New Delhi, Dec 23 (IANS) Twelve years after the fateful hijacking of the Kathmandu-New Delhi Indian Airlines flight IC-814 and the infamous release of notorious militants to free hostages, India has toughened its anti-hijacking policy but still remains vulnerable to such assaults.
The review started immediately after the end of the week-long hijack crisis Dec 31, 1999, which culminated with then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh flying to Kandahar with three hardcore Pakistani terrorists -- Maulana Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar -- in exchange for the release of the hostages. But it took another six years for the Indian government to put in place an anti-hijack policy.
This policy, which lays down basic principles to deal with such situations, was made more stringent last year when the cabinet approved amendments of section 4 of the 1982 Act. The act provides for life imprisonment and a fine for hijacking, to also include the death penalty. The new policy permits the shooting down of a 'hostile plane if there is conclusive evidence that it is likely to be used as a missile to blow up strategic establishments'.
To avoid humiliating situations like the release of militants, the new policy categorically rules out negotiations with hijackers except for the purpose of bringing an end to the crisis, to ensure comfort of the hostages and to prevent the loss of lives.
The Bureau of Civil Aviation Security has also put in place an aviation security manual that lists out a three-stage classification process for shooting down a hijacked aircraft.
While the tougher anti-hijacking policy has been seen as a positive development, many strategic analysts and former diplomats feel that India still remains vulnerable to such attacks.
'The anti-hijack policy is fine, but we remain vulnerable. The borders with Nepal remain porous. The intelligence gathering has not improved significantly,' Satish Chandra, a former deputy national security adviser, told IANS.
'Besides, we continue to give the impression of being a soft state. We have to yet to make it painful for the country (Pakistan), from where some of the hijackers came, that continues terror against us,' said a sceptical Chandra.
According to G. Parthasarathy, who was India's high commissioner to Islamabad when the hijacking took place, the government's policy of not yielding to terrorist demands will 'carry little credibility unless it is backed by a unanimous parliament resolution, supporting legislation and public will'.
Terrorism expert Ajai Sahni feels that although there has been 'patchy improvement', India's vulnerability to such attacks has not reduced.
'It will depend on the leadership at various levels. Right now, the command structure is not clear as to how an incident of hijacking will be dealt and who will lead the operation,' said Sahni.
'How many of those in the leadership position know about the new anti-hijack policy,' he asked.
On the last Christmas eve of the millennium, IC-814, with 176 passengers on board, was hijacked by five Pakistani militants and forced to land in three different airports -- Amritsar, Lahore, and Dubai - before being taken to Kandahar, the bastion of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In Dubai, Rupin Katyal, one of the passengers, was fatally stabbed by the hijackers.
The aircraft had to spend a week on the tarmac in Kandahar before the terrorists were swapped for the hostages.
Omar Sheikh is said to have transferred $100,000 to Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, and later killed US journalist Daniel Pearl. He is now in Pakistani custody. Azhar formed the Jaish-e-Mohammed group, which is suspected of having masterminded the Dec 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. Zargar, according to intelligence sources, continue to organises cross-border infiltration from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
In the 12 years since the IC-814 hijack, terror attacks like 9/11 in New York and the 26/11 Mumbai carnage also brought the world's leading powers closer in combating trans-national terrorism and intelligence sharing.
In sharp contrast to 1999 when India had no diplomatic contacts with then Taliban regime, there is a friendly regime in Kabul. But with coalition forces planning a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, the threat of a Taliban takeover, supported by Pakistan, could turn real, making India vulnerable.