The release of terror mastermind Masood Azhar in 1999 in exchange for the 155 passengers held hostage on the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 is at the core of an electoral battle today, but many details of this swap remain secret.
Has spoken to various principals involved in the entire process, who confirm that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval (then Intelligence Bureau chief), may not have been on the flight with then foreign minister Jaswant Singh as part of the high-profile team that took Masood Azhar to Kandahar. However, he did receive them.
On the flight, instead, were four young officers who spent every moment of the two-hour flight on the edge as they guarded three dreaded terrorists. One of them remembers that the terrorists took many loo breaks. “We took off their cuffs for their meal,” he said.
Sources say Ajit Doval and another Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer Nehchal Sandhu — he went on to become director of the agency — were both already in Afghanistan’s Kandahar, where the hijackers had taken the plane. They were part of the negotiating team that was speaking with Taliban about the conditions for the release of the hostages.
Masood Azhar, who had been in India’s custody since his arrest in Kashmir a few years ago, went on to set up the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which carried out several attacks in India. Along with him, two others were released: Omar Sheikh (who, years later, killed Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl) and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.
According to the officers, “one of them looked really like a mean chap”. That was Zargar, he said.
There has been a major tussle between the Congress and the BJP about who’s softer on terrorism. While the BJP mocked Rahul Gandhi for calling the Jaish founder Azhar-ji”, the Congress hit back by pointing out that Ajit Doval had compromised India’s security by releasing Masood Azhar.
If Ajit Doval wasn’t on the flight, who was?
Has learnt that on December 31, 1999, the New Year’s Eve of the new millennium, four young Indian Police Service officers who all went on to become top members of the bureaucracy were told to get ready to lead for “Mission Kandahar”.
They were former CBI director AP Singh, then the Chief Vigilance Officer for Indian Airlines; Ranjit Narayan, the operations in-charge for the Special Protection Group (SPG); Satish Jha, who is currently the chief of the National Technical Research Organisation; Surender Pandey, now posted as Inspector General, Maharashtra. They were travelling with the three handcuffed terrorists and a group of SPG commandos.
“We were told at 9.30 am and had to be at the airport by noon,” said one of the officers. AP Singh had a special task as the vigilance officer. The commercial manager of Indian Airlines was travelling with 1 lakh US dollars in a suitcase for payment to the Taliban, which was controlling the Kandahar airport.
They knew the Taliban was not going to furnish any cash receipt for landing charges, re-fueling of the plane etc. So they needed witnesses. AP Singh and Pankaj Shrivastava were only concerned with that aspect and paid $ 40,000, as the Taliban wanted.
Around 1 lakh dollar was in a suitcase in cash, in case the Taliban’s demand exceeded their estimates.
As the plane prepped for its two-hour flight, Jaswant Singh sat in the front row, in seat 1A. The other officers say they were extremely stressed because they were given clear instructions on the prisoners. “Our job was to make sure these men didn’t misbehave on the flight. We had to anticipate any kind of threat and deal with it and return, if necessary. We also had to make sure that they got both this plane and the hijacked one with its passengers back.”
There was another problem. Intelligence agencies had confirmed that R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) officer Sashi Bhusan Singh Tomar, then posted as First Secretary in the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, was on the hijacked plane. “We all knew him and so we were told that there couldn’t be any eye contact. No one could find out his identity because then they would kill him,” revealed one of the officers.
These challenges ensured that no one relaxed and most even chose to forego snacks.
Once they arrived at Kandahar and opened the aircraft gate, they were told to stay in because the foreign minister of the Taliban was busy in prayer. Everyone, including Jaswant Singh, stayed put for 45-50 minutes.
Mr Singh was escorted to the airport lounge, while the officials got down to the actual exchange.
The officers, speaking on conditions of anonymity as many are still in the government, point out that the politicians have no idea how desperate the situation was for the 155 passengers held hostage for one week.
“When we entered the plane, there were faeces and urine everywhere because for one week, they had nowhere to go. They were all in bad shape and some were wounded in the tussle in which Rupin Katyal was stabbed by one of the hijackers,” said one officer Had the politicians seen that, they wouldn’t have said what they are right now.”
While both AP Singh and Ranjit Narayan confirmed they were there, they refused to elaborate.Also reached out to Satish Jha and sent him text messages but he didn’t respond.
After the passengers were transferred to Jaswant Singh’s plane, they took off that very evening. Ajit Doval did not accompany them on this flight. The other officers came back to Delhi, where many citizens were heading out to their New Year’s Eve celebrations.