Euphoria turns to outrage

Reality: Celebrations in India after the airliner hijacking ended didn't last long before critics accused the government of bungling the deal.

January 16, 2000|By Akhilesh Upadhyay

KATHMANDU, Nepal -- New Year's Eve was a party time for millions of Indians. The Flight IC 814 standoff had come to a happy end with the Indian government announcing the release of three Kashmiri separatists in exchange for the 160 passengers -- most of them Indians -- on board. The perils of an eight-day ordeal were over. The new year could not have started on a better note.

But the euphoria soon gave way to outrage. You didn't need an analyst to point out that the government had ended up paying a heavy price for the deal.

India, a giant nation which sits atop a number of intractable and explosive problems, was once again seen as a "soft state," and hence an easy target for terrorists in future. The country, which made a blunder in allowing the ill-fated flight to leave its northern city of Amritsar, where it had made a stopover for refueling, maintains it could do little else to defuse the crisis. Perhaps. It must, however, acknowledge that it bungled on more than one occasion during the testing period.

Nuclear powers Pakistan and India are living dangerously. India is ruled by a hawkish government that decided last year that nuclear weapons are the best bet to strengthen its national security. Pakistan is ruled by a military dictator eager to quickly establish his leadership credentials and tell the public he is better placed to rule the country than the democratically elected government he removed on charges of misrule. After a brief lull early last year, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee made a historic bus trip to the Pakistani city of Lahore, it's business as usual for India and Pakistan -- except that the charges and countercharges they are trading look more menacing. Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani has declared that all five hijackers were Pakistani nationals, and that Pakistan is "neck-deep" in the hijacking.

India has urged the West, particularly the United States, to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, saying that it "will work systematically towards this objective."

When the hostage drama was over, and the government began to receive flak from the local media for its poor handling of the hijacking, Vajpayee came up with a routine response: "Pakistan's active and sustained role in fomenting terrorism in India is now too obvious to be overlooked by the international community. India therefore strongly urges major nations of the world to declare Pakistan a terrorist state."

For its part, Pakistan said this was but another slanderous campaign waged by India to smear it in front of the international community. However, both avoided a key issue. Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, which has led to two full-scale wars between the two neighbors, continues to hold the South Asian region hostage. Any suggestions of meaningful cooperation between India and Pakistan are a sham and will continue to be so until Kashmir, controlled in part by both India and Pakistan and claimed in entirety by both, is resolved. The hijackers were obviously separatists who want India to give up its claims on Kashmir.

Ties in tatters

Needless to say, India-Pakistan ties, at a new low since the Kargil war last summer, are in tatters. After the coup in Pakistan in October, India withdrew from the annual Summit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, stating that the summit would not be "productive" in view of the developments in Pakistan and the consequent disquiet in the region and beyond.

India's claims of Pakistan's involvement in the hijacking aside, the Islamic complicity cannot be ruled out altogether. The fact that the aircraft finally landed in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, which gave the hijackers a safe passage once their demands were met, speaks volumes.

Consider this. After reaching Dubai, the hijackers could have headed further west to Europe where they would have drawn much greater attention, assuming that the separatists were seeking to embarrass India before the international community. Add to it the fact that they finally settled for Kandahar -- and not the capital city Kabul where the Talibans would have come under greater pressure to defuse the crisis -- makes it seem increasingly plausible that the hijackers, along with the Talibans, could well be a part of a greater design.

India has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the Taliban government while Pakistan is among the three governments -- Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are the other two -- to have given diplomatic recognition to the Muslim fundamentalists.

Maulana Masood Azhar, the cleric whose demand was sought earlier by the separatists, is a key member of the Kashmir movement. Passengers on the Indian airliner said the hijackers were mostly "cool" and had time to bid them goodbye, all evidence indicating possible Taliban complicity.

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