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January 3, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/Captain Devi Saran

'They had a gun at my neck all the time'

Captain Devi Saran, the commander of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 which was hijacked by five Pakistani nationals on Christmas eve is, understandably, a much relieved man now. For seven days and nights Saran, because of the responsibility he had to shoulder, endured the nightmare of being held hostage by the capricious captors more intensely than all the others. It was not enough to shore up his own courage, as the odds mounted. He had also to ensure that neither the panicky hostages nor the paranoid captors were provoked into some precipitate action. In the end Saran's calm and confidence helped the drawn out drama end safely.

From the moment the freed hostages landed in Delhi Saran has been in the centre of public adulation. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee described him as a national hero. But tempering the euphoria is the realisation on his part of what he just gone through, the fact that even a minor inadvertent error could have meant death. In an exclusive interview with Onkar Singh Saran reconstructed the whole horrific episode in detail. Explaining that he had no choice but to takeoff from Amritsar airport, he remarked, "I took a calculated risk. I would have crashlanded the aircraft if it had come to the worst." Excerpts from the interview:

Captain, what really happened? Can you describe the events the way they transpired?

The flight took off behind schedule from Kathmandu. We were about fifteen minutes in the air -- around 4.45 PM -- when the hijackers walked into my cabin and said not to do anything but obey their orders. When I first saw a man with a monkey cap walk into the cockpit I thought it was someone playing a joke on Christmas eve. But soon I realised that it was not a joke and that they meant business.

There is lot of confusion about the kind of weapons the hijackers had. Did they have pistols and grenades as is being claimed by the passengers?

Of course they had pistols and grenades. Each had a pistol and a grenade in his hands. But I never saw more than two of the same weapon with any one person at one time. They had pistols and revolvers. They were all of the same caliber so it was very difficult to say how many they had.

There were some reports which said that the hijackers had come by a Pakistan International Airlines flight which landed just before your flight took off. Is that true?

When my aircraft was on the ground, no PIA flight had landed there. Also, it is very difficult for anyone to sneak in like that. My opinion is that the hijackers must have spent more then three or four months in Kathmandu and planned their things. It was a well planned conspiracy to hijack the Indian Airlines flight. They must have worked hard to smuggle the explosives and weapons in. They must have got hold of someone to do this dirty work for them.

Do you think they bribed someone to do this work?

I am not sure what they did -- whether they bribed someone or they made someone part of their game plan. They were in a do-or-die situation. They were on a suicide mission. And this they knew from the time they hijacked the plane.

Do you think there was a lapse on the part of the Indian Airlines officials at the Tribhuvan International Airport which issued the boarding passes?

I think there was a blunder committed by the Airport Authority of Nepal which let armed hijackers board the plane.

Why was S A Qazi upgraded?

I don't know who upgraded his class. I did not do it. I upgraded only two people who I knew personally. They were Vishal Sharma and Rita Sharma. About Qazi, I don't know.

Some reports said that Gajendra Man Tarmarkar was also one of the hijackers but later these reports were denied by the intelligence agencies. Do you think Tamarkar had a hand in the hijacking?

Gajendra Man Tarmarkar ..... No, I don't think he had anything to do with the hijacking. For all the eight days he was like any of us and spent the time in the same way as we all did. We never suspected him. And I don't believe that he was involved. He has given me his address in Kathmandu and has invited me to come and see him. He is a courier who is engaged in selling shawls. He takes shawls from Kathmandu and delivers them to some shop in Nehru Place in Delhi.

What were the first words of the hijackers?

Koi harkat nahin hona chahiye (do not move). Then they asked me to take them to Lahore. I told them that the plane did not have enough fuel to take them to Lahore. Then they showed me what they had in terms of arms and ammunition. They had revolvers, pistols and hand grenades.

Were they a desperate lot?

Who else would venture to do a thing like this. They were on a suicide mission. Right through they kept on saying that if their demands were not met they would blow up the aircraft.

Who was their chief?

They were five in all. Barring the chief who was about forty, and who sat in the cockpit all the time till the whole thing was over, the rest of them were below thirty. I spoke to the chief. He seemed to be an emotional kind of person.

There are conflicting views about the behaviour of the hijackers. While some passengers say that they were polite, others claim they were brutal.

Their mood depended on the developments. I won't say they were polite and humble -- didn't they kill Rupin Katyal. They injured Satnam Singh (this I learnt in Lahore). They spread terror amongst the passengers by killing Katyal and injuring Satnam. They were suspicious at the Amritsar international airport. They had a gun at my neck all the time.

But once they landed in Kandahar they were relaxed. And then their mood depended upon the negotiations. When the negotiations broke down they were rude and slapped the passengers, hit them on their heads. But when things were going their way, they would tell jokes and laugh with the passengers.

Why did you take off from Amritsar? Why didn't you shut the engines?

The hijackers were very suspicious because I had told them that we would refuel at Amritsar in five minutes and we would be able to fly. But the refueling was not done. So they got jittery. They asked me not to shut down the engine. They kept on moving the aircraft from one place to another because they feared that some kind of commando operation would be carried out against them and they would be killed. So when the bowser did not come they asked me to takeoff. I told them that I cannot takeoff because I am in the middle of the runway. They asked me to crash the aircraft. I had no choice but to take a calculated risk.

Is it true you requested that some of the women passengers and the injured were allowed to disembark at Lahore but the authorities did not allow you to do so?

Yes, I had asked for permission for the women passengers to disembark along with the two injured persons on board but they did not allow us to do that despite the willingness of the hijackers to do so. The control tower told me that they had refuelled the plane and now it is time that we got out Pakistan. If they had allowed us to leave behind the injured maybe the life of Rupin Katyal would have been saved because he was still alive then.

If the hijackers had revolvers and pistols then why did they use knives to kill Katyal and injure Satnam?

Maybe because they wanted to send us a message that they meant business. They wanted to spread terror amongst the passengers. Their idea was not to kill but to spread terror. Maybe they wanted to save the guns and grenades for any eventuality.

SEE PART II: 'I must have died one hundred times while I was on board...'

The Rediff Interviews

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