... in Lahore, there is a political sideshow ...
By Harinder Baweja
How can the Indian Government ask us why we allowed IC 814 to leave Lahore when they did the same in Amritsar?" asked Abdur Sattar, Pakistan's foreign minister, focusing attention once again on a question that is being asked with embarrassing regularity.
For the record, Islamabad made the right noises, but for the crisis managers in Delhi the fact that the plane had taken off for the country, now under the control of its army chief General Pervez Musharraf, was bad news. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had to pick up the phone and call his counterpart in Pakistan for the first time since the coup on October 12. It was imperative to try and get Pakistan's help and the requests had to be made.
India made two requests to Pakistan soon after the hijacked plane landed in Lahore. Singh told Sattar to ensure the plane did not leave Lahore and that Indian High Commissioner G. Parthasarathy in Islamabad be given a helicopter to reach Lahore as soon as possible. Having failed in Amritsar, Parthasarathy had to try and engage the hijackers in Lahore. By then, it was already clear that the hijackers were desperate, having already killed a passenger.
On the face of it, Pakistan responded to the requests and played out a well-choreographed public-relations exercise. The authorities switched off the runway lights in Lahore; even got their commandos to surround the plane and, according to their spokesperson, also tried to convince the hijackers to at least release women and children.
Technically, Parthasarathy was provided a helicopter too. But the chopper which was to have been made available soon after IC 814 landed at Lahore at 8.07 p.m. was only ready to fly the high commissioner at 10.30 p.m. Indian officials now say that as soon as Parthasarathy boarded the helicopter, the pilot informed him that the hijacked plane had already left Lahore. There was little the high commissioner could do but to return home. There was no point in going to Lahore when the hijacked plane had already left Pakistan.
For the two and a half hours that IC 814 was in Lahore, Indian High Commission officials were in constant touch with senior Pakistani bureaucrats in the city but at no point were they told that the plane had been refuelled. On the contrary, the Pakistani bureaucracy was busy trying to make the right noises without giving anything away.
Soon after the hijacked plane touched down in Lahore, a Foreign Office official called the Indian mission to say they were outraged that the plane had landed in Pakistan. A senior Indian MEA official reveals that while Indian High Commission officials kept speaking to senior bureaucrats in Lahore about the fate of IC 814, the Pakistanis were more interested in knowing if India had any idea of the identity of the hijackers. In the context of what actually happened in Kathmandu, this was a legitimate concern. Again, when senior Foreign Office officials were told there were reports from the pilot that the hijackers had killed passengers on board, the officials said they would get back. They never did.
After the plane took off from Amritsar, the crisis managers were not sure if the plane had indeed flown to Lahore. "We were initially unable to gather any information about the plane's status in Lahore. We requested a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft in New Delhi to get in touch with its air-traffic control and came to know that the hijacked plane had been granted permission to land there," confirmed Uma Shankar Pandey, airport manager at the Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Quite characteristically, Pakistan was saying one thing and doing another. Even after the hijackers took the plane to Kandahar, it was eminently clear that India would require permission from Pakistan to use its air space to meet the demand of the hijackers that a team of Indian negotiators reach Kandahar. Going by the earlier experience, when Parthasarathy's helicopter was delayed, the Indian Government tried to prepare the ground almost 24 hours in advance and sought permission for relief planes to fly over Pakistan on their way to Kandahar on December 26. The Indian authorities were pleasantly surprised by the response: the required permission was granted almost immediately.
However, it was only the next day that the Indian delegation was ready to leave for Kandahar and officials had to go back for permission because the flight timings had changed. Permission to use air space is valid for three hours before and after the specified flight time. This time round, however, Delhi had to encounter delaying tactics. The Pakistan Foreign Office kept coming back with several queries on what type of aircraft was flying, what the composition of the team was. They even wanted a passenger manifest and while all these kept going on, the Indian negotiators, headed by Joint Secretary Vivek Katju, kept waiting for the flight to take off.
The reports from Kandahar and Islamabad were not encouraging. Commercial Counsellor A.R. Ghanshyam had left for Kandahar the same morning in a United Nations plane to assess the situation. He also managed to speak to the hijackers who told him that they would start killing the passengers one by one if the Indian negotiators didn't reach Kandahar from Delhi. To make matters worse, the Indian High Commission in Islamabad found that its ISD lines had been cut off on Sunday and they had a problem even keeping in touch with Delhi. A harassed Jaswant Singh told the media that evening that the plane to Kandahar had been delayed because Pakistan took its time granting overflying rights. Another question that confronted the crisis managers in Delhi was why India was being squeamish about releasing the Harkat-ul-Ansar leader Maulana Masood Azhar when they had released five militants in exchange for Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of the then home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, in 1990.
By first saying that the hijacked plane was allowed to land in Lahore on humanitarian grounds, then alleging the whole drama had been masterminded by raw, to again getting its high commissioner in London to condemn the hijackings, Pakistan has only shown where bilateral ties lie at the moment. Out in the cold.
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