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December 25, 1999
India could have done an Entebbe at Amritsar
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
With the hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft Flight 814 now in Kandahar, 650 kilometres south west of Kabul in Afghanistan, Indian security experts feel New Delhi missed a chance to take action when the aircraft was still in Amritsar.
As retired Major General Afsir Karim said angrily on a television channel, "We all are just sitting and talking. Yet, when we had the chance to do something, no action was taken and now we have the aircraft in a foreign country whose relations with India are not very good at all."
Former Punjab police chief K P S Gill told rediff.com that had India taken firm action when the aircraft was in Amritsar, by now the entire drama would have been over. "Either way the situation would have ended. We could have stormed the aircraft and would have killed or captured the hijackers, perhaps with a few lives lost or they would have surrendered. But right now, we have no control over the situation and no one knows what price we may finally end up paying," he said.
Maj Gen Karim told rediff.com that the hijacking once more reflected India's complete lack of security preparedness. "The day Osama bin Laden declared that India was an enemy state, along with the United States and Russia, we should have taken precautions. And especially so in those places where we do not have total control such as Kathmandu and Dhaka, and which are known terrorist transit zones. But alas, nothing of that sort was ever done," he lamented.
When Union Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani was asked whether the Indian government was considering a military action a la Entebbe after it was clear that the hijackers had killed a passenger, he refused to answer in the positive or in the negative.
But, as the major general pointed out, does India have any contingency plan when such emergencies strike? "Every Israeli aircraft carries armed commandos who are disguised as passengers. These commandos are trained to take action during such situations. We don't have any such plan,'' he explained.
"Second, India has no procedure to deal with the situation. It is dealt with on an ad hoc basis and thus precious time is lost," he added.
Maj Gen Karim and others have blamed this cumbersome and slow decision-making process as the cause for not taking immediate action when the aircraft was in Amritsar. The Crisis Management Group, comprising various secretaries and top police officials (incidentally, none from the armed forces!) met and by the time they could reach a decision, the aircraft was preparing to take off from Amritsar.
"We could have anticipated the landing in Amritsar, and had a force ready to immediately take action. What we actually saw was a clumsy attempt to force the plane to wait. We should have for such situations a ready action plan that can be enacted quickly," he stated.
Retired Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, deputy director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, echoed Maj Gen Karim's words. "There is an urgent need to have a SOP - - Standard Operating Procedure -- which automatically goes into action the moment such a crisis occurs," he said.
Cmde Uday Bhaskar pointed out that another hijacking was quite likely now. "We have seen that when such incidents occur, they tend to snowball with others following. So the challenge is how do we respond? We have to review the security lapses and come up with a plan," he said.
The commodore said it was time for India to create a regional consensus on how to deal with such international or intra-regional events. "This hijacking has involved four capitals -- Kathmandu, New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul -- and therefore it is imperative that we have a plan involving all the countries of the region to deal with such emergencies," he said.
It was pointed out that many security experts view Pakistan and Afghanistan as being the two countries that are actually fomenting Islamic terrorism and are thus seen as part of the problem rather than the solution.
However, the IDSA deputy director pointed out that there was no direct evidence linking the hijackers with the two countries. "Also, all governments' first priority in such a situation -- and Pakistan and Afghanistan have shown themselves no different -- is the safety of the passengers. Surely we can all evolve a plan that can look after this primary concern," he said.
He said it was impossible to plug each and every loophole. "Kargil clearly showed us that no matter how good your security system is, there will always be one or two chinks in the armour. Therefore, what is important is having in place a plan and SOP to deal with a crisis the moment it occurs," he said.
Maj Gen Karim had the last word. "Our basic problem is that India is not aggressive enough in its dealing with such situations. We have to change that mindset."
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