’t think that the Vajpayee government had any real choice but to make that deal. Indian public opinion is a funny thing. When Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed who was then Home Minister of India, was kidnapped in 1989, at the very start of the troubles in Kashmir, the prevailing view was that the government should refuse to negotiate. Rubaiya’s kidnappers asked for the release of prisoners. When the Centre agreed to the trade, most Opposition parties opposed the deal. Even now, many people regard that episode as the point at which separatists realised that they could use terrorism effectively against the Indian state.
But the public mood in 1989 was very different from the mood in 1999. In 1989, we were dealing with the kidnapping of a politician’s daughter. There was a real sense in which people felt that the government would not have surrendered had Rubaiya been the daughter of some anonymous, ordinary citizen.
In 1999, the hostages were ordinary people. As I recall, many of them were plywood merchants returning from a junket in Kathmandu. The media, largely acquiescent in 1989, had now assumed a new aggression. The TV channels — absent in 1989 — routinely featured interviews with anguished and angry relatives of the hostages. Such was the public mood that even when the relatives went on a rampage, bursting into government offices, they still retained the sympathy of most of the country.
According to a friend of mine who was part of the Indian negotiating team in Kandahar, there was absolutely no doubt that the hijackers intended to blow up the plane and to slaughter the passengers. They had already placed explosives around the aircraft. They knew that they were in no danger. Even after they had murdered their hostages, the Taliban would have given them a safe passage back to Pakistan.
Imagine now what would have happened if at midnight on 31 December, 1999, just as the new millennium began, our TV screens had been filled with images of IC-814 exploding with all its passengers still inside?
How would we have felt as we watched fellow Indians being blown to smithereens? Would we have shaken our heads regretfully and said, “Well, that’s a tragedy. But you know, that is the price one pays for refusing to negotiate with terrorists”?
Or would we have been angry, outraged and convinced that it was the government’s fault? Would we have forgiven any government that allowed this to happen? Could any Prime Minister have survived such a national tragedy?
I think you know the answer.
Which is why I am now very hesitant about advocating a no-deal-with-terrorists policy. Of course, it makes sense. And of course, it is the best long-term solution to the problem.
But in a democracy, the only solutions that work are those that the public accepts. And I do not think that Indian people have the stomach to support a policy that could lead to spectacular terrorist incidents in which a hundred or more innocent civilians are blown up on live television.
Even if three drivers are kidnapped in Iraq for ransom (and not for any political reasons), we still expect our government to make some deal and to get them back. We may adopt different standards for politicians, government officials or their children. But whether it is ordinary citizens or film stars (remember the ransom paid to Veerappan for Rajkumar’s release?), we really do not have the guts to follow the Israeli example and say: the loss of life is bad but the principle of refusing to negotiate with terrorists and kidnappers is more important.
Which is why so many people — including, I suspect, AB Vajpayee — are so annoyed with LK Advani’s claims about his opposition to the Kandahar swap.
Advani knew that to negotiate was wrong. But he also knew that any democratically-elected government had no choice but to do the wrong thing.
So, he went along with whatever it took for the government to survive. Then, he tried to dissociate himself from that decision and to occupy the moral high ground. And last week he did it all over again.
His duplicity mirrors our national ambivalence. And the contradictions between his private and public positions are the very contradictions that make it impossible for India to stick to a hard line on terrorists.