Day after Uri attack, a check on history: In the rear-view mirror, 2008, 2001, 1999

As the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi works on an answer to the terror at Uri, a look at how the governments of Manmohan Singh and A B Vajpayee — also faced with surging public anger and difficult choices in similar situations — reacted.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Updated: September 20, 2016 6:41 pm
Uri attack, Uri terror attack, terrorist attack, Mumbai attack, Mumbai Taj attack, terror attack, india pakistan relation, 26/11 attacks, Taliban, Kandahaar airport, Kandahaar plane hijack, Parliament House attack, india news The Taj in flames during the 26/11 attack (L), Black Cat commandoes along with Delhi Police personnel during the Parliament House attack. (Prashant Nadkar/The Indian Express, Reuters)

The attack on the 12th Brigade headquarters at Uri on Sunday in which 18 soldiers were killed is not the first time that an Indian government has had to weigh its response in the face of grave provocation that it attributed directly or indirectly to Pakistan. Post-Kargil in 1999, there have been at least three other occasions on which the nation and the government have found themselves in a situation similar to the one that is unfolding now — extreme public anger and pressure to give a “befitting reply” to Pakistan. This is how those situations unfolded, and the option that India finally exercised.

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Mumbai, 2008

Ten terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba sailed to Mumbai by boat from Karachi, landed near Colaba on November 26, entered the city late that evening, and shot their way to the Chhattrapati Shivaji railway Terminus, the Taj Hotel, the Oberoi, and the Chabad House Jewish centre. The city was under siege for more than three days during which the terrorists killed 164 people and injured scores.

One of the terrorists, Ajmal Kasab, was caught alive on the first night of the attack, and came clean to his interrogators within hours. As the details of what he said emerged in the media, the UPA government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh considered their response. On November 28, 2008, Singh chaired a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security with the National Security Advisor, the Service chiefs and the intelligence heads. This was followed by another meeting on December 2. All options were considered, including an air strike to take out the LeT headquarters at Muridke, and terrorist training camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

US Senator John McCain, who had unsuccessfully contested the Presidential election that year against Barack Obama, told a group of Pakistanis over lunch in Lahore that “the democratic government of India is under pressure and it will be a matter of days after they have given the evidence to Pakistan [that they decide] to use the option of force if Islamabad fails to act against the terrorists,” according to an editor who shared the details of that meeting with this writer that day. For an idea of the pressure that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was under, consider this: McCain told the group that Singh was “visibly angry and reeling from the shock of the attacks”. The Senator said that if Pakistan did not act to get the “bad guys”, India would have no option but to use force.

A combination of reasons led to India dropping the plan. One was a cold-eyed assessment by the Indian Service chiefs that they did not have the capability to limit a military retaliation — either geographically, or to conventional warfare.

The other was US pressure on India not to escalate matters. The US believed that a distraction for Pakistan forces on the eastern front would affect its own operations in Afghanistan. The outgoing Bush administration, led by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, also made frantic efforts to persuade Pakistan to act against LeT.

The United Nations Security Council designated the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the name that LeT had taken after it was banned in Pakistan in 2002, as a terrorist front group, with Hafiz Saeed as its leader.

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Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency carried out an investigation that confirmed that the 10 men were indeed Pakistanis. Some arrests were made, and a trial began.

India decided it would “pause” its bilateral ties with Pakistan until the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks were punished. But cross-LoC trade, which had been inaugurated just weeks ahead of the attack, and the cross-LoC bus, which was started in 2005, both continued without interruption.

Serious attempts to restart the relationship were made from July 2009. Dialogue took place in fits and starts but always failed as its furtherance was predicated on Pakistan bringing the Mumbai attack perpetrators to book. This situation continued right up to the time of the Uri attack, worsening along the way over the Pathankot attack in January this year.

Parliament attack, 2001

Black Cat commandoes along with Delhi Police personnel during the Parliament House attack. Black Cat commandoes along with Delhi Police personnel during the Parliament House attack.

Four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York that year, following which the Bush Administration threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if it did not play ball in the US invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, five heavily armed terrorists, allegedly from the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba, drove into the Parliament complex using a fake entry pass and engaged security personnel in a one-hour gunbattle. The session had just been adjourned for the day, but some 100 Members of Parliament were in the complex. No Parliamentarian was injured, but 12 people, including security personnel, a gardener and a journalist, were killed in the attack.

The NDA was in power, and the next day, Union Home Minister L K Advani blamed Pakistan for “the most audacious” and the “most alarming act of terrorism in two decades”. According to a comprehensive account of the Indian response written by Steve Coll (The New Yorker, February 13, 2006), the Cabinet Committee on Security met the same evening, concluded that Pakistan’s ISI was behind the attack and, after a long discussion on options, decided that the threat of military action had to be made.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered troop mobilisation, and over the month of December, half a million soldiers massed on India’s western front. With the possibility of war looking real, Pakistan withdrew troops from the Afghan border where they were supporting the US war in Afghanistan, moving them to the border with India. In Coll’s account, the Americans were “distraught”, but understood there was “a real threat” from India, and that for Pakistan, it was a question of “national survival”.

Both countries were newly nuclear-armed, and the first Bush Administration considered the possibility of a nuclear war between the two South Asian neighbours to be real. His Secretary of State then, Colin Powell, visited both capitals and counselled calm. But Prime Minister Vajpayee declared that India had exercised enough restraint. It was only after the US persuaded General Pervez Musharraf to denounce jihadi groups in a speech in January 2002 that Vajpayee relented, and communicated to the Indian Army that there would be no operation for now.

But the troops remained at the border, and an incident in May 2002, in which three men in military fatigues killed 22 women and children, all family members of soldiers at the Kaluchak Army camp near Jammu, brought India and Pakistan to the brink once again. Western embassies issued travel advisories and discussed evacuation plans for their staff, with American fears high that a war between the two countries would not remain limited to a conventional military confrontation. Not just the Bush Administration, the British, and Russia’s President Valdimir Putin, too, exercised pressure on India to stay its hand.

Wrote Coll: “‘We almost went’” in May, (National Security Advisor Brajesh) Mishra told me, but Prime Minister Vajpayee, when he faced the final step, concluded that, at the end of a long political career, he wanted to be remembered as a man of peace. For some of Pakistan’s generals, Vajpayee’s decision seemed to offer a clear lesson: nuclear deterrence works.”

The demobilisation of Indian troops from the border took place in October 2002, and was followed by backchannel initiatives to bring both sides to the negotiating table. An unwritten ceasefire came into effect the following year, in October 2003, which continues — some would say in name only — till date. In January 2004, India and Pakistan agreed to begin the Composite Dialogue.

IC 814 hijack, 1999

Taliban fighters on the tarmac of Kandahaar airport with the hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft in the background. Taliban fighters on the tarmac of Kandahaar airport with the hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft in the background.

On December 24, an Indian Airlines Airbus was hijacked shortly after it left Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport for New Delhi. On board were 176 passengers. The hijackers belonged to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a terrorist group that owed its origins to the ISI. Their demand was the release of several prisoners being held in India, including Masood Azhar, a high-value member of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the name by which the HuM had been known earlier. A previous attempt, by a group called Al Faran, to have Masood Azhar and few other Harkat-ul-Ansar members released from prison in India, had failed. The Al Faran group had taken nine foreign hostages in Kashmir in 1995, and after India refused to give in, one of the hostages was found beheaded, another escaped, and the rest were never found.

But this time, Indian lives were on the line. The hijack took place around the same time as the coming of age of Indian television. Earlier that year, private Indian TV channels had beamed India’s military pushback against Pakistan at Kargil into homes across the country, whipping up nationalism and solidarity with the troops. The same TV channels now showed distraught relatives of the passengers on the plane begging the government to save the lives of their loved ones. A traumatised nation was transfixed by seven days of nail-biting drama, each day building more public pressure on the government.

After diverting the flight to Amritsar first, where it halted for 45 minutes, the hijackers directed it to Lahore. The plane was running out of fuel, and although Pakistan first denied it permission, it allowed the landing after it became clear there was no other option. After refuelling, the aircraft took off again, landing this time in Dubai, where the hijackers released 27 passengers and handed over to the authorities the body of Rupin Katyal, who was on his honeymoon to Nepal, and had bled to death after being stabbed on board. From Dubai, the pilot was ordered to take the aircraft to Kandahar in Afghanistan, then ruled by the Taliban.

According to several accounts of the hijacking, including one by A S Dulat, who headed R&AW at the time, in his book Kashmir, The Vajpayee Years, India considered sending the National Security Guard to storm the plane, but lost the best opportunity it had in Amritsar, as confusion reigned in Delhi on the next steps. A rescue operation was also considered in Dubai, but the hijackers may have got wind of it, and took off for Kandahar, where they were treated like state guests by the Taliban.

“My government will not bend before terror,” Prime Minister Vajpayee had declared on December 26. By the end of that month, the government had thrown in the towel.

The negotiations with the hijackers, conducted with the help of the UNDP head in Pakistan, Eric de Mul, could only achieve a paring down of the list of 36 prisoners that the hijackers wanted released, to three — Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.

The NDA government gave in to the demand. On the last day of the last century, Jaswant Singh travelled to Kandahar with the three men, where they were handed over to the Taliban. As the new millennium dawned, the nation rejoiced in the return of the passengers. The shock of the abject surrender would set in later. Masood Azhar went to Pakistan where he formed the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group the government holds responsible for the Uri attack, and before that, the attack in Pathankot, apart from the Parliament attack. Shaikh is in a Pakistani prison for the abduction and brutal murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl, while Zargar is believed to be living in PoK.

nirupama.subramanian@expressindia.com