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January 10, 2000


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India caved in too early

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After the release of the hijacked plane's passengers and crew on December 31, 1999, one of the issues being debated was, what are India's options in such a situation? No two hijacking incidents are similar; still, however, one can draw broad contours of a policy over how to respond in a similar situation. What stands out in our case is that India has no such policy in place.

Coming to the specific instance of the hijack of Flight 814, the plane could have been immobilised at Amritsar when it landed there for refueling. India missed a golden opportunity in not doing so. Had the aircraft been immobilised at Amritsar, the story would have been completely different.

After the aircraft landed in Kandahar, the Indian negotiating strategy could have been different. But given our mindset on the Taleban, India was unclear whether the Afghan rulers are with the hijackers or not. A majority of Indians were not willing to accept the Taleban's public pronouncement on day three, that no harm will come to the passengers and crew on their soil. It was initially dismissed as a cheap publicity ploy to gain diplomatic recognition by India.

What this showed up was that no one in the government was willing to accept that the Taleban made a formal commitment to India and the Indian people about the safety of the passengers and the crew.

When the Indian negotiating team landed in Kandahar to negotiate with hijackers, they took a tough stand on the whole issue and exposed the hijackers' hollowness. After four days of intense talks, the Indian team wanted to call the hijackers' bluff. In fact at one point of time, the negotiating team even announced that the talks had broken down.

Suddenly, however, the political leadership took the inexplicable decision on day seven to release the three terrorists in exchange for the release of the passengers, crew and plane. The immediate question that arose was, did India have no other option before it?

Assume, for instance, the Government of India decided to call off the negotiations, what could have happened? The Taleban's threat of asking the plane to leave Afghan soil would not have materialised for the simple reason the aircraft was is no condition to fly. If by chance, the aircraft managed to take off, it would have been blown up in mid-air by the hijackers - which would have placed the hijackers and Taleban in a spot for many years to come.

Scenario two: the terrorists would have killed passengers at regular intervals to force a decision in their favour. With the Taleban's assurance that passengers and crew will not be harmed, this option is ruled out. Here, however, the problem was that the Government of India was not able to trust the Taleban.

Scenario three: the hijackers blow up the plane with passengers on board. According to various reports in the Indian media, this seems to have been what clinched the issue for the government in the Cabinet Committee on Security deliberations on December 30, 1999. The most surprising part this decision overlooked was, why would the hijackers blow up the plane in a hurry? One of the basic rules of the war of nerves is who will buckle first.

If the Taleban authorities pressurised New Delhi, they could have been told politely that this is not done. The hijackers' patience could easily have been tested for another fortnight. With all the attention focussed on them by the international media, the Taleban and hijackers would not have indulged in any bravado. If they blew up the plane, the game is over. Whatever the explanation Taleban may have offered, they would have been accused by the international community of not rescuing Indians in distress.

The Government of India caved in much earlier than anyone anticipated.

The Indian people are, by and large, feeling a sense of relief without pride at the way their government resolved the issue. At one level, in similar situations in the past with a major terrorist dimension, the government of the day reacted differently. For instance, over the past two decades, there were two situations of a similar nature. First was in 1984. The Bhindranwale inspired terrorism in Punjab culminated in Operation Bluestar. The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi confronted it and resolved it, sacrificing her life in the process. There were aberrations in the Indian policy for a couple of days immediately after her assassination, but the nation withstood it.

The second instance was in 1994. When Mast Gul and company captured the Hazratbal mosque in Kashmir, the then prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao handled it with considerable sophistication and tried out the terrorists' patience by prolonging the drama for 19 days. In utter disgust, the terrorists' demands narrowed down to safe passage back to Pakistan. At that time too, horror scenarios were built of terrorists blowing up the mosque and the subsequent communal riots. However, the political leadership kept its cool and tired out the terrorists.

In the process, the Indian psyche got keyed in to expecting the political leadership to behave in a particular fashion.

But the way the political leadership behaved in the present crisis, is totally different. It is being perceived at the popular level, as a weak response. In the process, comparisons are being made between the present leadership and the past.

Even in the capital the government did not handle the crisis in an admirable way. The media went haywire on the first three days, due to the absence of transparency. Only on the third night was the media taken into confidence and a damage limitation exercise begun.

Similarly, the relatives of the passengers were left at the mercy of some junior officials. The relatives were left hanging at the airport, not knowing what to do. Only when they organised themselves into a group and demonstrated in front of the prime minister's residence, did the authorities realise the damage their indifference can do. Still, the Indian political leadership was not able to segregate between people's emotions and national security; and was searching for a solution to the crisis with incorrect assumptions about the Taleban.

Still worse is the way the government defended its decision by comparing it with the Rubiya Sayeed kidnapping, saying that in 1989 five terrorists were released for one person while this time only three terrorists were exchanged for 151 hostages and 8 crew! In between, we were subjected to a silly explanation over why the armed forces were not taken into confidence in dealing with the hijack crisis.

All this shows the leadership lost its control over events following the hijack. The question is, how not to allow the situation to repeat after this 'victory of terrorism'. To regain lost ground, the Government of India has to do something quickly to turn this into a defeat for terrorism. Can it do that?

(The writer is a Senior Research Association at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi)

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