Many years after the accused in the sensational hijacking of an Air India aircraft from Kathmandu in 1999 to Kandahar were convicted, the police detained a Nepal based smalltime Sopore ‘trader’. As contesting reportage offers a black and white picture of a new James Bond, R S GULL revisits the last hijacking that changed the way world looked at Kashmir.
In the ‘interesting’ low militancy, and nearly zero-violence times, it was a sensational newsbreak: Kishtwar police arrested Mehrajuddin Daand, a Kandahar hijack plotter. Touted to be the biggest catch of militancy ever, the police unofficially dished out details, that apart from his involvement in the December 1999 hijacking and 1996 Lajpat Nagar blasts, Daand alias Javed was a bridge between Pakistani agencies, Kashmir militants and underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim. At the outset, it seemed Muzaffarabad based Sayed Salahuddin was not doing anything without consulting him and the life he lived and his modus operandi was a la James Bond.
His alleged role in the hijack drama made the newsbreak a huge hit. It was a huge TV story and every reporter did his best to get what the security grid had up to its sleeves, officially and unofficially; a successfully executed intelligence operation. While a theory suggested Daand was lured into a trap using a friendly method, another theory just talked about sleuths shadowing him till he was intercepted and caught on September 9 near Katra, when he was on way to Sopore.
Charges apart, the subsequent police investigation vindicated part of the claims his Sopore family made. Already corroborated by his Hindu wife Sapna Goura, Daand is suffering from a brain tumour and had come for treatment. The couple was in courtship since 1995 and married against wishes of her parents in 1998. They have two daughters, the handicapped Guddu (12) and Nahida (7). The family lives in a rented place in Thamil (Dumbarai), Kathmandu where they run Raju Provision Store, the name Daand assumed for himself after marrying her. Nepal police have already closed down the shop after Daand’s arrest in Kishtwar. Sapna has already confirmed that she visited Sopore twice with her husband in the last 14 years. Her two brothers are settled abroad.
Right now, many security agencies are interrogating Daand who is in police remand for a case (FIR No 43 U/S 307, 7/27 Arms Act) lodged with Chatroo police station. The ‘revelations’ he has made so far are many: An erstwhile visa officer in Pakistan embassy, Arshad Ayub Cheema was also supplying money and arms as well to militants in Kashmir; ISI operates five hideouts (safe house) for Kashmir militants which would temporarily be closed down (because of his arrest). He was neck-deep into fake currency transfer and ISI had given him special boots to carry the fake notes into India. He was helping aged militant commanders to fly to Islamabad because they could not cross the fenced LoC.
Daand has also revealed that militants flying to Islamabad get fake passports which are later retained after their return against new fake passports. He was reportedly carrying one such fake passport along with a Nepalese and Indian SIM card and a ‘fake’ Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC). The prosecution has informed sections of Jammu media that he has travelled to Pakistan and India at least six times. Islamabad has bestowed him with a visa on the recommendation of Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Just to add to his James Bond image, a newspaper also reported Daand would frequent pubs and dancing floors as well. The Jammu police chief, Dilbagh Singh, addressed a press conference to highlight the revelation that Daand belonged to “first group of five militants from Kashmir” which crossed over for arms training in 1988 and returned in 1989. Singh claimed his “prize catch” was “presently in the rank (as that) of Salah-ud-Din, Dawood Ibrahim, Moulana Masood Azhar” and would work for various outfits. Daand, according to Singh, was on a mission to assassinate J&K’s “very top politicians”.
Part of the police claims even his family does not deny. His brother, Abdul Rashid, told reporters that he was arrested for the first time under the Public Safety Act (PSA) in 1992 for “subversive activities” and was set free in 1995. “On the insistence of the family, he left for Nepal and set up a small shop,” Rashid was quoted saying.
It is again the hijacking that aroused interest in his arrest in Kashmir also. The valley, and it includes separatists also, hate hijacking. While the one in 1971 triggered a major crisis that ended in a war and created a new political map of sub-continent, a middle rung leader from moderate wing of Hurriyat said the hijacking of 1999 brought a “tag of terrorism” to the “struggle”. The IC-814 hijack was one of the most sensational stories that somehow linked Kashmir to global terrorism. It seemed a Kashmir story without a Srinagar dateline.
It was December 24, 1999, when the aircraft took off from Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport at Kathmandu for Delhi that five armed hijackers forced pilot Devi Saran to divert towards Lahore. The captain refused for the lack of fuel. As Islamabad was passing through an all-time low relationship with India after the 1999 Kargil war, it refused permission for landing. The plane instead landed at Raja Sansi airport in Amritsar. It was a major favour for Delhi to settle the issue on its own soil within its own airspace.
As the aircraft landed, the established system was supposed to take over, start negotiation, delay departure and, if required, puncture the tyres to force immobility. As the ATC lacked any direction, they delayed refueling till the captain radioed cries of passengers. It was in this crisis that hijackers shot at Rupin Katyal, who was just returning from honeymoon in Kathmandu. Finally, when the fuel tanker was sent, it misread the command of ‘going slow’ as ‘stop,’ forcing the hijackers to take off even without informing ATC as they mistook the sudden halt of the tanker as an effort to block its way.
In Delhi, an anti-hijacking NSG team was deputed and they were in an aircraft waiting for their two official negotiators who did not turn up even after 30 minutes! Once they were asked to take off without them, IC-814 had left for Lahore after remaining on the runway for 48 minutes.
With the dictator Pervaiz Musharaf in the throne, Lahore reacted angrily and diplomatically. In the first-ever fully televised hijacking, as they came to know about the aircraft heading toward Lahore, a seven-minute flight from Amritsar, they closed down the airport and switched off its lights. Running with a near-empty tank, the aircraft started descending towards the highway, mistaking it for the runway, forcing the foreign minister Jaswant Singh to plead with Islamabad to permit it to land. It was immediately surrounded by commandos.
The aircraft was refuelled and after two and a half hours, it took off again for Kabul.
For lack of night landing facilities at Kandahar, the aircraft was diverted toward Oman that refused permission. The next option was Dubai that refused point blank and actually blocked its runway. US intervened and the permission was granted but the aircraft was diverted towards al-Minhad Air Force base. Dubai’s crown prince and Chief of the Federal Forces, Lt-General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed El Nahiyan, offered an option to hijackers: Get refuelled only after setting free women and children. Apart from Katyal’s corpse, 27 passengers were set free. Next morning, the flight took off to land at Taliban controlled Kandahar.
For Indian diplomacy, it was a major challenge: dealing with a crisis at a place with which it lacked any formal communication. Initially, it used Islamabad based UN officials to prevail upon the Taliban to improve the basic facilities for the passengers. Delhi packaged the crisis as an opportunity for the regime to build its image at the global level by staying nonpartisan and it worked.
Taliban rejected the idea of an operation against hijackers but were instrumental in encouraging the two sides to negotiate. They forced hijackers to resume negotiations when talks broke down shortly before the final successful round. Vivek Katju, who later became India’s envoy to the war-ravaged country, was representing India. Initially, the hijackers sought a huge amount and 36 detained militants. The deal was finally done for three detainees, two Pakistanis and one Kashmiri. Before Jaswant Singh flew with the trio on December 31, Taliban had assured Katju that Taliban will not offer political asylum to either the hijackers or the militants being released in the barter of the 154 passengers and the aircraft crew.
Unlike Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British of Pakistani origin, Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar had direct Kashmir links. BSF arrested Azhar by chance during a routine checking in Bijbehara outskirts on February 20, 1994, along with Sajjad Afghani, the then Harkat-ul-Ansar boss. Hailing from Bahawalpur in Pakistan, Azhar had entered Kashmir on February 9, 1994, from Bangladesh on a “forged” Portuguese passport (as Adam Issa) and visited Deoband and Nudwa before reaching Srinagar in the routine Jammu – Srinagar bus. After interrogating the two, police said the cleric and a small-time scribe had come to forge an alliance between two outfits.
They were shifted to Kot Balwal in Jammu where Afghani died in June 1999. Authorities said he died of asphyxia in the 23-foot long tunnel that he had dug to escape. Militants, however, termed it a murder. Azhar was initially booked under the Terrorist & Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, but could not prove the case against him. Later, he was booked for the forged passport and finally for masterminding the jailbreak.
Zargar, however, was a local foremost pro-Pakistan militant who founded al-Umar Mujahideen in 1990 after his disillusionment with ‘independence seeking’ JKLF. Floating around on Zargar’s larger than life image, the outfit “ruled” the old city for a few years till BSF arrested him on May 15, 1992 from his Sarafkadal hideout. His inclusion in the list of demands surprised many within and outside Kashmir.
Prior to the hijacking, there were four abortive bids to get Azhar out of jail. The first attempt was on June 7, 1994 when Harkat-ul-Ansar kidnapped Britons David Mackie 32, (a television producer) and teenager Kim Housego, son of the then Financial Times journalist David Housego from Pahalgam. Abductors wanted their barter with the freedom of some jailed militants including Azhar. They were freed on June 22, after the local scribes intervened.
The second attempt was in October 1994 when Pakistani-born British national, Ahmad Omer Saeed Sheikh kidnapped four foreigners – three British and an American, in Saharanpur (UP) under shadowy outfit al-Hadeed. Later, he brought them to Ghaziabad. UP. The police raided his hideout but retreated after losing an officer in the gun battle. Finally, Delhi police arrested Sheikh from Mandi village of Saharanpur in November 1994. Interestingly, the designated court under TADA at Meerut for lack of evidence acquitted Omer. He was in the solitary confinement in the high-security jail no 4 of Tihar Jail. The son of a shipping tycoon, Omer, 27, is a graduate from London School of Economics. He had come to India on a valid British passport through a PIA flight.
The third attempt came in July (4 – 8) 1995 when another shadowy outfit al-Faran kidnapped many foreigners and executed a Norwegian national. The outfit sought the release of many of their comrades including Azhar. It failed with no trace of hostages. Finally, the hijacking set the trio free.
Zargar was driven out of the Central Jail Srinagar handcuffed with a polythene bag carrying his spear shirt and pant. A sluggish drive to Jammu took a long time. The authorities flew a blindfolded Zargar in an army chopper from Udhampur to Jammu. Azhar was driven out of Kot Balwal and an otherwise calm prison turned assertive. With cops, they were loaded in an awaiting aircraft and flown to Delhi. From Delhi, they were with NSG sharing a flight with Jaswant Singh and Sheikh. They were separated throughout, up to Kandhar. The state government led by Dr Abdullah had publicly opposed the move.
Jaswant Singh got kidnapped passengers home that brought relief to India and conveyed a surrender of sorts. Many years later, when US gave access to CBI, that was investigating the case, to question Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, at a safe house in Kabul on October 13, 2003, they got the information that the released trio and the five hijackers drove into Kandahar town for a sumptuous meal at the house of Taliban leader, General Usmani. Then they slipped into Pakistan.
Zargar went to PaK where he is living a low-profile life that is reportedly restrictive as well. Azhar opted for marriage immediately and then founded Jaish-e-Muhammad. Omar got involved in al-Qaeda and is behind bars for the brutal butchering of journalist Daniel Pearl.
In March 2001, CBI finally submitted a charge sheet against 10 persons including five hijackers and two of their accomplices (Ibrahim Athar, Sunny Qazi, Sahid Sayeed Akhtar, Zahoor Ibrahim Mistry, Shakir, and Azhar’s brother Abdul Rauf and brother-in-law Yusuf Azhar – all Pakistanis). Special judge, Inderjit Singh Walia of a Patiala court, after examining 120 witnesses, indicted all but only two Indian nationals Abdul Latif, Dalip Kumar and a Nepali national Yusuf arrested earlier were sentenced to life imprisonment on February 15, 2008.
CBI had arrested Latif and Dalip from Mumbai in December 1999 and Yusuf Nepali from Kathmandu. Accused of helping the hijackers in procuring fake passports and other papers and helping them take weapons inside the flight, they were in Patiala jail since their arrest.
There was another case in Mumbai in which they were accused of a bank robbery to fund the hijacking. Two others accused in the case were Pakistanis who were repatriated to Pakistan after eight years of imprisonment in August 2010.
Despite all this, the CBI has not closed its eye and ears. In April 2011, when a Pakistani national, Abdul Rauf, was detained by Santiago police, a joint team of CBI and IB flew within 24 hours to Chile. However, it proved to be a different Rauf and not a relative of Azhar. After US took over Afghanistan, Delhi sought some insights into the hijacking drama as its troops have amassed a lot of intelligence by interrogating the Taliban. There were a series of meetings but, barring the October 2003 opportunity to interact with Muttawakil, no such information has been offered, at least publicly. There is nothing public if New Delhi’s active Kabul mission has collected anything on the subject during last few years.
The tryst to know the truth and to bring the accused to book got a new twist last week when Daand was detained near Katra, blindfolded and driven to Kishtwar. All of a sudden, the news dominated the electronic media. Within 24 hour later, what was missing was his role in the hijack.
Chennai based The Hindu reported CBI sources saying that the organization has no reason to believe that the detained person was involved in the plot. Terming the claim overblown, the newspaper was informed by “a highly placed official” that Daand “may have information related to individuals connected to the hijacking.”
A day later, The Indian Express reported that Daand was “an Indian intelligence asset” in Nepal for at least five years. Tapped in 2000, a year after the hijack, the report said he had contacts in Pakistan embassy that made him “a favourable candidate in the eyes of intelligence sleuths”. Crediting him for passing on “valuable intelligence on Arshad Cheema” – the ISI official who was eventually deported from Nepal, the report said, “his inputs helped the IB first figure out the Pakistani angle in the fake Indian currency racket based in Nepal.”
It has triggered interesting debates. People within the security grid of the state are asking if these ‘catches’ are coincidences or accidents or if somebody is blowing off somebody’s cover. There have been two instances of double-crosses actually landing up in police net from the state police itself. It is happening at a time when the state police are led by an officer who oversaw IB operations in J&K for many years.