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IC-814 and a Not-so Happy New Year

On 31 Dec 2016 another year in the history of our nation ended. The day was also the 17th anniversary of an event which has faded from our memory but by revisiting it this article seeks to highlight some lessons and carry out a reality check. 31 Dec 1999 was the day 17 years earlier when negotiations between the hijackers of IC-814 and Indian authorities concluded. 190 passengers and crew of the flight which had been hijacked on a flight from Kathmandu to Delhi by five Pakistani terrorists as soon as it entered Indian air space, were released. They were released in return for three incarcerated terrorists, Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar ‘Latrum’ and Ahmed Omar Syed Sheikh, who were at that time jailed in Kot Bhalwal and Srinagar in J&K and in the Tihar jail at Delhi, respectively.

Soon after his release Masood Azhar formed the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). It soon emerged as one of the fiercest jihadi group in the region. In addition to guerrilla activities in Kashmir, the militant outfit has maintained close ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The JeM is responsible for a string of high profile terrorist attacks in India. Heading the list is the Parliament attack on 13 Dec 2001, the anniversary of which was commemorated at Delhi recently by paying homage to the nine martyrs, which included six police persons, two parliament security staff and one gardener. The attack led to Operation Prakaram, the mobilization for war by the Indian armed forces which led to a year-long standoff at the borders from 19 Dec 2001 to 16 Oct 2002.

During this period the number of Army personnel killed or wounded in Jammu and Kashmir and the western sector during the mobilization was was 1,874[i].  " Of these over 100 soldiers were killed and 250 injured during mine-laying operations alone in the first few weeks of Operation Prakaram. Others died in vehicle accidents, artillery duels with Pakistan and other incidents. The attacks at Pathankot and Uri in 2016 have also been attributed to Masood Azhar’s JeM. The number of casualties which have occurred during and post these attacks need not be recounted as they are recent and fresh in the memory of all Indians. Giving in to the demands of the hijackers and kidnappers in the face of public opinion or on humanitarian reasons may appear to be a preferable solution at the time of crisis,  is never good  in the long run. While the release of the three terrorists brought back the passengers of IC-814 safely except one person, Rupin Katyal, who was murdered by the hijackers, in the long term it only ended up contributing to the terrorism which afflicts India.

General V.R. Raghavan a former Director-General of Military Operations of the Indian Army, writing in The Hindu on 4th January 2000, stated that the hijack was demonstrative of a major nation state, with all its military capabilities, looking helpless in the eyes of its people and the world. He also stated that this is what terrorism is all about, applying violence against innocent citizens to obtain political ends. The other two freed terrorists have also contributed to global insecurity. Zargar is a key trainer of terrorists based in Pakistan[ii] and Syed Sheikh gaining further infamy by reportedly killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl. The latter is the only one behind bars in Pakistan, probably due to the pressures to take action against him for having murdered an American citizen. This is something that Pakistan has consistently refused to do in the case of Masood Azhar, and the other 19 terrorists whose names have been given to Pakistan by India in 2001. India has amassed enough evidence against these terrorists and raised the matter internationally but with no success.

Incidents like the IC 814 case highlight that it is not only the security forces that need to be trained to prevent hijackings. In the aftermath of IC 814 a large number of actions have been taken to tie up the loose ends that surfaced at that time.[iii]  Yet much needs to be done in terms of training of aircraft crew and airport staff. Citizens of the country need to understand the long-term damage to the country that can occur by giving in to the demands of hijackers or hostage takers. The strident demonstrations by relatives of the hostages on board IC 814 led by politicians to include Brinda Karat put immense pressure on the government.[iv] Efforts were made to diffuse the demonstrations.  The widow of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja and father of Lt Vijayant Thapar, both Kargil war martyrs, attempted to dissuade agitating crowds, but to no avail. Efforts by the Foreign Minister Mr Jaswant Singh to address the crowd led to responses like “To hell with the country and national interest”.[v]  Today, national interest appears to be the order of the day.  One would like to believe that the various actions by the government to develop national pride (such as re-introducing playing of the national anthem in cinema halls) will see a more matured response by the public should such a situation ever occur again.

Negotiations with the hijackers (sic:Pakistan) done through the Taliban which was then in power in Afghanistan would have been exceptionally difficult. Pakistan in any case was still smarting from the reverses in the very recent Kargil War. Negotiations are inevitable in hostage situations. In fact, they must be carried out. They were carried out with some success in this incident also.  Reducing the number of hostages that the terrorists wanted to be released from 36 to three was an achievement by the negotiators in Kandahar notably Mr Ajit Doval.[vi]

In 1999 the National Security Guard (NSG) was not launched immediately. This led to inaction at Amritsar where the hijacked aircraft was on the ground for 45 minutes. Speculations were made that this was due to either non-availability of an aircraft to take them to Amritsar or a traffic jam.[vii] A similar scenario in the present day can be expected to elicit instantaneous reactions  as the response to the Pathankot attack validated.[viii]

When the nation decides to not succumb to hijackers or hostage-takers two points should be very clear. The first is that this is not a zero-sum game. There may be no clear winners and losers. The terrorists even if eliminated may cause casualties. However, even if there are ‘friendly’ casualties in that incident, the quick action and resolve displayed will lead to many terrorist actions being deterred. It is impossible to know how many hijacks and hostage taking incidents have been avoided because of the knowledge that teams of anti-terrorist units like the NSG are on vigil. As the hostage rescue and VIP protection specialist, Leroy Thompson states “[E]nlightened self-interest has caused some terrorists to look elsewhere for a target rather than face highly efficient counterterrorist warriors their actions may launch them against”.[ix]

IC-814 brought out clearly that in case a highjacked aircraft is made to land in an environment hostile to the rescuers it is well-nigh impossible to carry out a rescue mission. The Israeli mission at Entebbe succeeded because of the surprise achieved on account of the 4000 kilometers distance that the rescue force traversed and at least one friendly government (Kenya) which gave intelligence and logistics support. Learning from Entebbe the Taliban had tightly ringed IC-814 with armoured vehicles and troops. While recce was carried out and intelligence obtained, even to nonmilitary observers who watched the scene at Kandahar airport on TV it was evident that a rescue operation was not an option.

            An elite counter-terrorist force like the NSG is the nation’s insurance against situations like Kandahar. Insurance policies appear to be an expensive no-gain expenditure until an accident or incident happens. The insurance policy provided by elite counter-terrorism units like the NSG are however a little different. They not only combat acts of terrorism, they deter them. The navy has long been called ‘the silent service’ because their impact on national security is ambiguous and intangible. In the same context elite units like the NSG are the silent services of the new era.




[i] Statement by the Defence Minister in the Rajya Sabha. Quoted by Rajat Pandit in the Times of India, 01 May 2003. Retrieved 31 Dec 2016 from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-suffered-1874-casualties-without-fighting-a-war/articleshow/45016284.cms

[ii] 2013 interview of this terrorist by Tehelka.com can be accessed at  http://www.tehelka.com/2013/02/exclusive-the-man-we-released-at-kandahar/

[iii] Kanchan Gupta, The Truth Behind the Kandhar Hijacking, Dec, 24, 2008. Dailiy Pioneer.com accessed 31 Dec 2016 from https://islamicterrorism.wordpress.com/2009/01/24/the-truth-behind-kandahar-indian-airlines-hijacking-when-india-released-islamic-terrorists-must-read/

[iv] Ashok Malik, Media Fodder, 10 Jan 2000. Accessed 01 Jan 2016 fromhttp://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/ic-814-hijack-unable-to-access-to-kandahar-media-resorts-to-inaccuracy-reports/1/243267.html

[v] Kanchan Gupta. Op cit.

[vi] AS Dulat. Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. (Harper Collins,Noida-India 2015). P 44.

[vii] Kanchan Gupta. Op cit.

[viii] Rahul Tripathi.  Pathankot Attack: NSG wasn’t Aware Terrorists Were Inside the Base when reached. Economic Times , 21 Jan 2016. Accessed 01 Jan 2017 from http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/pathankot-attack-nsg-wasnt-aware-terrorists-were-inside-base-when-reached/articleshow/50661220.cms

[ix] Leroy Thompson. Hostage Rescue Manual. (KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi 2010). P. 171

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Ghanshyam Katoch

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