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December 27, 1999


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The Rediff Special/ Wing Commander R V Parasnis (retd)

The Devil's Alternative

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India has been a target for hijacking and kidnapping incidents time and again in the last two decades. If there is a response machinery in existence, there seems to be no evidence of it.

We frittered away the God-given opportunity when the hijacked flight landed at Amritsar which has a presence of the army, the air force in addition to the police. The right thing to do was the use of small arms to blast off the elevator -- the horizontal part of the tail plane that rotates around the lateral axis. It is easy to locate, big enough to fire at, safe from inflammable materials and the inhabitants of the plane and the most vital control surface for flying the aeroplane. In fact, flying is not possible without it.

Would it have endangered the passengers's lives in retribution? While that risk cannot be discounted, it was minimal.

Firstly the small arms fire is hardly audible inside a pressurised aircraft.

Secondly, the tail being far back in the rear, it would have been totally out of sight of the hijackers whatever be their vantage position and similarly the attackers also could have so positioned themselves behind the aircraft -- near about the tail plane area. From within the aircraft, there is no way the rear can be observed when the aircraft is on the ground.

Thirdly, the ATC then could have explained to the terrorists through the pilot that some overenthusiastic policemen have needlessly fired at the aircraft and blasted away the tail plane, promising them another aeroplane or repairs or 'whatever' to calm them down.

The choice open before the hijackers would then be either to blow up the aeroplane with all the occupants and themselves in it or to enter into negotiations. Thus the battle would have been carried into the enemy's court. The former choice is suicidal and will always be the toughest decision to take and hence can be ruled out.

Once the negotiations begin under the conditions of a disabled aircraft, we get time for whatever actions we wish to take and the pressure gets transferred to the hijackers. The control of the situation for the most part then comes into our hands. It would have been then possible to storm the aeroplane by the commandos if the negotiations turned out to be unreasonable or if we were to select that option at our will. A success in such an operation would have achieved for us worldwide respect.

That opportunity sadly is gone and we find ourselves in a helpless situation with the aircraft presently, of all the places, in Afghanistan, heavily guarded by the Taliban militia. We have now no control over the situation and an 'Entebbe' type operation is practically out of question on account of the intervening hostile territory of Pakistan and the Taliban being alert and expecting such an attack. We also must not forget that the Taliban have all the modern weaponry at their disposal and they are adept at its use.

It is reasonable to assume that the entire hijack plan is Pakistan sponsored. Four of the hijackers have now been identified as Pakistani nationals. It is quite likely that the hijackers were carried to Kathmandu in the PIA aircraft which came and parked itself close to the IA aircraft in Kathmandu. They, of course, could have made their entry by other means as is admitted by Nepal that the security at the airport was not adequate.

Some officials and workers at Kathmandu could have been bribed to cooperate for smuggling in arms, in getting the parking space for the Pakistani aeroplane close to our IA flight and also to provide the hijackers an access to climb into our aircraft. In the event of their coming out of the PIA flight, they could have even brought the arms with them.

A statement by Mr Abdus Sattar -- the foreign minister of Pakistan -- that 'the hijacking might be an Indian intelligence plot and that some of the pilot's actions were suspicious', apart from being laughable, is a clear pointer to the Pakistani involvement. It is an age-old trick, the thief crying foul and pointing finger at the one whom he robbed.

Despite the fact that we have lost all control over the situation, it has simplified to put before us two choices only. First, of course, is to give in to the demands of the hijackers. Such an action is bound to lead to many more hijacks and abductions in future. The ghost of the kidnapping and release of Rubaiya -- the daughter of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed -- is still hanging over us. Also, it will let loose a dangerous leader free to spread terrorism not only just on a large scale but also in different dimensions. Opting for this alternative, therefore, will prove to be highly damaging to our national security and will endanger many more lives in future.

That leaves us with only one choice. The situation is typically that of 'Devil's Alternative' -- whatever is the decision, some innocent lives will be lost. That choice is to firmly express our inability to release the dreaded terrorist leader and strategic planner Maulana Masood Azhar or any other terrorist from the Indian jails. At the same time, we must make an appeal to the hijackers to release the passengers and the plane on humanitarian grounds. We can, of course, promise a speedy and just trial to Maulana Azhar at the same time giving out a clear message that any further inhuman treatment to the passengers or the crew of our aircraft will be met with ruthless retribution, whatever the price.

Faced with such a response, the hijackers might murder a few hostages to put pressure on us, but they will eventually be convinced that the senseless murders will get them nothing. At that stage, they will release the passengers and the crew and may then blow up the plane making good their escape, perhaps with the covert co-operation of the Taliban. This, in my opinion, is the maximum that can happen.

We, as a nation, have done nothing to suppress terrorism in last two decades of sufferance. Soft methods, liberty and human rights do not work with them because they themselves do not believe in the same. We are being forced to undertake ruthless, swift and certain retribution in future, if necessary, by bringing in new legislation and forming anti-terrorism courts. We also must develop ability and long arms for hitting the terrorists's camps across the borders.

We must also assure our adversaries that if and where the situation demands, the nation has the will and the strength to punish the states supporting the trans-border terrorism in return. Our strategic planning and military strength must be developed to that end. Then and then alone shall we be able to assure a secure living for our citizens.

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