By Saba Naqvi
Atal Bihari Vajpayee won the elections, but one of the planks which he had so fabulously showcased during 1999, the Kargil war, came back to haunt him. Till a few months ago, if he was seen as a man who had won a round against Pakistan, he was rather quickly accused of being a prime minister who had succumbed to militants.
On 24 December 1999 (a day before Vajpayee’s seventy-fifth birthday), an Indian Airlines flight, IC 814 was hijacked from Kathmandu (Nepal) by five armed militants with 178 passengers and eleven crew members on board, most being Indians.
The hijacked plane then began a convoluted journey. The hijackers first wanted to take the plane to Lahore, but were denied permission by the Pakistanis. Hence the plane, which was now running out of fuel, was brought to Amritsar airport across the border. Ideally, it is here that the plane should have been surrounded by Indian authorities and negotiations held, as it stood at the airport tarmac for forty-five minutes. However, before it could be refuelled, the plane again took off for Lahore, where the authorities had apparently had a change of heart and agreed to refuel it.
The plane then flew to a military airbase near Dubai, where the hijackers dumped the body of one unfortunate Indian passenger named Rupin Katyal, and released twenty-eight others. The plane was then ordered to fly to Kandahar in Afghanistan that was under the control of the Taliban.
The year 1999 therefore ended with big breaking news and although I was heading towards the end of my time in India Today, and the new year break had begun, all reporters were summoned back from leave. I shall forever recall that last week of December 1999 and beginning of January 2000 in my journalistic career as a phase when I learnt a few lessons about intelligence agencies and the narratives they offer. It was also the end of my innings in a magazine that then carried real weight, where I had learnt so much about journalism and got some big breaks into political reporting.
So, my last assignment in India Today was to work on the many stories we were doing on the Kandahar hijack. Eventually, the hijack ended with Jaswant Singh boarding a special flight to Kandahar on 31 December 1999—India set free three high-value militants in Kandahar, and got the passengers and crew back. I recall how all of us were running around in the newsroom that day. I had given inputs to the lead story which was done by the then editor, Prabhu Chawla, even as I filed a separate one on the Taliban (sitting in Delhi, of course).
My story for India Today was a joint byline effort with another reporter, titled, “The Inside Story of the Negotiations at Kandahar”, highlighting what had gone on before the hostages were released and brought back to India.
It’s necessary here to recap the events. India had succumbed to the demands of hijackers who were clearly backed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and some elements in the Pakistan establishment. The BJP at the time had claimed that it had scaled down the demands of the hijackers. They had originally demanded the release of thirty-six persons in Indian jails but eventually agreed to just three. But the three were high-value militants, who would inflict further damage on India, and the rest of the world, after their release. Indeed, it would turn out that the motive for the hijacking was to secure the release of precisely these men, and therefore, the hijackers had succeeded in their mission.
The hostage crisis ended after seven days when India released Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.
Masood Azhar was probably the biggest catch for India, and still continues to defy Indian Intelligence with great impunity. Born in Pakistan’s Punjab, he is the founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (designated a terror group by US state department), and arguably one of the most dedicated anti-India Islamists who operates from across the border. He was arrested in India in 1994 when he had come to Srinagar to make peace between two warring factions of militants
It’s interesting to digress briefly into the stories of the three militants in order to understand the network of global jihad that operated those days. Of the three, the sole Indian national was Zargar, who was from Kashmir and was raised in downtown Srinagar. He was originally from the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), later migrating to hardcore militancy and was reportedly involved in the 1989 kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of a former Home minister of India, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (who later became chief minister of J&K; Rubaiya is also the sister of former J&K chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti).
At the time of the hijacking, Zargar was leader of the pro-Pakistan Al-Umar Mujahideen, and proclaimed guilty of forty murders. He was arrested in 1992 and seven years later in 1999, was flown to freedom. He has since then reportedly operated from Pakistan-administered Kashmir, though there were also reports that he was arrested by Pakistan authorities in 2002, but has been free since 2007.
Masood Azhar was probably the biggest catch for India, and still continues to defy Indian Intelligence with great impunity. Born in Pakistan’s Punjab, he is the founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (designated a terror group by US state department), and arguably one of the most dedicated anti-India Islamists who operates from across the border. He was arrested in India in 1994 when he had come to Srinagar to make peace between two warring factions of militants. Five years later, the key purpose of the IC 814 hijack was to get Azhar out, and it was achieved. It was said that one of the hijackers was his brother.
A few days after his release in Kandahar, Azhar was sighted in Karachi where he told a cheering crowd that, ‘Muslims should not rest in peace till we have destroyed America and India.’ He remains active in jihad against India and operates openly from Pakistan, although every now and then some restrictions are placed on him. According to Indian intelligence, Azhar was involved in both the 2008 Mumbai terror attack and the 2016 attack on an Indian army base in Pathankot.
The third militant was possibly the most fascinating figure of the lot—British citizen Omar Sheikh (born in 1973) who went to Forest School in the UK and briefly attended the prestigious Aitchison College in Pakistan, from where his family originated. After a year at the London School of Economics, he dropped out, went as an aid worker to Bosnia, and then headed off for international jihad, with his base in Pakistan. He first came into limelight as a criminal who had kidnapped three British travellers and one American in India in 1994, and had sought the release of hardcore jihadis in exchange, including Azhar. He was arrested and was serving his sentence in India, when the IC 814 kidnapping happened.
After his release in Kandahar, Sheikh was back to using his British origins to lure westerners, which led to the kidnapping and gruesome death of Daniel Pearl, the journalist from The Wall Street Journal, in 2002. Sheikh was said to have planned the kidnapping of Pearl, although there was a controversy over whether he had slit the throat of the American journalist. Sheikh was however arrested and sentenced to death in Pakistan, which was later commuted to life.
At various points, it has been suggested that Sheikh was a MI6 agent who later became a double agent. At some point therefore, he may have been an asset for Pakistan’s ISI. There can be little doubt that he was linked to jihadi organisations such as Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, many of which were at some point or the other linked to Pakistan’s complex military-intelligence apparatus. A senior US official had also claimed that it was Sheikh, who under an assumed name, had sent 1,00,000 dollars to Mohammad Atta, one of the men who had flown the plane into the World Trade Centre in September 2001.
As I said earlier, of the three militants, Sheikh was most intriguing because he came across as a man who was raised with all the privileges of a comfortable middle class life, had access to Western education, but still opted for a life of blood-soaked jihad. Numerous documentaries have been made to get an insight into the life and mind of Sheikh, and film director Hansal Mehta has also completed a film on his life titled, Omerta in which the award-winning actor, Rajkummar Rao plays Sheikh. The film has been screened in festivals abroad but is yet to be released in India.
—Edited excerpt from ‘Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi’ (June 2018) with permission from the author