GOWANUS Summer 2000
TO HELL AND BACK, AND BACK...
GREAT MILLENNIUM HIJACKING
173 Hours in Captivity. The Hijacking of IC 814.
HarperCollins. Rs 150
Last December everyone in India was
busy getting ready for their New Year’s Eve parties. Most families were
booked into clubs and five star hotels, and those who weren’t were frantically
trying to find last-
The shops were talking clothes--Swarovski crystal-studded salwar kameezes for Rs 40,000 a throw, genuine Armani suits for the man of taste--anything as long as you have the money to flaunt it. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO WEAR ON THE MOST IMPORTANT NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE? Excitement and nostalgia were what the millennium was going to be all about in couture, Tarun Tahiliani declared. Cynics said it was just another night--nothing was going to change for the people involved. Doomsayers were busy getting ready for the end of the world--some kind of a big bang was going to take place, even if it was just your computer going up in a puff of smoke on Jan 1. Whether anyone believed all this, of course, is something else altogether. And then, just as all the clothes-shopping and party-hopping ideas were coming to a climax, something happened that stopped everyone in their tracks. An Indian Airlines plane flying from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked. The first anyone knew of it was the television reports on the satellite channels. People caught half a sentence, turned their heads and shook off their apathy.
Some people returning from holiday had been hijacked. It was not possible. It had to be a plot--and, of course, a Pakistani plot--it had to be. An impotent feeble little sabre-rattling effort that would be dealt with speedily and efficiently--look at the way things were dealt with at Kargil. People went to bed with a feeling that the country was waking up again--it would be all over by Christmas and we could pat ourselves on the back. A hijacking was exciting, after all--most people had visions of Harrison Ford wrestling terrorists on the plush carpeted floors of Airforce One with jaw grimly set. People threw hijack in with their bara pegs at clubs. All Indian ICQ was throbbing with it. My acquaintance from Madras assured me over cyberspace that it would all be over in a couple of days and everyone would be safely home celebrating and, when I got a little intense about it, dropped the subject. After all, we had never met and he was a respectable man with two daughters to worry about--why should he bother himself about a slightly hysterical woman in the east?
All over the television, nation states were condemning the hijacking and Indians were busy discussing the Israeli raid at Entebbe. It had to end in a shower of Black Cat commandos with some Jean Claude Van Damme clone, if not Harrison Ford, kicking in the plane door and kicking the grenade out of the head hijacker’s hand. Hrithik Roshan, the latest Hindi film heartthrob would fill the role nicely. In fact, it actually had all the makings of a patriotic Hindi film, though there might be some problems about fitting in the song-and-dance numbers--well, flashbacks could take care of that, one of the passengers had just got married and gone to Kathmandu on his honeymoon. The wedding sequence would provide colour, romance and scope for a sympathetic heroine.
Except that the man returning from
his honeymoon was stabbed and left to bleed to death while calling deliriously
for his father. And his new bride didn’t even know what had happened. No,
that wouldn’t work for a Hindi film--he would have to be turned into the
‘The hijackers had already wrecked Christmas Eve parties for a lot of people in the plane and in two countries; now they were heading for a third’.
Christmas Eve parties--the twinkles
of fairy lights over five-star facades, Santas incongruous in the chilly
wind blowing through Noida farmhouse fields. More haute couture
touched with excite-
By now the names of the hijackers
were beginning to filter out--
“They’re nice, they killed Ripan Katyal but they’ve been kind enough not to tell his wife…They entertain the children.”
In Calcutta most people vowed not
to fly to Kathmandu in the near future because the Indian and Nepalese
governments were raving security breaches at each other. Anyone
could walk into a plane at Tribhuvan Airport--it was a notorious hotspot
for drug dealers and terrorists! One of the hijackers was reputed to be
Even in the Calcutta adda haunts no one remembered Patty Hearst or how she joined her abductors in a bank raid. Or spoke about the insidious effects on the psyche of being hijacked. Nor did anyone anywhere else, because the plane was heading for Afghanistan. There was some talk of a detour to Russia--“Perfect place for a commando raid,” declared the jingoists. However, the detour to Russia was blocked, the pilot was running out of excuses, and from the moment the plane landed at Kandahar it looked very ominously like the Taliban were mixed up with the hijackers on the plane.
Passengers released on the tarmac of Kandahar airport returned to Delhi to report that the hijackers were amusing the hostages with Hindi film jokes. Hindi Film Universal Communicator, said the papers, or some such headline. Negotiators were being brought in to defuse the situation. Negotiators? That was another film altogether. “Anyway,” overheard in another club conversation, “at least the Taliban are feeding them biriyani for the festive season.” Afghan food was supposed to be good--people flocked to Delhi five-star restaurants to pay small fortunes for the stuff.
What no one knew at the time was that one passenger on the plane had accessed ICQ through his laptop and tried to convey to his Chinese chat partner that they were being hijacked. Who, in turn, was convinced that the whole conversation was some kind of elaborate hoax--as is usually the case on ICQ.
‘SOS SOS THE GRENADES WITH THE HIJACKERS R NOT REAL. PLZ INFORM AUTHORITIES. I’M ON A LAPTOP.'
'iam in china, how can I help u? where r u?’
Ultimately the Chinese man was convinced and faxed a printout of the conversation to the Indian Embassy in Beijing from where it was, in turn, faxed to Delhi. The Prime Minister read it till he got to the point where the passenger had used an expletive in his message. There he stopped and passed the message around.
Operation Thunderball and the raid on the Air France plane at Entebbe for a moment seemed a possibility. But only for a moment because the Taliban government began to demand parking fees for the plane occupying their space, money for the food they were providing and made it clear they were not going to tolerate commandos on their turf.
Party time was getting closer, the millennium was ticking away and the negotiators seemed to have done not very much in the way of negotiation. The inside of the plane smelt like a sewer, and the passengers were busy demanding medicines that would keep them from having to go to the toilet, while the hijackers threatened instant death for everyone. My ICQ friend refused to discuss the issue with me--it seemed safer to ask how I was going to spend the eve of the new millennium. With friends, I replied, wondering whether that plane was fated to explode like a thunderbolt on the stroke of midnight--a fate that seemed quite possible, since no one knew whether there were explosives on board or whether the grenades really were duds.
On the 31st afternoon, while everyone was waiting for offices to close, planning to go home early and catch forty winks before the Big Night, the government announced that it was releasing the Kashmiri terrorists Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Masoon Azhar and providing a plane that would fly the hijackers to safety. Jaswant Singh, the Indian foreign minister, was flying them to Kandahar. Everyone could put on their glad rags and dance with a clear conscience--quite possibly some of the hostages would even be able to make it back to Delhi in time to catch their own New Year’s Eve celebrations.
For the nearly 200 passengers and crew, Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 from New Delhi to Kathmandu was, of course, a trip to hell and back. Neelesh Misra’s book recreates the drama, tension and violence of those 173 hours, putting the reader right there in Economy Class.
8.30 am--a typical weekday morning. I am out early hoping to make it in to work on time but, no, the level crossing defeats me as it has defeated me so often in the past. I stand and wait in a snarl of traffic while the black-and-yellow pole descends like an act of fate. Around me I can hear the complaining horns and the babble of voices of commuters stuck like myself in mid-journey. I can hear Bengali and the rough Hindi of the taxi drivers. When I was young we lived on the edge of another kind of level crossing, constantly standing on tiptoe to peer over the pole. My uncle had married a girl from over the Border, and as a result of the marriage the family was divided. "Refugees," sniffed my mother. "She's no better than a refugee. And god knows what her family is!"
We wait--five minutes, ten minutes. There is no sign of the train. The warning siren from the crossing is a constant irritant to our ears. The only people with relative freedom are the children who live in the little shanties that have sprung up around the crossing. They run backwards and forwards, ducking under the pole. "They've got a death wish!" someone screams, but no, they know how to slip out from under the very wheels of a train. But that's because they know the rules of passage. Another person trying it would be sliced under those wheels. As they scamper, I hear their voices--the quick chattered Bengali that has almost completely lost the sibilance from over the border. But that's because they've grown up in the west. Their rootless lives on the edge of a crossing, however, still reflect my own. Gradually my aunt's family also filtered across the border to be with her. My uncle put them all up with him.
Will that train never pass by? Impatiently I get out of the car to peer up the track. We have places that we need to reach, important things that need to be done, but here we are held captive by a force outside our control. Perhaps we will stay here forever in suspended animation: us on this side and that clotted mass of traffic facing us on the other. What would we do then? Descend from our cars, scooters and taxis and scamper across like those children? But we don't know how to do that-- nor did they, of course, till they got the hang of it.
My uncle lived in 1/1 Circular road.
It was an upper class neigh-
It was the year Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan. Between 1970 and '71, six million refugees flooded into Calcutta and turned the city into an overcrowded slum. But those refugees weren't the only casualty of division. In 1947, thanks to the vagaries of the politicians, a Muslim country called Pakistan was formed, with India dividing East Pakistan from West Pakistan. Apart from this there was one other casualty--a state called Kashmir. The population of Kashmir was primarily Muslim, but the state was ruled by a Hindu Raja. The Raja, Hari Singh, chose to be part of India, and this despite the pleas of his subjects. India is still haunted by the results of that Partition. The crowds and unemployed in Calcutta. Frenetic outbreaks of violence along the Kashmir border. Worse, outbreaks of Kashmiri terrorism that leave dead and dying scattered, so that a valley that was once a tourist paradise is now a nightmare spot to be visited with your life in your hands.
I visited Srinagar one summer and had lunch in one of Raja Hari Singh's palaces that had been turned into a five-star hotel. On the lawn promenaded the Special Advisor to the Emir of Kuwait and his seventeenth wife, a luminous blonde in equally luminous pink trousers and a T-shirt that bore a sequinned palm tree. She had an eight-carat diamond on her finger. The lunch was a buffet flanked by great ice swans, and it was idyllic and lush in a mellow Kashmiri autumn with the sun turning from yellow to gold.
Srinagar now looks like a war zone, bleak and deserted, dotted with the shells of blown-up buildings and frequent jawan patrols. And every 15th August Eve is a time fraught with tension because that is the time when terrorist attacks on Kashmir and Srinagar intensify, on the eve of India's Independence, the time when the country was partitioned. Last winter my mother's Kashmiri shawl man did not materialise with the pashmina shawl she had given for darning the summer before. That had been a fairly expensive shawl with bunches of gold grapes in the four corners and some other gold bracket in the middle. She had bought it from him and it had caught moth after one summer in her wooden almirah. It didn't occur to any of us that he might have taken the shawl and sold it to someone else--why would he? Every Calcutta family of any standing had its own itinerant Kashmiri shawl man who arrived just as the leaves started scattering from the trees. "He must be dead," my mother declared, looking at fresh reports of violence in the Srinagar Valley. "Otherwise why wouldn't he come?"
The films of the 1950s were full of uprooting. The plight of those people who had suddenly had a line drawn through their homes. Neighbours killing neighbours, trains with compartments oozing blood drawing in from the frontiers where relatives waited with dread in their hearts. Hindus pillaging, Muslims pillaging. Someone observed that the problem had become an integral part of life in the subcontinent and would never be solved. In Kashmir the young terrorists who made a career of stealth warfare were thought of as romantic. Most of them were young, strong and handsome in the Kashmiri way. They felt that by striking a blow against the Indian Government they were doing something positive, if not fighting a jihad, at least staking their claim to choose which country they wanted to belong to. Underlying it all was a "How dare you cut us off!" hatred that had never surfaced during the centuries of British rule but now, encouraged by the politicians, came flooding to the forefront.
Jinnah, the man responsible for the partition has a grandson who lives in India, a well-known Parsi industrialist. No one comments on the irony of it, because these ironies can be dangerous. Explosions in Kashmir. Arms drops in Purulia. Strange midnight planes and terrorists being scooped out of railway stations on the road to nowhere. All the results of something that happened over half a century ago, with neither side forgiving the other. Bangladesh or Kashmir, it makes no difference. Both places have stories of uprooting--though Bangladesh now is visitable, you can hop on a bus in Calcutta and get off in Dhaka twelve hours later.
No one visits Kashmir. Once upon a time, it was the place Hindi films were shot. Sharmila Tagore being chased down snowy slopes by Dev Anand or some other Hindi film hero. Now it is just bad news--an outline on a map that keeps being nibbled away by Pakistani encroachments.
Death of Dreams is a step-by-step account of the making of a terrorist. How Pakistan supports and controls them; how they plan and carry out their strikes; how the state's political leadership has made itself irrelevant and how the people of the Valley cling onto desperate, impossible dreams. In the middle of it all is the daring exploit of crossing the border. Desperate dreams are part of life at the level crossing. All the films made on the subject, whether they spoke of East Bengal or Kashmir, emphasised that. The romance, the girls eating their hearts out for men who plunged into the night with AK47s in their hands with the Kashmiri equivalent of, "Hasta la vista, baby." There is something romantic about a handsome young man with a weapon--Robin Hood, William Tell, all those rebels who took their lives in their hands and rose up against tyranny leaving trails of weeping women behind them.
And, as always, there are betrayals. The hero of Death of Dreams, Babar Badr, is betrayed by the Pakistanis who trained him and put a gun into his hands. Those young men who fought to preserve what they believed in in East Bengal evenutally found themselves betrayed--which led to the Bangladeshi War of Independence. In the end, all wars are the same war, all betrayals the same betrayal.
I live in what you might call south-west Calcutta. Gradually the growing population from the city has made their homes here. In the early morning I hear the sounds of the street market. The grocer speaks Bihari, the fishmonger dialect of East Bengal, and next to him every winter morning sit the Kashmiri shawl sellers.
On the television I watch a programme about the great events of the last century. Some people talk of the Vietnam War, others bring up the destruction of the Berlin Wall, while still others talk of setting foot on the moon, the sinking of the Titanic or even the making of Jurassic Park. What would Gandhi say if he were still alive? Or Jinnah. Or all those people who live perpetually on the edge of a level crossing, forever ducking under the wheels of the passing trains?
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)