... in Amritsar, a speeding tanker causes panic ...
By Ramesh Vinayak and Harinder Baweja
Sarabjit Singh, director-general of police, Punjab, was not the only one who first heard of the hijacking of the IC 814 on TV. Home Minister L.K. Advani also learnt of the incident through the media. By then, however, the Crisis Management Group (CMG) under the chairmanship of Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar had already moved into action.
By 6 p.m. on Christmas eve, the CMG was already in session, wondering what it would do once IC 814 landed in Lahore. A few minutes after six, however, came an unexpected piece of positive news. Pilot Devi Sharan contacted Air Traffic Control (ATC), Amritsar, at 6.04 p.m., "Maintaining flight level 260. 14 miles short of AAR (Amritsar). We have only one hour fuel and OPLA (Lahore) is not letting us enter their air space.''
That meant only one thing -- the plane would have to land in Amritsar, if only to refuel. The presumption was correct. Actually, till then India had not even approached Pakistan asking it to let the hijacked plane land in Lahore. The request -- forwarded by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad -- was made only at 6.30 p.m.
By 6.30 p.m., Sharan had spoken to ATC Amritsar at least four times, conveying anxious messages that the hijackers were hell-bent on not touching down on Indian soil. "Please get permission to land at OPLA ... otherwise they are ready to crash anywhere ... they have already selected 10 people to kill,'' Sharan kept pleading.
Pakistan actually did India a big favour by refusing to let the plane land at Lahore. The denial gave the Indian Government a chance to deal with the crisis on home ground. By 6.44 p.m. the CMG knew that the hijacked plane was making its descent over Amritsar. Sharan had radioed the message.
Instead of grabbing the opportunity, helpless officials watched the plane take to the skies once again at 7.49 p.m., a full 48 minutes after it had landed at Amritsar's Raja Sansi airport. In other words, the authorities in Amritsar and Delhi had failed to engage the hijackers. The inevitable question followed: why was the plane allowed to leave India? For, with it, went any hope of seeing an early end to the drama.
Why indeed -- despite a detailed contingency plan to deal with hijacking, which also saw the birth of the CMG -- was the IC 814 allowed to leave Amritsar? Why was the crisis allowed to spin out of control? Who blundered?
Initially everything seemed to be proceeding on the right lines. The Punjab CMG quickly got into action in Chandigarh once Sarabjit Singh knew of the hijacking. He informed the SSP and the dig in Amritsar who were able to reach the airport before the flight landed. The seniormost police officer, IGP (border range) Bakshi Ram, was on leave that day but his predecessor, J.P. Birdi, who had relinquished charge only a few weeks ago, was in Amritsar and was told to take charge and reach the airport.
According to the contingency plan, issued in 1987 and revised in August 1995, while the CMG is to take charge in Delhi, the Aerodrome Committee (AC) -- established at every airport -- is to be activated during any emergency at the affected airport. Comprising the district collector, the SSP, a senior representative from the Intelligence Bureau and the airport manager, the ac is supposed to initiate negotiations to ascertain the demands of the hijackers, their mood and their affiliations. "It is essential,'' says the manual "to ensure as much delay as possible to provide time for officials to evaluate the situation and plan the best possible counter action and to enable the Central team to arrive and take charge of the negotiations."
That is precisely what the CMG conveyed to the ac in Amritsar: to delay the plane for as long as possible. A cabinet note prepared by Prabhat Kumar also states categorically that Amritsar was instructed to "immobilise the aircraft, if necessary by puncturing the tyres".
So what happened? "Asking why the plane was allowed to take off is like asking Sachin Tendulkar why he didn't score a century,'' says Vijay Mulekar, airport director, Raja Sansi, adding, "we exercised the best options under the circumstances.'' Says Birdi, who was also in the ATC at Amritsar: "There were no instructions whatsoever from the CMG in Delhi to physically block the runway or shoot at its tyres.'' Both insist that their brief was to delay the refuelling, which they say they did till the time they heard screams from inside the plane.
Between 7.01 and 7.49 p.m., when the plane took off abruptly without even informing the ATC, Sharan came on line at least a dozen times asking for fuel, saying the hijackers were armed with AK-47s, pistols and grenades. The panic increased with each contact, the pilot saying they had started killing passengers, "send the bowser (fuel tanker)...why don't you understand our problem, send the bowser fast".
At each stage, the CMG in Delhi maintained its directive to Amritsar to ensure that the plane was immobilised. Indeed, armed personnel of the Punjab Police were already in position to try and force the issue. Finally, a tanker was despatched with the idea of blocking the approach of the aircraft. The driver, however, drove a trifle too fast and was told by ATC over the walkie-talkie to slow down. Rather than decelerate gradually, the driver screeched to a dead halt and this aroused the hijackers' suspicion. Without waiting for ATC clearance, the pilot was forced to take off, the aircraft narrowly missing the tanker by only a few feet.
It's only when the aircraft took off that the crisis managers realised they had perhaps underestimated the amount of fuel in the aircraft. It is clear from the transcript released by the Government that the crisis managers had overlooked an important fact: that while the pilot had said at 6.32 p.m. that he only had 15 minutes of fuel left, the flight had landed in Amritsar 29 minutes later. The engines were on all the time when IC 814 was in Amritsar -- in fact the aircraft kept moving on the runway and never came near the parking bay -- and then took off for Lahore which is at least another seven minutes flight. No one, either in Delhi or Amritsar, had imagined that the plane would risk leaving without being refuelled.
It was this belief that the hijackers were basically cornered that may have contributed to other avoidable delays. Immediately on meeting, the CMG in Delhi contacted the National Security Guard (NSG) at 6.25 p.m. and instructed it to leave for Amritsar, 36 minutes before the hijacked plane landed. So far, the response of the CMG to the crisis seemed adequate.
The NSG Task Force was in position and ready to take off in an IL 76 aircraft -- equipped with special anti-hijacking equipment -- at 7.10 p.m. However, the two negotiators assigned to the team were nowhere on the spot. The NSG team chose to keep waiting for a full 30 minutes before the CMG instructed it to leave without the negotiators. Was this wait necessary? Did the NSG wait on the instructions of the CMG or was it going by what it considered the rules of anti-hijacking operations? These are some of the questions that the inquiry initiated by the Government into the Amritsar fiasco will have to answer. This, despite the fact that the NSG team would have missed the hijackers even if it had not waited for the negotiators.
Already there are conflicting claims. According to Birdi, the ATC was clearly told by Delhi that the NSG was airborne and that they should engage with the hijackers. According to the NSG, the IL 76 finally left Palam at 7.55 p.m., six minutes after the hijackers were en route to Lahore! There was no question of India's crack force immobilising the hijacked plane.
There is a curious footnote to the whole affair. While the hijacked plane was still stationed in Amritsar, the ATC received a call from one C. Lal claiming to be a joint secretary in the Home Ministry. The caller told the ATC to refuel the aircraft and allow it to leave. The ATC ignored the call. "We were only taking instructions from the CMG," says Mulekar. It was just as well because the call has now been traced as having originated from Europe! A sure indication that there is much in the hijacking that doesn't quite meet the eye.
Like the completely inadequate response of India's crisis management team against a bunch of desperadoes.
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