The core response team that was put to action after an Air India flight was hijacked by Kashmiri terror group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in 1999, majorly mishandled the crisis, resulting in the release of a terrorist who later attacked the Indian Parliament, a top intelligence official has said.
Former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah never wanted India to release militants in exchange for safety of hostages in 1989 and 1999, writes AS Dulat, former chief of intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in his new book 'The Vajpayee Years.'
In the first instance, terrorists in Kashmir had kidnapped Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the current chief minister of the state, who was then the union home minister. The Indian government had released five hardcore terrorists in exchange for her.
"How has it come from one to three to five militants? Even if it was my own daughter, I would not release them," Abdullah is quoted as saying in an Indian Express report. He was then convinced to change his stance by cabinet ministers IK Gujral (who later became prime minister), Arif Mohammad Khan and MK Narayanan, the intelligence bureau chief.
"If you want to go ahead and release them, do it. But I want to lodge my protest," Abdullah had said. Dulat said in a recent interview that India ended up releasing more terrorists than what the JKLF terrorists had asked for.
Abdullah was certain that if the government stood its ground, the terrorists would have released Rubaiya Sayeed unharmed. If the government caved, it would set a precedent. "We will have to pay for it," he told Gujral and Khan.
RAW is the external intelligence wing of the Indian government, responsible for gathering information outside India, while the IB is responsible for domestic intelligence gathering.
In the second instance a decade later, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen terrorists hijacked an Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in its way to Delhi from Kathmandu, Nepal. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister then, heading a nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition. The plane was parked in Amritsar for five hours, and then was allowed to fly out to Lahore in Pakistan from where it went to Dubai and finally to Taliban territory in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This is considered a major goof-up which strengthened the hijackers' hand considerably, a fact that Dulat has admitted.
Abdullah had again opposed releasing three most wanted terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar who later organized the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. "I said then whatever you are doing is wrong, and I am saying it again. I don't agree with it," Abdullah had told Dulat, who was again in the thick of action.
Abdullah also told Jaswant Singh, the foreign minister, that releasing the terrorists was a wrong move. "Aap jo bhi kar rahe hain, galat kar rahe hain," he said in a phone call to Singh. A frustrated Abdullah then went to the governor GS Saxena, also a former RAW chief like Dulat, to hand over his resignation.
“These fellows want these terrorists released and I’ve told the RAW chief I won’t be party to it. I would rather resign and that’s what I have come to do. These bloody fellows don’t know what they are doing," he is quoted as saying. Saxena managed to change Abdullah's mind, saying that there was no other option but to do what the central government had decided.
Dulat says in the book that then foreign minister Jaswant Singh was a lonely man. He was roundly blamed for India's meek response, which had been decided in consultation with Vajpayee and the cabinet. “Jaswant was a very lonely man. He showed up in Kandahar for the swap, a lonely man on whom everybody who had felt frustrated in India with the whole incident, focused their frustration".
Dulat says India had wanted a commando raid on the plane when it was parked in Dubai, but the authorities there refused to cooperate. That was a striking example of how powerless India was at the time. "We tried to prevail on the Americans to put pressure on the UAE to allow us a raid, but India found itself isolated internationally. Nothing seemed to be going our way."
The terrorists were released later in exchange for hostages, one of whom was killed by the hijackers. The rest were flown back to Delhi on a Air India flight.