Learning from a bloody past

In all the breast beating about the Kandahar hijacking raised by former R&AW chief AS Dulat’s book on Kashmir, people are forgetful of an important point: The terrible events of September 11, 2001 have forever ensured that there is only one way to deal with a hijack free the hostages through negotiations or commando action, or shoot it out of the sky. There is no middle ground left.

Taliban commandos head towards the hijacked Indian Airlines plane at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan in December, 1999. Pic/AFP
Taliban commandos head towards the hijacked Indian Airlines plane at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan in December, 1999. Pic/AFP

This said, we can look at that event with some hindsight. It is clear now, as it was then, that the handling of the event was a blunder, not a simple “goof up” as Dulat suggests. In keeping with the Indian tradition of no one being held accountable for anything, no heads rolled and no one was punished for that event. People blamed the Crisis Management Committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar, they in turn blamed the all-powerful Brajesh Mishra, the National Security Adviser, who in turn said that the NSG and Punjab Police personnel failed to do the needful. Incidentally, Prime Minister Vajpayee learnt of the hijacking 100 minutes after it occurred because he was not informed by the Indian Air Force pilots on his Boeing 737 since he was on an internal flight.

And, as usual no lessons were learnt. When terrorists struck in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, there was a repeat performance. The state’s Crisis Management Group headed by its Chief Secretary was a non-starter, the police chief barricaded himself near the Trident hotel instead of being in the control room, and the National Security Guards took their time arriving, ensuring that an event that could have been terminated within hours was allowed to play out for 60 hours. One of the major flaws in the idea of Crisis Management Groups at the time, was the belief that crises can be managed by committees, that too of babus who are better trained to avoid decisions.

Fortunately, a new hijack doctrine laid out by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2005, left out the Crisis Management Committee. The new policy framework was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security which said that a commercial jet could be shot down if there were fears that it would be used as a missile by hijackers. Further, it ruled out negotiations on the demands of the hijackers. Negotiations, involving trained negotiators would take place only to seek the termination of the event and seek the safe release of the passengers. In addition, the government declared that it would seek the death penalty against anyone seeking to hijack an aircraft.

While the decision to shoot down an aircraft would rest with the CCS or, the PM, defence minister and the home minister, a provision was made for a quick decision by a senior Air Force officer in the event of an aircraft going rogue during landing or take off giving little time for the normal chain of command to be accessed. A hijacked aircraft would be accompanied by IAF fighters in Indian airspace and specific orders given to ensure that no hijacked aircraft which landed in an Indian airfield could take off again. Such aircraft would be liable to be stormed by the NSG, were there to be a situation that threatened the lives of the passengers.

Despite all this, it is not clear whether we would be able to handle the next event efficaciously. The only way such situations can be handled is by clear-cut doctrines, chains of command and repeated practice. It is true that no one event is like another. Yet, if the doctrine is well articulated and understood, the chain of command clear and uncomplicated, and those charged with dealing with the incidents put through regular exercises, there is no reason why they cannot handle any version of the challenge.

But that is where the rub lies. Most people have forgotten that we actually have an anti-hijack doctrine. They cannot be blamed because this is something that the government needs to educate the public on and this can be done through periodic exercises. This holds good not just for hijack threats, but terrorist actions as well. We may have overcome the challenges of Sikh and Islamist terrorism that afflicted us in the 1990s and mid-2000s, but only the foolhardy will say that the era of terrorism is over. It is not, and we must put all the lessons learnt till now to good use to pre-empt and prevent terrorist actions.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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