In between the two high-profile hijackings of 1971 and 1999 involving Kashmir, there was one least reported and much less talked about. Shams Irfan met the family of Molvi Rafiq Mufti, the main hijacker of Air India 737 flight in 1976 after he died in Muzaffarabad last month
With a mobile-phone in his hand, grim-faced son of Molvi Mohammad Yaqoob Mufti, rushed into the spacious drawing room of their ancestral house in south Kashmir’s Shopian town on September 17, 2018. Without a word, he handed over the mobile phone to his aged father and stood quietly near him.
As Yaqoob looked at the mobile’s screen keenly, he instantly recognized his younger brother Molvi Rafiq Mufti’s smiling picture. “Rafiq uncle cheh guzreovmut (Rafiq uncle is no more),” said Yaqoob’s son in a low tone.
Divided by an international border and a tumultuous past, spanning over four decades, Yaqoob always longed for his brother Rafiq, who lived in an exile in Lahore, Pakistan since 1976. Rafiq was part of a six-member group that hijacked an Air India 737 flight, shortly after its take-off from Delhi, and diverted it to Lahore, on September 10, 1976.
“His one decision changed our entire family,” said a remorseful Yaqoob. “But he did what he thought was good. He was a brave man.”
Yaqoob remembers September 1976 as if it was yesterday.
In September 1976, Rafiq, left his Shopian home to join the twelfth class in Bemina College, Srinagar. In Srinagar, he would stay with his elder brother Yaqoob at his rented accommodation. “My father had asked me to look after him,” said Yaqoob, who was posted in Srinagar then.
That day, instead of going to his room, Rafiq met Syed Abdul Hameed Deewani, a Bandipora resident, in the city outskirts. Within a few hours, Ghulam Nabi Itoo (Qazigund), Ghulam Rasool, Abdul Rasheed and Mohammad Ahsan Rather (Shopian) joined them.
“They were four from Shopian in their group,” said Yaqoob, who had no idea that Rafiq was in Srinagar.
The next day, after packing the necessary things, including a 12 bore pistol, that Deewani got modified for the mission, all of the six left towards Jammu. “The original plan was to hijack a plane from Pathankot,” Yaqoob was later told by his relatives who met Rafiq in Pakistan. “But in Jammu, two of them fell ill because of the climate change.”
Instead of proceeding to Pathankot, the group stayed in Jammu for a few days till the duo recovered. Three days later, they decided to travel to Delhi, instead. “Nobody knows why they abandoned Pathankot plan,” said Yaqoob. In the first week of September, they reached Delhi.
Back home, Muftis were under the impression that Rafiq was with his brother in Srinagar. His brother Yaqoob thought he was home in Shopian. “It was not like today that one could call or text,” said Yaqoob. “Telephone was a luxury unheard of in rural areas then.”
So, taking advantage of the confusion in Kashmir, Rafiq and his accomplices concentrated on the hijacking. In order to check the level of security at Delhi’s Palam Airport, the group travelled by-air between Delhi and Agra. “It was a dry run for them. They wanted to know if they could sneak a pistol past security,” Yaqoob said he was later told by relatives. “And they knew they could.”
On September 10, 1976, all six, including Rafiq, then 20, boarded an early morning Delhi to Bombay Air India 737 flight. “The flight was supposed to travel via Jaipur,” said Yaqoob. “They were all amateurs with no background or training.”
Led by Deewani, the only team member with some ‘links and experience’, Rafiq and his friends sat impatiently till the plane crossed Delhi borders. Exactly five minutes into the flight and 35 miles away from Delhi, when the aircraft was at 8000 ft and cruising towards Jaipur, Deewani, who had successfully sneaked his modified 12 bore pistol past security check, got up and rushed straight towards the cockpit and announced the hijacking, by placing pistol on the co-pilot’s neck. It had 73 people on board including six crew members led by Captain BN Reddy and co-pilot R S Yadav.
“Hands up! Don’t move or we will kill you. We’ve hijacked the plane,” Yadav later told India Today. “Fly us to Libya.”
Pilots put the aircraft on autopilot and started talking to hijackers: “a wiry man in shirt-sleeves and trousers with a flowing beard, long hair and a conspicuous bald patch.”
They wanted to fly to Libya, then they suggested Karachi and when they were convinced the aircraft lacks the fuel, they settled for Lahore. But Deewani dragged Reddy out of his seat and locked him in the rear toilet.
Lahore to Jail
The next 35 minutes were tough for everyone onboard that fateful flight now flying towards Lahore, Rafiq purportedly told his relatives. As the plane neared Lahore, Deewani group grew impatient. Trying to be sure that the aircraft was flying in the right direction, Deewani reportedly spoke to the control tower himself. A few minutes later the plane landed in Lahore smoothly. As soon as it taxied, Deewani started shouting from inside the cockpit asking people on the runway if it was really Lahore. Then on Yadav’s suggestion, he scribed a note on a paper and waved it outside from cockpit window. “Deewani was the experienced one among them,” said Yaqoob.
The plan of the group was to get world attention first and then talk about Kashmir. After Indira (Gandhi)-Sheikh (Abdullah) accord (1975) that led to the unmaking of the Plebiscite Front, Kashmir witnessed a strong revival of the alternatives. Some of these forces resorted to violent means. “They wanted to travel from one country to another with this message,” said Yaqoob.
For this purpose, Rafiq had printed a four-page pamphlet on pink coloured pages titled Paigham-e-Baidari (message of enlightenment), according to Yaqoob.
But when the ground staff proved uncooperative in providing fuel, let-down charts, route maps and navigator for their forward journey to Libya, everyone inside the plane started to grow impatient. “They deliberately killed time,” said Yaqoob. “Pakistan had a bad experience in 1971 with Hashim Qureshi’s hijacking.”
“The incident comes at a time when that relationship is friendlier than it has been for a number of years,” William Borders wrote in the New York Times. “The two countries re‐established diplomatic relations only in July, after a break of more than four years and resumed direct air and rail links across the border.”
The officials at Lahore told Yadav that since it was a domestic airport, it would take them a while to arrange necessary things for their journey to Libya.
“The hijackers believed to be armed with pistols released a German couple along with their child. The woman was sick. Another passenger listed as an Indian was released when he reportedly fainted, “news gathering agency United Press International reported from Lahore. “Two other Indians were also released, with one of them suffering from a heart condition.”
Almost ten hours later, when officials at Lahore still failed to make arrangements, Deewani ordered Yadav to fly as it was. But when both Yadav and Reddy told him that without maps they would most likely collide with another plane at night, Deewani and his impatient friends decided to wait.
After negotiating with Pakistani authorities, Deewani and his group decided to spend the night in Lahore and leave the next morning. At 2:30 am, a bus came and took everyone out for the night except Deewani’s group.
At 5:30 am, the Pakistani army moved inside the plane and arrested Deewani and his friends while they were sleeping. “They were offered doped water which made them drowsy,” a Pakistani official later told Yadav.
They opened their eyes in Lahore Fort jail. They were never permitted to talk about why they resorted to the hijack.
Back home, Yaqoob was still in Srinagar when he heard the news of hijacking on the radio. “But they didn’t name any of the hijackers,” recalls Yaqoob.
A few days later, people began talking in whispers about Rafiq and other natives who were missing. “My father had no inkling about Rafiq’s involvement. He was under the impression that Rafiq is with me in Srinagar,” recalls Yaqoob.
The confusion ended when Yaqoob finally visited Shopian as per his routine in the second week of September, almost five days after the hijacking. “When I reached home, my father asked me about Rafiq. I was puzzled as I was going to ask him the same,” recalls Yaqoob.
Before they would start asking around about Rafiq’s whereabouts, a gentle knock on the front door changed their lives forever. “They were from Intelligence Bureau (IB), accompanied by a local police inspector and other policemen,” recalls Yaqoob. “They started asking questions about Rafiq. But we had no idea why they were looking for him.”
As no names were revealed in the news bulletin or on the radio, nobody knew about the identity of the hijackers.
A few days earlier, a relative had told Yaqoob’s father that few Shopian boys, including his son, had crossed over to Pakistan. “Someone even said that Rafiq was killed on the border while trying to cross it,” recalls Yaqoob. “But these were just rumours. Nobody knew anything for sure.”
While grilling Yaqoob and his father, the IB men never used hijacking word even once, instead, they told them that Rafiq had done something very nasty. After over two hours of questioning, the local inspector asked Yaqoob to show him Rafiq’s room. “I took him upstairs and he started fiddling with Rafiq’s books,” recalls Yaqoob. “Then I saw him slip some pink pages into his books.”
Before Yaqoob could have reacted, the inspector called IB men and took the same pages out in front of them. “He asked me to sign a paper which said that these pages were recovered from Rafiq’s room,” recalls Yaqoob. “But I refused. I told him that I saw you placing these papers in his books.”
When Yaqoob refused to sign, the inspector took him along to Police Station Shopian for further questioning. At the same time, Yaqoob’s father, Molvi Mohammad Sharief, was taken to Counter Intelligence Kashmir’s office in Srinagar.
While Molvi Sharief was released the same evening and driven back to Shopian, Yaqoob was questioned about his brother’s hobbies, his area of interest and his stream of studies. “One question that they repeatedly asked was: did Rafiq ever work in any workshop?” recalls Yaqoob.
It irritated Yaqoob as he told them that Rafiq was studying arts in Srinagar. “How can an art student do such a thing,” Yaqoob recalls interrogators saying each other.
When Yaqoob asked them what Rafiq had done, they simply said: “something big and nasty which a student cannot do without training”.
The same evening after Yaqoob was released he came home and sat with his father and other siblings to see what needed to be done. “By now, we have got the hint that Rafiq is part of the hijacking,” said Yaqoob. A week later, Muftis came to know through some locals the whole story.
On July 5, 1977, the Kashmir hijackers were shifted from Chilas prison in Gilgit-Baltistan for a month to Lahore. General Zia-ul-Haq, chief of army staff Pakistan, had toppled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in a military coup. The regime change in Pakistan raised Rafiq and others’ hope for an early release, as they were all sentenced for life. “After Zia took over, we were hopeful that they will be released soon,” said Yaqoob.
As Zia cemented his hold on power by arresting Bhutto and other dissenters, Rafiq and his group were shifted to Kohat jail in Punjab, and finally to Multan jail. Then in late-1978, after Zia became President of Pakistan, all six hijackers were released from Multan jail.
“The government of India deplores these moves as they are not in consonance with the process of normalisation of relations between the two countries which can be strengthened only on the basis of mutual trust and understanding,” the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson reacted in Delhi to the hijackers’ release announced by the Radio Pakistan. Pakistan claimed, “there was not sufficient evidence to justify the institution of criminal proceedings against the persons involved”. India was seeking their expatriation so that they would face the trial. But with all doors back to Kashmir shut forever, Rafiq and others decided to start their lives all over again in Pakistan.
After wandering aimlessly for about a month in Lahore, Rafiq finally decided to finish his studies. He got enrolled himself for a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) from Punjab University, Lahore. The same year, Rafiq decided to contest students’ union elections for president’s post.
“When Jamiat-ul-Tulba and People’s Party learned about a Kashmiri freedom fighter fighting student’s union elections, they both withdrew their candidates in his honour,” said Yaqoob. “He won unopposed; something that had never happened before.”
After completing his MPA, Rafiq started his own business of pharmaceuticals, and a few years later, married a local girl with Kashmiri roots. “He lived in a rented accommodation all his life,” said Yaqoob.
In 1984, Rafiq’s younger brother, Mohammad Muzaffar, now 61, visited Pakistan to see his brother. He stayed with him for 15 days. Muzaffar failed to locate any other member of Deewani’s group. “He didn’t talk about the hijacking or his time in prison,” said Muzaffar.
But 1989 onwards, after the militancy erupted in Kashmir, no one from the family could visit Rafiq for a long time.
In 1990, Molvi Sharief died without getting to meet his son again. “He was desperate till his end to see Rafiq at least once,” said Yaqoob. “But fate!”
Rafiq’s mother’s wish, however, got fulfilled as she managed to get a visit visa in January 2001 and stayed with her son and his family for a month. “She was really happy that she could see him at least,” said Yaqoob.
Since then Rafiq and Yaqoob’s family stayed in touch as the internet made communication easy. Rafiq’s two sons, now grown up, are in touch with Yaqoob’s kids. “It was through them that we came to know about his death,” said Yaqoob.
Sitting amidst the mourners at his house in Shopian, Yaqoob, now retired with a greying beard and feeble frame, wants to turn back time and live life all over again, but differently.
“It was like our entire family was living in an exile,” said Yaqoob.