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December 28, 1999
Secretive govt sparks confusion
Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi
The cloak of secrecy on the government's initiatives to negotiate with the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 and secure the release of the 160-odd passengers and crew still on board created further confusion in the media, even as senior ministers appealed to reporters for "responsible coverage".
The government's desperation to keep its initiatives secret was instrumental in various rumours flying thick and fast and anxious people getting further bewildered in an already confused situation.
More than 72 hours after the hijack drama commenced over Lucknow, Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his government gave scarce indication that the trauma would end barring the repetition that the primacy of his government was the termination of the hijack and the safe return of the passengers and the crew.
Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan came out of the Union Cabinet meeting last evening to inform the media that the government had full faith in Afghan Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Mutakel who had claimed that the Taliban commandos surrounding the hijacked aircraft in the Kandahar airport would storm the Airbus if they detected any noise or trouble inside it.
"Please don't ask me to disclose our strategy for the safe release of the passengers and the crew. I can only say that we have done and are doing the best to ensure that the passengers and the crew return safe," Mahajan pointed out and refused to reply to anxious queries from the reporters.
The Union Cabinet meeting was presided by Vajpayee and attended by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Mahajan, Union Home Minister Lal Kishenchand Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes.
However, after Mahajan's brief address to the reporters, Jaswant Singh declined to talk to them. There was no explanation given but the principal information officer of the Press Information Bureau N J Krishna handed out a four-page resolution of the government's condolence at the death of former president Shankar Dayal Sharma.
But a strange twist appeared after Mahajan's brief address to the media outside South Block, when it was announced that the widow of squadron leader Ajay Ahuja, a Kargil martyr, would like to address the media.
When the television cameras focused on her, she said that although she empathised and understood the agony of the aggrieved relatives of the passengers of the hijacked aircraft, they should exercise control on themselves.
Asked whether she meant that the relatives should not insist on the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, whose liberty from an Indian jail was being demanded by the hijackers, she answered in the affirmative.
The incident revealed the mindset of the government and also made it obvious that it was still reluctant to release the jailed terrorist, even though it was going ahead with the impression that it was doing everything for the speedy end of the travails of the hijacked aircraft's passengers and crew.
The abrupt cancellation of Jaswant Singh's media conference scheduled at 1700 hours yesterday caused further confusion in the media.
Earlier, the reporters looked askance when news filtered in that the aircraft carrying a team of seven Indian negotiators and others had left for Kandahar but had returned to Delhi soon after it developed a technical problem.
The aircraft, however, reached Kandahar airport at 1820 hours yesterday. Thereafter, nothing more was known about what transpired between the Indian negotiators, the Afghan authorities and the hijackers.
The travails of the aggrieved relatives continued as, in their own words, "we are being made to run from pillar to post".
Dr Sanjeev Chibber, who had created a storm on Sunday by gatecrashing into the external affairs minister's media conference, was jostled and pushed by policemen along with other relatives when they tried to speak to the prime minister.
However, the presence of a large number of mediamen virtually forced the officials attached to the prime minister's residence to apprise their superiors of the situation.
Later, they were invited by the prime minister. But they came out soon and told the reporters that they had been informed that the prime minister had deputed Union Minister of State for Small-Scale, Agro and Rural Industries Vasundhara Raje to hold talks with them.
However, Chibber and others said that they had declined to accept the minister's invitation to come for talks because "it is a ploy to divert attention from us and the vigilant media".
The relatives alleged that the government was "impotent" and its ministers ought to ''wear bangles'' as they ''lacked guts'' to release Azhar from prison as the situation demanded.
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