NEW DELHI: On a day when a political dust storm swept over the sweltering capital after a sensational ‘admission’ by a former spy chief on the NDA-I Government’s “goof-up” over its handling of the December 1999 Indian Airlines plane hijack, the plot thickened with counter view from a fellow sleuth about the former RAW chief’s tell-all book not really telling it all, but dressing up events in a way favourable to him and his political mentors.
Ex-RAW chief A S Dulat, in his tome Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, squarely blamed the “indecision” in the government for the plane being allowed to take off from Amritsar to Kandahar, instead of being obstructed there with oil tankers.
The political class expectedly went into paroxysms of outrage, but it is the voices from the intelligence community that went beyond the surface narrative.
Dulat, who was part of the crisis management group formed to deal with the crisis, said no one in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime’s top pantheon wanted to take the decision that the plane be stopped at Amritsar’s Raja Sansi Airport, where it had halted after being hijacked from Kathmandu, fearing the messy loss of lives that could be involved.
He also cast then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah as a stickler for the rules. Dulat was sent to negotiate with Farooq as two of the terrorists the hijackers wanted to be released, including Maulana Masood Azhar, who later went on to form the dreaded Jaish-e-Mohammed, were lodged in a jail in J&K.
“He (Farooq) shouted at me for hours together saying this was a mistake being committed by the Centre. After he ventilated his anger, he stormed out for a meeting with J&K Governor Girish Chandra Saxena with an intention to resign. However, the Governor calmed him down and Farooq eventually agreed to the release,” Dulat recounts in his book.
Between all these, a former intelligence honcho, who knew Dulat well as a colleague (having been his senior in the IB), cast this whole narrative as one framed in a convenient way and glossing over some key elements. To begin with, he called into question Dulat’s own “competence” since he was the crisis ops specialist on the job at the time. “What exactly was Dulat doing, may one ask,” D C Nath, retired Additional Director, IB, told Express.
“It was up to him to figure out how exactly to obstruct the plane by placing oil bowsers (tankers) in its path and not allowing it to take off,” Nath said.
Confronted with this charge, Dulat defended his own role and said there was “lack of communication between authorities in New Delhi and Punjab Police, which was incharge on the ground”. Also, “there was the genuine fear of lives being lost,” Dulat told Express.
“The question was, what if they had actually started carrying out their threat to kill hostages? They had already killed one passenger,” he said. Nath, however, dismissed this as a weak defence, and called it an operational failure rather than a political failure.
He added that Dulat had his share of problems in RAW, an acknowledged fact. Nath also pointed out that there had been a huge outcry of protest in RAW when Dulat was handpicked from IB to head it. In a sensational claim, he alleged Dulat, in fact, was known to have enjoyed a close proximity with the then J&K CM, and that explained the glowing description. “His closeness to the Abdullahs, makes it a biased account,” Nath said.