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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Once upon a hijack

Could the Punjab Police have prevented the hijacked IC 814 flight from taking off to Kandahar? The then Punjab DGP recalls the sequence of events on that fateful day in December 1999.

Written by Sarabjit Singh | Updated: March 21, 2019 2:35:27 pm
Indian Airlines, IC 814 flight hijacked, flight hijacked, IC 814 flight kandhar, nda govt, Jaish-e- Mohammad, Masood Azhar, atal bihari Vajpayee, India pakistan relation, indian express Could the Punjab Police have done something to prevent the flight from taking off? (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

A lot has been written about the dramatic hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu in December 1999. There is currently a political blame-game on. The then BJP-led NDA government is accused of surrendering to the demands of the hijackers. They are accused of escorting the Jaish-e- Mohammad supremo, Masood Azhar, to Kandahar after releasing him from Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu. Senior intelligence officers were involved in the negotiations with the hijackers and the release of Azhar and the two others, who were exchanged for the hostages.

It is a matter of public record that the then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, went with the three to Kandahar, where they were released to the Afghan Taliban. In all this revived interest, the apparent failure of the Punjab Police to take action at Amritsar, the only point in India where the hijacked flight landed, has also been dredged up.

As the then Director General of Punjab Police, I would like to place on record my version of the events of that fateful day. There has been much finger pointing against the Punjab Police. But barring a report in one national magazine, then based on a perfunctory talk with me, and A S Dulat’s remarks in his book, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, based on an afternoon lunch on the banks of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London, no one has bothered to check with me as to what happened at Amritsar that day.

For what it is worth, here’s my version.

I had come home to my official residence, in Chandigarh, from a dental appointment that evening. Switching on the television, I saw the news of the hijack. For a few minutes initially, I was blasé about it. In any case, there were few details then. But my own training as a pilot (I hold a private pilot’s licence) made me realise that owing to the flight being on a possible flight path to Pakistan, there was a more than even chance that Amritsar might come into the picture, as in an earlier incident.

The late Jagdish Parshad Birdi was then Inspector General of Police, Border Range, Amritsar. I asked him to move two companies of Punjab Police commandos then available with him to the Raja Sansi airport immediately. I also requisitioned the state helicopter, but the Pawan Hans pilots called and told me that they were in Bathinda on duty with the then chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal. Although CM Badal had cleared the chopper for my use, they were prohibited by the Indian Air Force from taking off after sunset.

Sometime later I was told that the hijacked plane had landed in Amritsar. Birdi, with his earthy good sense, had stationed his Deputy Inspector General, Jasminder Singh, at the airport, and Jasminder was already then in the ATC (Air Traffic Control) when IC 814 landed.

The plane taxied to the apron and immediately Captain Devi Sharan requested for fuel, saying he had only about nine minutes worth left. Yet he did not switch off his engines, which was odd. I refused the fuel. By now, Jasminder from his mobile phone (which were then a rarity), had put me on to Devi Sharan’s conversation, which the airport director, V S Mulekar, had wisely put on the ATC public address system. Despite using a pleading tone, the pilot sounded like a brave, composed man in control of himself. Jasminder also pleaded with me for fuel but I refused. In the meantime, Jasminder explored the possibilities, found the bowser (the refueling tanker), and called for the operating staff of the same, who had all packed off for the night. That they had to be brought back to the airport gave us a few more precious minutes, though at that time, we could hardly tell how long we had.

By then I was on the phone with Delhi, where I was told that the Central Crisis Management Group was in session. The top brass of the country were there. On their behalf, my interlocutor was my batch mate Shyamal Datta, the then director of the Intelligence Bureau. He asked if I could immobilise the aircraft, one suggestion being that we could maybe puncture the tyres by shooting at them. It was an outlandish suggestion, and I don’t know if others were listening at the other end when I used some expletives and asked him if he thought those were cycle tyres. They were huge tubeless tires, multiple to each wheel, and puncturing them would have set off huge explosions and possibly not had any impact. Shyamal asked if we could disable the plane any other way. I then explained our limitations. The only approach to the fuselage was by the ancient rolling ladder, which would be spotted the minute it rolled. That or any other action would invite reprisals and likely result in casualties among the hostages. We were well-armed with automatic weapons and long-range rifles, but their use would equally invite a response of course, which we could deal with, but also to the passengers and crew. Our own firing would be mainly blind so passenger casualties were very likely. Delhi’s response was a vehement “No casualties to passengers”. Also, I was asked to hold on as the National Security Guard team was coming.

Here let me clarify that in national level crisis situations, it is the Centre that has overriding authority and states are bound to obey their guidance/orders. The Punjab State Crisis Management Group was already in operation. The chief minister, chief secretary R S Mann, the home secretary and I were in constant telephonic contact. The only caution given by CM Badal was to be careful about the possibility of casualties.

By now, Jasminder again pleaded for refueling. On my refusing, he told me that the hijackers had killed a passenger. Then I was relayed Devi Sharan’s voice pleading for fuel as one passenger had been killed. Since no body was thrown out I stuck to my stand of no fuel. Rupin Katyal, one of the passengers, had been seriously injured after being slashed on the throat with a knife by one of the hijackers. He subsequently died.

I had gambled that being low on fuel and stationed on the apron, the plane was in no position to take off. One of the earliest lessons in flying was always to take off from the end of the runway so as to have adequate space to deal with emergencies, including an engine failure on takeoff.

But to my great shock, Jasminder suddenly called to say the aircraft had taken off. On his own initiative, he had moved the bowser towards the plane to disable the wheels while putting on a show of refueling. But the hijackers got suspicious and ordered the pilot to take off. Devi Sharan was forced to take off a fully loaded Airbus rock bottom on fuel from the middle of Amritsar’s inadequate-length runway, and was allowed to land in Lahore after he threatened to land on a road because he had no fuel.

Could the Punjab Police have done something to prevent the flight from taking off? Dulat has mentioned my telling him that I was no K P S Gill. True, I wasn’t the one to take matters in my own hands to launch a commando operation of my own in defiance of Delhi. And, we had very little time with the aircraft, and instructions that there should be no casualties.

IC 814 took off after about 47 minutes from Amritsar. On being informed of the departure, Shyamal Datta’s reply to me was: “Your headache is over. Ours is getting worse.”

The writer is former DGP, Punjab.

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