Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Terror on the tarmac

“You can have your permission, but I doubt you will need it now,” said the officer at Delhi’s Palam airport as he signed the paper I had been chasing him with for a week. It was the last week of 1999. We were to be at the airport at the stroke of midnight of the new millennium, as the biggest worry then was whether computers affected by the “Y2K bug” would disrupt flights around the world. I was finally getting permission to film my report right from the tarmac, but I could tell from the officer’s agitation that a bigger story was breaking.

The Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi, IC-814, had been hijacked, and the first report said that it was being diverted to Lucknow. All of a sudden, the sleepy corridor of the Civil Aviation Ministry was like a beehive coming alive. As a TV producer, I had a massive story on my hands. We broke the story about an hour later, by which time IC-814 was on its way to land in Amritsar and journalists were thronging the airport.
Watching events unfold up close, we saw that every department of the government was unprepared. Family members of passengers were running around wildly, but no official would speak to them. Indian Airlines staff were barking orders, but no one could be seen carrying them out. At the ‘crisis management group’ meeting at the Safdarjung Airport office, senior officials watched the television paralysed as commandos couldn’t be sent to Amritsar on time. Captain Devi Sharan’s stalling tactics weren’t heeded by the airport security who allowed the plane to take off from Indian territory, after which, it has been argued, the government lost all its cards. For the next week, journalists covering the story worked all day, speaking to relatives at the airport and attending briefings, in order to cover every moment of hostage negotiations at Kandahar. Hopes faded as it was clear that neither the Taliban government in Afghanistan nor any other government that could exert influence — the U.S., the U.K., the U.A.E., or Pakistan — would do much to help. On December 31, just before lunch, we were told that the External Affairs Minister would be flying to Kandahar, possibly to meet the demands of the terrorists. We all rushed back to the airport, knowing that the government had caved.
09/08/17 Suhasini Haidar/The Hindu