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December 30, 1999
'Katju is the best possible negotiator'
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
Negotiations with the hijackers have reached a crucial and delicate stage, so much so that the daily press briefing by External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was not carried out today afternoon.
The Indian negotiators have been bargaining hard, and conceding little, during the more than 72 hours that they have been in Kandahar. Both the sides are unwilling to give in on their key demand, that is the release of 26 militants which the hijackers want and which the government is loath to concede.
To make the negotiation process even more difficult, the hijackers are talking through the pilot. The hijackers, who speak Hindi, Urdu, English and, it is believed, Pushto, give their message to the pilot who in turn passes it on to the negotiating team that is sitting at the Air Traffic Control room in Kandahar airport.
The negotiating team then passes on its response to the pilot, who in turn conveys it to the hijackers. "Such a method of communication is not uncommon during hijackings," said a government source. But it does slow down the entire process, with messages sallying back and forth through an intermediary.
However, the government sources say as far as talking with the Taleban is concerned, the hijackers have spoken directly to them, most probably in Pushto or Urdu.
The other method adopted by the hijackers for communicating their demands is to hand over slips of paper to the Taleban forces surrounding the aircraft, which is then carried to the negotiating team. Two such slips were handed over, the first listing the three additional demands -- release of 36 prisoners, $200 million, and the body of Sajjad Afghani -- and the second dropping the latter two demands.
Meanwhile, the composition of the Indian negotiating team remains a mystery, with the government unwilling to give out the names under the present circumstances. The only name given out is that of Vivek Katju, joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs.
Katju, who speaks Arabic, has been joint secretary of the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan division for over two years now. An Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1975 batch, he has served in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Washington DC, Suva in Fiji, Kuala Lumpur, and has been in Delhi since 1993.
His initial posting in Delhi was as director in the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan division, to which he would return later as joint secretary. It was during his tenure that saw the nuclear explosions by India and Pakistan, the talks on Siachen in December 1998, the Kargil war and now the hijacking.
"All these events have primarily involved Katju's division, and because of them, today he is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced hands as far as Pakistan and Afghanistan are concerned. In that sense, there is no better person to lead the negotiating team," said ministry of external affairs officials.
What makes Katju perfect for the job is that he will be in a position to understand the hijackers and their motivation. "He is one person who has the ability to get under the skin of a person opposite him, to see things from the other side," said MEA officials.
Security officials insist that in dealing with hijackers, it is important to be tough but also empathise with the hijackers so that the latter don't feel cornered or become desperate. Yet, Katju is also reputed to be a tough negotiator, who will not budge unless it becomes imperative.
Among the other six negotiators -- four from the ministry of home and two from the cabinet secretariat -- are likely to be intelligence and counter-intelligence officers. The Intelligence Bureau comes under the ministry of home, counter-intelligence under the cabinet secretariat.
It is believed that the one of the other negotiators is an intelligence officer in charge of the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan division -- Katju's counterpart in the ministry of home -- while another is a psychologist trained to deal in negotiations and with hijackers.
However, their identities are being kept a secret till such time as the talks conclude.
Along with the negotiating team are other officials, including doctors, engineers, and officials. Totally, the Indian contingent comprises around 50 people.
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