Although, statistically Air travel is considered to be the safest mode of travel but still none of us are oblivious to the feeling of helplessness and fear even due to a slight air turbulence. It’s quite common to find nervous passengers on a flight who can’t help themselves and always think of the worst possible outcome. As if this was not enough, Air travel has become the most favored tool of the terrorists who hijack flights to make a political point or force governments to surrender to their demands. Such dreadful situations are grueling for the passengers and the crew.
Located in the midst of hostile nations, India has been battling with terrorism for several decades now. And there have been more than half a dozen incidents of Indian plane being hijacked and taken to an unfriendly foreign territory (Preferable Lahore, Pakistan). The recent Bollywood blockbuster, Neerja, portrayed a PanAm flight hijacked by the Libyan terrorists.
Though, the incidents of 9/11 are ingrained in our memories, these hijackings of Indian flights were nonetheless terrifying:
1971 January 30:
It was India’s first encounter with this novel form of terrorist activity. The incident was highly dramatic in retrospect and equally unpleasant for the flyers and crew members. Hashim Quraishi and Ashraf Quraishi of JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) checked into an Indian Airlines plane “Ganga” from Srinagar. The flight which was scheduled to land in Jammu became an ordeal for everyone on board when Hashim and Ashraf hijacked the plane and redirected it to Lahore airport in Pakistan.
Hashim was trained in Pakistan and his sole motive was to hog the limelight towards the Kashmir issue. Thus, he released all the passengers on February 1st, 1970 who were transported back to India through Amritsar. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, met these terrorists and helped in stalling the proceedings in order to get them maximum publicity in world media. The duo was given a hero’s welcome in a procession in Pakistan but were later arrested due to international pressure.
1981 September 29:
An Indian Airline plane which had 111 passengers and 6 crew members on board was hijacked by 5 knife-wielding Sikh separatists of Dal Khalsa. Dal Khalsa had been vociferous those days with its demands for a separate Sikh homeland. The Aircraft en route to New Delhi was rerouted to Lahore. The leader Gajender Singh talked to Natwar Singh, India’s ambassador in Pakistan to put forth his demands.
But, in a surprise move which was commended later, Pakistan agreed to India’s request to ensure the passenger’s safety. As a consequence, Pakistani commandos launched an offensive in which all terrorists were overpowered and the passengers were secured along with the aircraft. The hijackers were later put on trial in Pakistan where they were sentenced to Life imprisonment.
1982 August 22:
Another Sikh extremist inspired by separatist leader Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhinderwale hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft scheduled to travel from Mumbai to New Delhi. Manjit Singh, who had a pistol and hand grenade, instructed the pilots to reroute the plane to Libya. But, due to insufficient fuel, he decided for Lahore instead. But, due to timely intervention by Indian authorities, the aircraft wasn’t allowed to land in Pakistan.
Forced to land in Amritsar at Raja Sansi Airport, Manjit Singh was aware of being trapped on Indian territory. Thus, he proposed to negotiate for his freedom but was gunned down by the police during the process.
1984 July 6:
In an attempt to suppress the Khalistan movement in Punjab, Indira Gandhi authorized military action against the Khalistani leaders in the famous Golden temple in Amritsar. The infamous Operation Blue Star proved decisive and the leader Jarnail Singh Bhinderwale was killed in combat. The operation was condemned by Sikh religious outfits. The separatists were furious with the government ‘s audacious move.
To avenge the death of their leader and to free other Sikh separatists, 5 Sikh militants under the leadership of Parminder Singh Saini, hijacked a Delhi bound aircraft which took off from Srinagar. The aircraft landed in Lahore after the militants threatened to blow the aircraft if they weren’t allowed to land. The 17 hour long ordeal ended when the hijackers surrendered in front of Pakistani forces. They were later put on trial in a Lahore court.
1984 August 24:
This is another occurrence where disillusioned Sikh youths tried to grab the attention of World media towards the atrocities on Sikhs in India. The hijackers in their 20s, commandeered a Chandigarh-Srinagar flight to Lahore and them to Karachi. They refueled the aircraft, released some passengers and flew from there to Dubai. Their aim was to reach United States and let the west know about the freedom struggle going on in Punjab.
UAE negotiated the release of Indian passengers in lieu of political asylum to the hijackers but they were later deported to India. All seven of them were sentenced to life imprisonment and were incarcerated in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Tejinder Singh, one of the 7 hijackers was 19 at the time and is now a bitter man.
We sacrificed our entire youth for the faith, yet, not one among the many Sikh institutions or their leaders has come forward to help us.
1993 April 24:
Another major terrorist plot was thwarted when the hijacker of Indian Airlines flight IC427 was killed by the NSG commandos at Amritsar airport. The flight had 141 people on board and the lone terrorist identified himself as Syed Salauddin. The flight which originated from New Delhi was taken to Lahore but the Lahore ATC refused the permit to land the aircraft.
Forced to land in Amritsar, the hijacker demanded refueling of the aircraft. Meanwhile, the authorities delayed the negotiations and a team of NSG commandos was dispatched to Amritsar. The team stormed the aircraft at 1:00 AM and within 5 minutes the terrorist was shot down. Further investigation established the true identity of the terrorist as Muhammed Yousuf Shah.
1999 December 24:
The hijacking of flight IC814 has been the most talked event in Indian history and black day too. The government had to cede to the terrorists demand of releasing 3 dreaded members of Jaish-e-Mohammed.
The Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi first landed in Amritsar. It was clever on the pilot’s part who sighted insufficient fuel as the reason for emergency landing. But, carelessness on part of the officials, the flight was refueled and allowed to leave the Indian airspace. The hijackers took the plane to Kandhar, Afganistan which had no ties diplomatic ties with India due to the rule of Taliban. Left with no option, the government released Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and secured the freedom of 191 passengers on board.
Sadly, an Indian passenger Rupan Katyal was stabbed multiple times and succumbed to his injuries.