Follow @southasiaanalys


        Note No. 59

The hijacking of an aircraft of the Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC) to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan differs from the pre-1994 hijackings in three respects:

* It is the first hijacking since the mushrooming of private TV channels. While their blow-by-blow account may help in informing and educating the public, they add to the difficulties of the Government in handling a delicate crisis with psychological dimensions in an effective manner.

* It is the first incident of this nature handled by the BJP-led Government, which makes its response seem slow and uncertain.

* It has come at an inconvenient time when Indian interactions with Pakistan have been scanty after the military take-over and those with the Taliban were non-existent.

There have been serious breaches of security by the Kathmandu airport authorities as well as by the IAC staff at the airport. While the Nepalese Govt. has ordered an enquiry from their side, the Government of India should also find out as to how the IAC Security Officer failed to notice that four tickets in the same name (S.A.Qazi) had been bought and did not stop them for enquiries. This was shocking negligence on his part.

The public and media criticism of the failure of the Crisis Management Team to keep the aircraft detained or to raid it at the Amritsar airport is understandable, but may not be totally justified. Raiding an aircraft by the specially-trained intervention force requires careful preparations and the time available might not have been sufficient.

Initial reports, subsequently found false, that the hijackers were armed with AK-47 and other heavy weapons might have also made the initial response at Amritsar hesitant. The action of the hijackers in killing a passenger due to the reported delay in re-fuelling made a decision on a possible raid at Amritsar even more difficult.

One could justifiably fault the Government for not taking advantage of the landing of the aircraft at a Dubai military airport for entering into negotiations with the hijackers in the more friendly atmosphere of Dubai than in the hostile atmosphere of Kandahar. In the 1980s, when Sikh extremists hijacked an IAC plane to Dubai, the local authorities there were very co-operative in helping India successfully terminate the situation. The Government does not seem to have made any attempt to have the stay of the aircraft at Dubai prolonged.

Now that the aircraft is stuck in Kandahar since Saturday, the Government of India is confronted with three cruel ground realities:

* Even in the totally unlikely event of the Taliban wanting to intervene to rescue the crew and passengers, it does not have the capability to do so. Pakistan has, but it is doubtful whether it would help India in view of the present state of relations.

* The Indian intervention force has never operated in foreign territory. Successful intervention in a foreign territory depends on accurate local knowledge and the complicity, if not the co-operation, of the neighbouring countries. Israel's Entebbe raid succeeded because of the excellent knowledge of Entebbe airport, the co-operation of the Kenyan Government and the complicity of other regional governments, which detected the movement of the raiding Israeli aircraft towards Entebbe, but did not alert the Ugandan authorities. India has had no presence in Southern Afghanistan since 1979 and the contacts with India-friendly Pashtoon leaders of the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan in Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, which the pre-1996 Governments had maintained, have been allowed to be dried up by the post-1996 Governments, which put all the eggs in the Nawaz Sharif basket. Thus, our knowledge of the Kandahar area is bound to be out of date. For a raiding plane to be able to go undetected to Kandahar, rescue the passengers and crew and bring them back, the question of the co-operation or complicity of the Pakistani and Gulf Governments does not arise.

* Thus, it would seem that the Government has no other option but psychological pressure and persuasion, for which negotiations with the hijackers are necessary.

For the negotiations to succeed, we have to have the co-operation of the US, which still has influence in Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have influence over Pakistan and the Taliban. Now is not the time to get involved in a wrangling match with Pakistan over its complicity. The image of the BJP in the Gulf as anti-Muslim is not going to facilitate our task.

There is no doubt that India has once again allowed itself to be caught napping by the terrorists, either acting alone or at the behest of Pakistan and the Taliban. This is not the time to indulge in endless discussions over the proclaimed sanctity of the principle of "no concessions to terrorists." The 160 plus innocent passengers and crew should not be made to pay with their lives for the negligence of the Government.

The objective should be to have them freed without any further loss of lives and agony for them and their relatives, even if it meant a temporary loss of face for India. It is very easy for all of us not having any relatives in that aircraft to boldly proclaim the need to give no quarters to terrorists, but before doing so, we should put ourselves in the place of the passengers, crew and their relatives.

Our security agencies can easily recover from this temporary set-back if they draw the right lessons and prevent a repetition in future.

The Government has all the available facts and non-governmental analysts skate on thin choice in making suggestions for action. One does not know if the release of some detenus is the only demand of the hijackers or they have made others about which the Indian public has not been taken into confidence.

Moreover, the question of the future of the hijackers after the release of the passengers and crew has not yet been decided. They were asking for asylum in Taliban-controlled territory, which the latter has rejected. Our negotiators should not walk into the trap of accepting the demand for the release of the detenus and releasing them, only to find the hijackers coming forward with other demands such as political asylum before releasing the passengers and crew.

B.RAMAN                                                              (27-12-99)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India,and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.