The Hijacking and After

18 Jan, 2000    ·   308

Report of IPCS Seminar held on 13 January 2000

Speakers: Brig. B. D. Mishra, formerly with the National Security Guard (NSG)



Mr. Anand Verma former Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat



Maj. Gen. Ramesh Chopra



Chairman: T. Anantachari, former Director General, BSF



In his opening remarks, the Chairman said the hijacking of Indian Airlines IC-814 highlighted many issues relevant for Indian security. It also underlined the diplomatic ambivalence of other countries towards India . South Asian countries often project India as a domineering Big Brother but look to India for help in facing their internal crises. However, they have rarely reciprocated that gesture when India needed them as the current crisis has shown. 



Brig. B. D. Mishra pointed out that the hijacking incident is a test case for India to review its security situation, particularly in relation to the threat of cross-border terrorism and militant fundamentalism. In North India , the obvious flashpoint is Kashmir where insurgents and mercenaries from at least 17 different countries are operating. In Eastern India , the demographic balance is "going haywire"; in Tamil Nadu the ISI is active and in Western India , the entire coastline of Gujarat and Maharashtra is a smuggling haven.



The 1993 hijacking was different from the recent one since the aircraft was on the ground for many hours. One must understand that information on the specifics of the hijacking will always be scarce. The government was not sure how many hijackers were there, what their identity was, what weapons they possessed etc. India was caught in a state of total unpreparedness for this eventuality. The fact that the Crisis Management Group has never conducted any mock exercises to deal with similar situations made the situation worse. There is no information on the crack units to take on the hijackers and commands these units. The NSG is, however, capable of reacting in 90 minutes. During the 1993 incident, a few Air Force planes were stationed near the hijacked plane, both as an operational move, and as a psychological maneuver. If IC-814 is any indication, eastern India looks like the next target. There ought to be a national action plan against terrorism, he said. 



There have some lamentable changes in special operations procedures. For instance, the Special Action Group (SAG) in Delhi , which was stationed close to Palam Airport , has been shifted to another location — amounting to a loss of 15 minutes reaction time. The command and control center for the SAG has been moved to 50 kilometers away from the airport.



He remarked that the Indian armed forces' charter of duties is sacrosanct and not involved in these situations when there is a definite need for their expertise. The Cabinet Secretary is saddled with many situations. There is a need for an officer of Cabinet Secretary rank to deal with such situations. The lack of decentralization of decision-making was also clearly evident in the hijacking.



A. K. Verma said the core question to be assessed was whether the swap of militants for hostages was justifiable in the national interest. Secondly whether the modalities of release was involved excessive concessions. The decision before the government was difficult. The lack of precedents did not help. The orders of the higher echelons of the bureaucracy were confusing. Firm indicators of how badly the crisis was handled are the separate calls made by the Cabinet Secretary and National Security to Amritsar 's SSP and DIG when the hijacked plane was parked in Amritsar . Whilst both gave directions to stop the plane at Amritsar , neither seemed to have spelt that out unequivocally.



The situation in Kandahar defined the limit for each player involved. The Taliban faced the twin dilemma of having to balance the need for international recognition without offending the hijackers. This restricted their scope of action. They could not openly espouse the case of the hijackers nor allow the hostages to be harmed. The Taliban had everything to lose from a violent end in Kandahar and hence India could have played hardball. 



The release of the hostages has not provided any advantage to India as terrorism promises to continue. Masood has promised to raise 500,000 mujahedins to oust India from Kashmir . Sacrificing 160 hostages in the interest of national security was not unthinkable considering that proxy war and militancy has cost 70,000 lives in J&K. The authorities appeared to have relied too much on the support of the US , which in the final analysis, was misplaced. Evidently, the Western countries were not willing to expend political capital to bail India out. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's visit to Kandahar , escorting the militants was disastrous as a diplomatic move. 



Maj. Gen. Ramesh Chopra said India has a history of being a soft state and the hijacking of the IC -814 affirms this image.  India does not pursue a national interest policy. The handling of the hijacking was contrary to earlier pronouncements by the Prime Minister that India had "zero tolerance" of terrorist activities. However, it must be admitted that, under the circumstances releasing the militants to secure the release of 160 people on board the aircraft, was the only available option. Certain aspects of the crisis could have been handled differently. India suffered a major set back when the plane left Indian airspace. It should not have been allowed to leave Raja Sansi airport at Amritsar . Secondly, the Indian media's handling of the crisis actually provided the hijackers and their "cause" with the publicity they sought. It also projected India as a soft state. 



The coordination between the Indian intelligence agencies needs to be improved for internal security to improve. Though the idea of Sky Marshals is being considered as a means to improve the security on board aircraft, it is not feasible because it presents problems of command and control within the security agencies. Similarly, the hierarchy in the Crisis Management Group needs to be clearly defined. 



Regarding the diplomatic fall-out of the incident, Gen. Chopra opined that the Taliban was prepared in advance for its role in the hijacking incident. Though it did cooperate with India during the crisis, India should not soften its stand on Afghanistan . Lastly, though the US condemned the hijacking, this does not amount to a denunciation of Pakistan 's role. The US has a long relationship with Pakistan and will not abandon it by declaring Pakistan a terrorist state. India must bring out concrete evidence about Pakistan 's involvement in international terrorism, and present it to the world. 






Remarking on the wisdom of releasing the militants, a columnist informed that the Prime Minister telephoned the head of every opposition party and his own NDA allies conveying his decision to release the militants. Surprisingly, all the political parties supported Vajpayee's decision. He asserted that the Indian media coverage of the event was "tasteless, insensitive and unintelligent." By extensively covering the emotional side of the story and by interviewing anguished relatives, the networks failed to go where the real story was such as a review of security in Nepal . If they bothered to go there, Indians would have had a measure of how ISI has positioned itself into conduct anti-India activities. A former General concurred stating that the security at the Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu is "laughable." 



The government handled the media poorly and there is neither a system of guidance nor a crafted psychological management of media in place to handle the frenzy for information. Another participant said the event underlined the fact India is not prepared to handle any form of calamity, natural or otherwise. 



A participant said that the record of past hijackings in the world should be instructive for India . According to information culled from various American aviation organizations on the Internet, there have been 108 hijackings during 1992-1998, out of which only 12 had a political motive. In fact, individuals seeking immigration to other countries conducted most of the hijackings. Among the 12 instances of hijacking which had a political/terrorist motive, only in three of those cases were the hijackers released. All those 12 cases had an Indian connection. There is no instance in the history of hijacking where sky marshals neutralized the hijackers. The settlement at Kandahar is the first instance in aviation history where the hijackers have disappeared. There have been cased where hijackers have escaped from prison, but no one disappeared forthwith as happened on New Year's Eve. 



A participant from the Air Force said that the families brought intense psychological pressure on the government. But the government did not handle the families of the hostages with any sensitivity. India should heed the example of the recent Egypt Air crash where families were flown in to New York from wherever they were and ushered to a single venue where they were regularly counseled by social workers while religious representatives held prayers. In the IC-814 case, the families were not even regularly briefed. He went on to say that the armed forces have to be a part of the CMG, which obviously lacks their expertise. 



Another said that the main lesson from the experience is that the role of the National Security Adviser and Cabinet Secretary needs to be clarified. The Indian negotiating team was stacked with Joint Secretaries. It sorely missed clinical psychologists and professionals qualified to deal with deviant behavior. Ensuring tighter security before boarding the aircraft is better than enlisting sky marshals. India would better served by compiling authoritative evidence before pressing the case for declaring Pakistan as a terrorist state. 



Another participant, disagreeing with the contention that the bargain showed up India as a soft state argued that the release of the militants was the best bargain to hold on to after the aircraft left Amritsar . To consider sacrificing 160 hostages in the national interest is luxury only analysts could afford, who doubtless would hold on to national aspirations a notch less had they been among the families of the hostages. Besides, India 's lack of diplomatic networks within the Islamic world was seriously exposed. Not to bring an amicable end to the crisis but as an option that India could utilize. The BJP seems to have realized this when some of its leaders approached Indian Muslim leaders to use their good offices, which is deplorable since it assumes that Muslims have extra-territorial loyalties. 



Another participant disagreed with the contention that the US and Israel do not negotiate or concede to hijackers demands, arguing that there have been instances when both have released prisoners. He said Kandahar could not be compared to Entebbe , since the Israelis had facilities for refueling in Kenya which India did not have.