Lahore to Pathankot, via Kandahar

It has been 35 years since the IC-423 hijack, but India still has no hostage policy and Pakistan continues to promise cooperation on terror attacks. What has really changed?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:00 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2016 12:07 am IST

Passengers from the hijacked plane alight at Palam airport in New Delhi on September 30, 1981. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Passengers from the hijacked plane alight at Palam airport in New Delhi on September 30, 1981. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Breakfast was being served to the passengers still on board >IC-423, when the Pakistani commandos made their move. The commandos belonging to the elite Special Services Group (SSG) had trained in what was then West Germany for this kind of operation just months before. They had conducted a recce of the plane, detailing the movements of each of the five hijackers guarding roughly 50 passengers and crew on board. During dinner service, the night before, one of them had even been smuggled on board as a server, brushing past each terrorist to check for weapons. The hijackers commandeered the plane the day before, holding their kirpan s (short swords or knives) to the pilots’ necks. One hijacker had cut his palm with his kirpan and raised it, dripping with blood, to show that they were serious, and also threatened to detonate grenades that they claimed to have. The “grenades”, it turned out later, were just guavas wrapped in newspaper.

In Delhi, the crisis management committee had been convened by the Cabinet Secretary as soon as the Delhi airport Air Traffic Control (ATC) had flashed news of the hijacking. Soon after, India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan confirmed from the Lahore ATC that the hijacked plane had landed there, and Indian and Pakistani officials discussed what they should do next. At one point, India’s Deputy High Commissioner had even attempted to enter the aircraft himself. But he was pulled back by security forces who then brought the Dal Khalsa leader, Gajendra Singh, to the VIP lounge where the Indian High Commission team, including the Chief Security Officer, were monitoring the situation. It was a moment of bravery, but could have gone terribly wrong if the hijackers had decided to take the senior diplomat hostage as well.

The five hijackers of the Indian Airlines Boeing 737. Pakistan President ia-ul-Haq spoke with Indian President Sanjiva Reddy, assuring India of Pakistan's 'full cooperation'

The commando operation Singh’s demands included the release of his leaders, including Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and $5,00,000 in cash. The High Commission officials bought time and, along with Pakistani officials, convinced them to release many of the passengers: most of the women and children were let off as were all the foreigners. Now, of the 117 who boarded at Delhi, 46 passengers and six crew members remained on the plane. In the meantime, the Corps Commander in Lahore, General Lodhi, had flown in the SSG commando team, and waited for Indian orders to go in. At about 10.30 p.m., even as the Indian Cabinet met, the High Commissioner called the Foreign Secretary, asking how long they should wait before using force. “It should not be delayed too long,” the Foreign Secretary replied, leaving it to the High Commissioner to take a call. Shortly after midnight, the High Commissioner gave the all-clear to Lt Gen. Lodhi, who launched the commando operation, captured the hijackers. and freed the hostages without much trouble. In Delhi the next morning, the Cabinet passed a resolution thanking Pakistan and then President General Zia-ul-Haq for his help, and put in a formal request for the extradition of the five hijackers. Through the hijack drama, President Zia had spoken twice with then President Sanjiva Reddy, assuring India of Pakistan’s “full cooperation”.

It was 1981, and the hijack described IC-423 that took off from Delhi for Srinagar via Amritsar on September 29. On the face of it, the rescue operation was a copybook example of how India-Pakistan cooperation should look when it comes to terror.

Unfortunately, that’s where the chimera ended. Pakistani commandos didn’t hand the hijackers over to India, and despite saying they were “in custody” for years, allowed them to live at the Nankana Sahib Gurdwara. Eventually, the government did prosecute them for the hijack, and a court convicted them and sentenced them to life imprisonment in 1986. In 2000, two of the hijackers were deported to India, but Gajendra Singh, who reportedly trained several batches of Sikh and then Kashmiri militants to wage terror attacks on India, was never returned. The High Commissioner mentioned was Natwar Singh, who went on to become External Affairs Minister. The Deputy High Commissioner was Satinder Lambah, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy for negotiations with Pakistan. The security officer is now India’s National Security Adviser and was involved in hostage negotiations during the IC-814 hijack. The Dal Khalsa, like other Sikh organisations, remains on India’s radar, but Gajendra Singh is not mentioned in India’s list of ‘most wanted’.

Passengers from the hijacked plane alight at Palam airport in New Delhi on September 30, 1981

The hijacking was only the first of a series. Between 1981 and 1984, there were four more, each more daring the last one, each receiving an increasing amount of support from the government of General Zia. In one case, hijackers who stopped at Lahore and went on to Dubai were found to have had weapons handed to them during their Lahore halt.

They were received by the Minister for Civil Aviation, A.P.Sharma

For Pakistan’s government, the increasing spotlight on Sikh separatism became a very convenient tool to use against India, and it used it to the hilt. Next came its full support to Kashmiri militancy, and shelter to the D-Company, all of which became a domestic and an international liability. Even so, when the 1999 hijack happened, the Pakistan government was more than comfortable taking in Masood Azhar, the portly cleric who had been injured during the Afghan jihad, Mushtaq Zargar, a man famous in the Valley for tying grenades to his victims and detonating them, and Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man who then killed journalist Daniel Pearl.

A fragment from the PTI despatch from Lahore about the operation.

No hostage policy yet India, too, learnt very few lessons. Despite the hijack mechanism being used time and again, the government has instituted few new policies that would protect its citizens better. In 2013 and 2014, respective Home Ministers said they were working on a hostage policy, but the government has not announced one yet. While officials today console themselves that the Pathankot attack “could have been much worse”, they don’t factor in just what would have happened had some soldiers been taken hostage. Other systems have actually deteriorated. The crisis management group, constituted in a matter of minutes in 1981, was convened, but wasn’t quick enough to stop the hijackers of IC-814 from taking off from Amritsar in 1999 and eventually reaching Kandahar, and wasn’t even constituted during the Pathankot attack. The promise of Pakistani cooperation on terror attacks, and the Indian threat of calling off talks, too, is a running theme through these 35 years. No changes — except perhaps one. After the hijack in 1981, carrying kirpans onbaord was banned.

(Photos: The Hindu Archives)

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