Sour Grapes and Screw-ups

The long rumoured book by AS Dulat, head of RAW during the previous BJP government, has finally hit the bookshops. Haven’t bought the book yet, but from the available news reports on it, the author has avoided genuinely deconstructing many controversial events during his tenure and supposedly retailed in this book, in that blame has not been assigned to any particular person or agency for many of the fiascos. Certainly, there was no greater fiasco than the Indian Airlines hijacking to Kandahar which could have been preempted at the start when the plane, running low on fuel, landed in Amritsar. And this is where everything that could go wrong did. Because in any crisis the first thing that happens is that the Indian government loses its head — even as loss of nerve is the other predetermined response — the normal in such situations, everybody seemed engaged but no one person in authority seemed ready to take charge, impose order and discipline up and down the line, cut out all sorts of agencies who butt in to further foul up matters. Dulat fails to ascribe the blame to the one person who should have been held responsible — the late Brajesh Mishra who, as NSA and PPS to the PM, actually could have brought rapid closure to this sordid drama being played out on the Amritsar airport tarmac, but did not. To blame cabsec Prabhat Kumar for vacillating as the estimable KPS Gill does — his Punjab Police commando unit was immediately deployed by him around the airport and could at any time have been ordered to shoot their way in or, at a minimum, to disable the aircraft — is to assume any bureaucrat placed in a similar situation would anything differently. Dulat mentions the then director, IB, for instance, fuming at orders from Delhi to puncture the aircraft tyres, wondering if he and his agency were some kind of cycle repair facility(!), thereby indicating the brahminical attitude to not getting one’s hands dirty, as if such a job was some menial task meant for lowlier persons or agencies. Was he punished for this attitude, cashiered on the spot? Of course not. This when the IB’s correct response should have been not to tarry, waste time questioning these orders, but for one of its personnel to run to the aircraft and shoot the damn tyres to smithereens with a service revolver or to call in the paramilitary to take potshots at the tyres if this was beyond the ken of IB officers (!) and thus terminate the hijack episode right there. Does this require great confabulation at the Delhi-end or even at the Amritsar-end or merely the exercise of some common sense at the level of a constable for God’s sake! That no one in Delhi, or in any of the numerous police and intelligence agencies on the scene in Amritsar, thought of pushing this option — asking the IB director to shut up and get on with the business of taking out the tyres, rather than waiting for the vaunted NSG to be airlifted from their Haryana base which seemed atrocious then and immeasurably silly some two decades later. What great skill is required to aim and fire a machine gun or even a 5.56mm INSAS rifle at the tyres of a stationary passenger plane in the interim period before the NSG got there? If the profoundly idiotic agencies of govt did not want to get that violent, they could have just parked fire-brigade trucks stationed at the airport in front of and in the rear of the aircraft, thus making it impossible for it to move. Worse, as was revealed in my previous writings — some of them on this blog — precisely these and other means for disabling hijacked aircraft, were practiced by an extended inter-agency and paramilitary exercise only the year before, codenamed, ironically, ‘SOUR GRAPES’!!! So, what happened? If even tested and practiced actions are NOT implemented when the foreseen crisis or emergency actually occurs, then what’s the point of preparing for any such contingency in the first place??? This quite extraordinary failure points up the basic flaw in the Indian govt’s working — when it comes to the crunch nobody from the lowest to the highest — wants to approve decisive action. The ex-post facto justification offered at the time, and revived now, that the likelihood of on-board passengers being hurt or killed is what deterred the govt is to continue to make excuses for a govt system that, plainly speaking, is institutionally not geared to handle any such crisis or emergency very well. This bodes ill for the future because all any terrorist group has to do to make its political mark, wrench concessions out of New Delhi, is to hold any vehicle or platform with civilians hostage for the govt to buckle under “public pressure” and accept terms detrimental to national interests. The Indian government has still not come out with a clear policy statement to the effect that any hijacking or hostage-taking by any means will not involve any negotiations of any kind with the terrorists, and that such episodes will end in only way — the death or capture of the terrorists involved, even if this means absorbing collateral civilian deaths and casualties. The print and television media that unctuously report on Dulat’s conclusions, should also be mindful of their role and complicity in pressuring the Vajpayee govt at the time when TV cameras multiplied the public effect of affected families asking for the govt to give into the terrorists of the Kandahar-bound plane. Even so, there’s no excuse for the GOI to have done what it did — ease off and let the fueled-up aircraft leave.

It is time Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a standing order to all police and intelligence agencies at the centre and in the states that there will be no negotiating with terrorists in such situations for any reason at any time, and that they are instructed to at the first instance and opportunity disable the vehicle/platform by any and all means, thus preventing the escape of the outlaws. He should use his “man ki baat” radio programme and also propagate on TV that his govt will not allow people to protest or put pressure on the govt in such emergencies, and if such pressure is nevertheless somehow imposed he was free to ignore it in the larger national interest of dealing with terrorists and eradicating terrorism. There’s no other way to signal GOI’s resolve to terrorists everywhere to finish them.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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4 Responses to Sour Grapes and Screw-ups

  1. I do not remember having read about any government official, serviceman, or politician being punished for the multiple bombings of Mumbai, the Kandahar episode, the Kargil incursions, or the attack on the Parliament. In the case of the attack on the Parliament, the powers that be were quick to round up some individuals and ultimately execute one. Perhaps, strong action was called for on that occasion because the lives of the worthies in Parliament were threatened.
    When punitive action is not taken for acts of commission and omission by those in high places, is it any wonder that these shameful incidents keep occurring in India?

  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/NSG-came-close-to-raid-IC-814-in-Dubai/articleshow/47967046.cms

    “We boarded the special aircraft and hovered in the vicinity of Dubai, but no permission was given to us to land and carry out an operation,” said a former National Security Guard commando involved in the 1999 incident.
    ……
    Dulat says in his book, “We tried to prevail on the Americans to put pressure on the UAE to allow us a raid, but India found itself isolated internationally.”
    ……
    NSG’s 52 Special Action Group, trained for anti-hijack operations, was involved in the airlift, the former commando said.
    ……
    The former NSG officer said there was much delay in the commando force being informed about the hijack. “A lot of time was wasted, we began to chase only after the aircraft took off from Amritsar,” he said.
    ……
    Dulat says in his book that the 50-minute meeting of the CMG in the wake of the crisis “degenerated into a blame game, with various senior officials trying to lay the blame for allowing the aircraft to leave Indian soil on one another; the Cabinet Secretary, being the head of the CMG was one target, and the NSG chief, Nikhil Kumar, unfortunately became another”.

  3. Siddappa says:

    Wasn’t jaswant singh fuming on phone “just go & park a fire engine in front of the plane?”.

    There were thoughts, if terrorists could blow up the plane, it could be a big fiasco. This was the explanation given, given in newspapers.

    Thoughts on collateral… are fine, but when officials have incentive to push decisions rather than take a decision, delays are only to be expected, whether it is building a road or a burning crisis.

    The wonder is the plane traversed through Nepal, India, Dubai & Afghanistan. Not one our foreign service officers took initiative.

    It shudders the mind to think, 16 years later, we still have only blame games being remembered, not any lessons.

    Could have, should have, would haves by retried persons only means they did not.

    I wonder, weekday the current NSA would have to say about it. He led the negotiations Ykandahar

  4. Siddappa says:

    Wasn’t jaswant singh fuming on phone “just go & park a fire engine in front of the plane?”.

    There were thoughts, if terrorists could blow up the plane, it could be a big fiasco. This was the explanation given, given in newspapers.

    Thoughts on collateral… are fine, but when officials have incentive to push decisions rather than take a decision, delays are only to be expected, whether it is building a road or a burning crisis.

    The wonder is the plane traversed through Nepal, India, Dubai & Afghanistan. Not one our foreign service officers took initiative.

    It shudders the mind to think, 16 years later, we still have only blame games being remembered, not any lessons.

    Could have, should have, would haves by retried persons only means they did not.

    I wonder, what the current NSA would have to say about it. He led the negotiations to kandahar, if I recall correctly.

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