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January 8, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

The arithmetic of a hijacking

Now that the hijacking drama is over, it is time to tot up all the ups and downs, the pluses and the minuses and to see where we stand in the balance sheet.

Up. The government. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Cabinet took some time to get going, but once they got their act together the response was both measured and mature. The Cabinet refused to bow down to populist opinion or to the public breast beating of the relatives. The hotheads and the hardliners were also kept at bay. They took their own time, wearing down the hijackers but at the same time kept in mind the safety of the crew and passengers. The ultimate deal, three militants for 150 odd passengers, was the best they could get in the circumstances. India may still not be a "hard" State but thank god, it is now a mature soft State.

Down. The Crisis Management Group. It took more than 48 hours for the country's Crisis Management Group to come to grips with the problem, by which time the plane had landed and taken off from Amritsar, Lahore and Dubai. The CMG might as well be called the Crisis Muddling Group. Made of bureaucrats and assorted representatives from the IB and police, the group has muddled through from crisis to crisis, from the Babri Masjid to Orissa.

Since when have babus been able to manage a crisis? It is the country's misfortune to have an Intelligence Bureau without intelligent people, a CBI, which cannot investigate and a police more known for bungling than solving crimes. The only people who might have provided some expertise, the Armed Forces, were excluded. Much was made of the endless cups of tea, the oily samosas and the stale sandwiches which the group consumed during their non-stop vigil of eight days. If these people cannot manage their own logistics how can they be expected to manage a crisis?

Up. The pilot and the crew. The real heroes of the drama are the pilot and crew of the aircraft. No amount of praise is sufficient for their behaviour over eight days. Under intense pressure they behaved calmly and went about their duties. The pilot, with a pistol to his head, took off and landed safely at unknown airfields, without adequate landing aids. The fact that Indian Airlines got their Airbus back without undue damage is a credit to the flying skills of one man, who kept his cool under trying circumstances. Unfortunately, the government, which announces a medal at the drop of a hat, failed to give recognition to this heroism.

Down. Relatives of the passengers. It was natural for the relatives of passengers to be concerned about the safety of their near and dear ones. In India, however, grief and concern has to be exhibited, especially when television cameras are in the vicinity. Some of the relatives resorted to theatrics, openly abused the government and Indian Airlines and finally stormed a press conference held by the foreign minister. Their antics, graphically broadcast by television channels must have given ample satisfaction to the hijackers. The crude exhibition of emotion reached its limits when the passengers finally returned after eight days. The British left behind many things, unfortunately not their stiff upper lip in times of crises.

Up. The hijackers and militants. This must be reckoned one for the terrorists. The entire hijacking was obviously planned meticulously and executed with precision. They obviously received covert assistance from Pakistan and possibly the Taleban. But that in no way lessens their competency in successfully carrying out the operation, negotiating with the Indian team and finally, not only getting away scot free but taking three militants with them. Given our lack of tenacity in pursuing offenders, it is most likely that the hijackers will ever be apprehended or brought to justice.

Down. India's security apparatus. The much ballyhooed special action forces, commando groups, Black Cats and other security institutions proved what we had long suspected, unable to prevent the hijacking and incompetent in dealing with them. The one fallout from this episode is the clear writing on the wall, India knows next to nothing about security. We might as well get our airlines and airports guarded by hiring foreign experts leaving the commandos and Black Cats to protect our politicians.

Up. The pragmatists. The eventual deal was the triumph of pragmatism over jingoism. Admittedly, the swap of three militants for 150 hostages cannot be called a victory for India. But this was one of those cases where ground realities were totally in favour of the militants. If negotiations had failed it was perfectly possible for them to blow up the aircraft and vanish into the night. On the other hand we were negotiating in a country which we had not even recognised and whose leaders were tilting towards the hijackers, despite their outward show of reasonableness. We held absolutely no cards and it was necessary to be a little flexible on this occasion.

Down. The hotheads. Some still suffer from the aftereffects of Kargil. They watch too many Rambo movies and would have liked us to repeat the Israeli raid at Entebbe forgetting that we have neither the ingredients nor the national will to undertake such operations. Just the fact that it took two hours for our commandos to get ready indicates that we lack both the dedication and the intense discipline required of such forces. If we really intend to be tough in future there are enough lessons to be drawn from the hijacking.

Up. BBC/CNN. It has now become a knee jerk reaction. If you want up to date news about any crisis, switch to CNN or BBC. Sure enough, they did not let you down. They had their correspondents on the job at Kandahar in minutes. (How do they manage this?) It was through these channels that we managed to get the first pictures of the airplane and the hijackers in Kandahar. Their hour by hour reports were factual and informative. With their coverage of the crisis both these channels have enhanced their reputation for up-to-date and on-the-spot reporting.

Down. Star TV/Doordarshan. After its performance in Kargil and Orissa much was expected from Star TV. They failed badly. Lacking their own reporter on the spot they were left to audio interviews with correspondents from other countries and media. There were endless interviews with all sorts of 'experts' and endless shots of the relatives and their reactions. By the end of the week the experts began to elicit only yawns from the viewers. Doordarshan did not disappoint. Nothing much was expected of it and it obliged by producing nothing.

In the final tally the country came out with its honour still intact. It was not much of a victory; neither was it such a disaster or loss of face as some would have us believe. All the pain the crew, passengers or the nation suffered over eight days would be worth it if we learn a few lessons from the episode. If the past is any indication, this is unlikely and we might as well await the next crisis to muddle through.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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