When Indian Airlines Flight 814 took off from Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport on December 24, 1999, it was the beginning of a week-long nightmare for not just the passengers on board but their families in India and elsewhere as well. After it entered Indian airspace at around 5.30 p.m., the aircraft was hijacked by gunmen — and the Indian government faced a crisis situation as a shocked nation watched the dramatic events unfold.
Eventually, when negotiations between the hijackers and Indian authorities concluded on December 31, the passengers were released — but India had to pay a heavy price.
After hijacking the plane the gunmen threatened to blow it up and ordered Captain Devi Sharan to fly over Lucknow and head towards Lahore in Pakistan. But as there was insufficient fuel the hijackers agreed to the plane’s landing in Amritsar.
Indian authorities initially wanted the plane to stay in Amritsar and a fuel tanker was sent to block its path. But the hijackers ordered the plane to take off without refueling.
With the fuel nearly finished, the plane landed in Lahore where it was refueled and allowed to fly off.
About the possibility of a commando raid when the aircraft was in Amritsar, the senior journalist Prem Shankar Jha wrote in the Outlook magazine: “Too much has been written about the government’s bungling and timidity at Amritsar. Most of it is not justified because it is based on 20-20 hindsight. Commandos could not have been kept ready at the airport since no one knew in advance that the plane would have to land there or for that matter anywhere else in India. If anyone is to blame, it is a pusillanimous airport manager at Amritsar who lacked the courage to surreptitiously block the runway on his own initiative and give Indian commandos time to get there. But the fact is that the plane could have been stopped at Amritsar only at the cost of several lives, for the hijackers were close to panic at the time.”
From Lahore the aircraft went to Dubai where 27 passengers were released. Among them was Ripan Katyal, who had been stabbed to death by the hijackers. One of the released hostages, a senior citizen, told the media: “The hijackers asked us not to move or they would shoot. All the passengers were blindfolded.”
The plane again took off, this time to Kandahar in Afghanistan which was then under Taliban rule. The Taliban regime tried to act as mediators between Indian negotiators and the hijackers. Indian negotiators who flew into Kandahar on a relief aircraft on December 27 met one of the hijackers of Flight 814. The negotiating team included Vivek Katju, in charge of the Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan desk at the ministry of external affairs.
The Indian government finally reached an agreement with the hijackers on December 31, with the hostages aboard Flight 814 released in exchange for three militants, Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Syed Sheikh, who were jailed inKashmir.
The three militants accompanied External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Kandaharon a Boeing 737 and were delivered to the hijackers. The journalist Praveen Swami later wrote in Frontline magazine: “When Azhar, Zargar and Sheikh arrived in Kandahar, Indian negotiators had in fact achieved many of their key goals. The hostages were off the plane, and had been safely segregated. The hijackers’ weapons and explosives had been removed from the aircraft. But instead of arresting the hijackers and the three released terrorists, as law demands, Taliban officials chose to drive them across the border, towards Quetta [Pakistan].”
Recalling the dramatic days Jaswant Singh told Headlines Today in October 2013: “It [flying with the militants to Kandahar] was not my decision alone. The entire cabinet decided. Advaniji and Arun Shourie were initially opposed to it, even I was reluctant but Prime Minister Vajpayee felt that every effort must be made to save the lives of the passengers; hence we all fell in line.”
Fascinatingly, several passengers showed tell-tale signs of the infamous Stockholm Syndrome upon their release, expressing sympathy for the hostage-takers. Sukhvinder, a young bride, told an Outlook reporter, “He [a hijacker who called himself ‘Doctor’] complimented me on my jewellery and specially liked one of my rings. I’d feel so relaxed when it was his or Burger’s [another hijacker] turn to watch us.”
Meanwhile, the Indian government’s handling of the situation came in for criticism. V.R. Raghavan, former Director-General of Military Operations, wrote in The Hindu on January 4, 2000: “The hijack is on one hand the result of a small group pulling off a major terrorist success. On the other hand, it is demonstrative of a major nation state, with all its military capabilities, looking helpless in the eyes of its people and the world. That is what terrorism is all about. Terrorism applies violence against innocent citizens to obtain political ends. It gains political credibility by making the state look incompetent and incapable of protecting its citizens.”
Also on this day:
1986 — Raj Narain, Janata Party leader who once defeated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a Lok Sabha poll, passed away
1956 — Prabhu Ganesan, Tamil film actor and producer, was born
1965 — Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, Indian cricketer, was born