|HOME | NEWS | REPORT|
December 27, 1999
Flat-footed government exposed by hijack
Josy Joseph in New Delhi
The hijacking of Flight 814 has again exposed the lacunae in the government's system to meet a national crisis.
From the moment information of the hijacking reached air traffic control in New Delhi a few minutes before 1700 IST on December 24, a series of goof-ups and indecision marked the official response. Even now, the Indian delegation sent to Kandahar in Afghanistan does not carry a clear mandate. Even if an opportunity arises for a crack operation to free the hostages, sources said there is no blanket clearance.
It took more than an hour for the high-level Crisis Management Group to begin its meeting after it was alerted about the hijack. And it took it almost another hour to come to a decision.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also failed to summon a Cabinet meeting for the next 48 hours. Only a select group of senior ministers met at his home, that too a couple of hours after the crisis began. And when it finally met, the Cabinet failed to reach any conclusion.
According to information gathered from sources in government, the senior ministers who met at Vajpayee's home just did obvious things like asking the CMG to monitor the situation and the National Security Guard to be on alert.
The government also failed to arrive at a decision on whether to allow the aircraft to leave Indian skies, a mistake that has complicated matters. Sources in the Indian defence establishment told rediff.com that it was the "most foolish thing. They just allowed the plane to get away."
Sources close to the CMG said they were not told clearly how to go ahead with the operation. "Unless we are told to do this and that, unless we are told that the plane should not be allowed to leave Indian airspace, unless we are told that even storming can be resorted to, why should we do it?" If commandos do storm the aircraft and there are casualties, who would take the rap, they asked.
At Delhi airport, a special plane of the NSG is always on standby, with 50 commandos ready for any emergency. The plane can leave for any destination within 30 minutes. The Special Action Group of the NSG sat in the plane, waiting for the CMG's go-ahead and for negotiators to join them.
A single bureaucrat believed to have been from the external affairs ministry joined the commandos as the negotiator at about 1930 IST and the plane took off. By the time they reached Amritsar, the hijackers had forced Captain D Saran to fly to Lahore. The commandos arrived almost half an hour too late.
Even if the NSG commandos had reached Amritsar in time, they might not have gone ahead with the storming. Sources in the NSG pointed out that the final clearance "has to come from Delhi."
Minister of State for Civil Aviation Professor Chamanlal Gupta, who spent much time at the ATC tower in Delhi in the initial stages, was not sure how to deal with the crisis. He had no proper mandate to do anything and he even failed to establish contact with the hijackers.
While diplomatic circles say the government is now trying to buy time, those aware of terrorist psychology say it may only result in making the hijackers frustrated. And that could force them into drastic action.
Sources who have dealt with similar situations in the past said it was important not to allow the plane to get out of Indian airspace. "But then bureaucrats and political babus won't know the importance of land and air boundaries, and the advantage we enjoy within them," a senior army officer said.
The defence secretary, an Indian Administrative Service officer, represents the defence establishment in the CMG. No uniformed officer is there, denying the CMG the benefit of expert advice. In fact, as some Indian Air Force officers told rediff.com, there are "silly ways to stop a plane from leaving the airport", like blocking the runway or puncturing the tyres.
The absence in the CMG of the defence establishment, which has a large number of specialised commando groups and contributes to the NSG in a big way, is seen as a major shortcoming of the set-up.
The delay in calling an all-party meeting and the lack of a permanent consulting mechanism for such situations are also being criticised now.
The Cabinet met 48 hours after the crisis began, and several ministers were complaining that even they were kept in the dark.
Then there is Defence Minister George Fernandes, a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security. He is not even in the capital. He is somewhere in the northeast, a region where his interests are beyond his ministerial brief.
SINGLES | NEWSLINKS | BOOK SHOP | MUSIC SHOP | GIFT SHOP | HOTEL BOOKINGS
AIR/RAIL | WEATHER | MILLENNIUM | BROADBAND | E-CARDS | EDUCATION
HOMEPAGES | FREE EMAIL | CONTESTS | FEEDBACK