There was a distinct chill in the air in Delhi on the morning of 31 December 1999, and it wasn’t due to the wintry weather alone. A little over a thousand miles away, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the lives of 190 Indians on board the hijacked Indian Airlines plane, IC 814, were hanging by the thread of a decision that would come to haunt the Indian government and the then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh for years to come.
Singh was getting ready to escort three dreaded terrorists, who had just been released from prison in Jammu and Kashmir to Afghanistan in exchange for the safety of the passengers and crew. The mood outside the high-security Indian Air Force-managed technical area of Delhi airport (where journalists were being kept at a safe distance) was tense.
It was then that I spotted a battered Maruti van approaching the gate. As it slowed down for security checks at the multiple barriers that had been set up, I discovered that it was carrying food for the officials inside. I used the few seconds available to plead with the driver to let me hop on.
Sitting at the back between astonished food vendors and boxes of squishy sandwiches, I managed to make my way in past security. I reached the aircraft just as Jaswant Singh was climbing the steps of the Boeing 737. Eight officials from the intelligence agencies and the foreign ministry were already on board.
Next to the plane was parked a jeep. Inside were the three terrorists, their faces completely masked.
I soaked in the details. It was a week earlier, on 24 December, that IC 814 was hijacked and the conditions set for the release of the passengers. The identity of the men had not yet been officially released. Brajesh Mishra – who was both principal secretary to the prime minister and the national security adviser at the time – would tell us who they were only after the plane was airborne.
By this time the journalists outside the gate had begun calling every high-ranking bureaucrat they knew to protest my presence inside the security perimeter. Mishra made an anxious call to my bosses.
Determined to take my chance, I implored the minister to let me accompany him to Afghanistan, offering to leave my camera behind if that made taking me along more viable. I begged, I tried everything I could to somehow climb those steps to the aircraft with him.
But in his firm yet gentle baritone he told me I must leave.
Minutes later, Maulana Masood Azhar (who in less than two years would plan the attack on the Indian Parliament), Omar Saeed Sheikh (who would go on to kidnap and decapitate journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002), and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar (or “Latram” as he was known in the Kashmir Valley where he had three dozen murder cases registered against him) were taken out of the jeep. They were the last to emplane.
In many ways, their flight to freedom would, in the months and years to come, change the very nature of insurgency in the Kashmir Valley.
“The minute we gave in, India became a soft state,” an apoplectic Farooq Abdullah, who was chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir during the hijacking of IC 814, would tell me later. He had phoned LK Advani, the then home minister, to vehemently oppose the release of the terrorists.
“Yeh desh ke saath gaddari hai ( is is a betrayal of the nation),” he told Advani. Farooq’s impression was that Advani himself was not comfortable with the decision but if that were the case, Advani did not let on.
Threatening to resign, he told the state’s governor, Girish Saxena, that he could not continue as chief minister if the men were released from Jammu’s Kot Balwal prison on his watch. “Hindustan ka janaaza niklega ( is is as good as taking out India’s funeral procession),” he shouted at the governor. Finally, AS Dulat, India’s RAW chief at the time (and Farooq’s golfing buddy) was dispatched to the state to convince the chief minister that this was the only way to save lives. It was five hours before Farooq relented. But not before giving them a dire warning. “We were already weak; now we are finished.”
So began a new and bloody phase of militant violence in Jammu and Kashmir.
Four months later, a seventeen-year-old student from downtown Srinagar, Afaq Ahmed Shah, the quiet, somewhat reclusive son of a teacher who had dreams of becoming a doctor, drove a stolen red Maruti laden with explosives into the high-security barrier of the army headquarters in Badami Bagh, blowing himself up at the entry gate.
It was the very first suicide attack in the Valley and Masood Azhar’s recently launched terror outfit – the Jaish-e-Mohammed – was quick to own responsibility. Previous “fidayeen” squads who stormed security installations employed a hit-and-run strategy, leaving themselves a fighting chance of making it out alive. The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which had first unleashed these attacks, stopped short of endorsing suicide as a battle tactic because of the disapproval of taking your own life in Islam.
But when Afaq blew himself up, he became the Valley’s first human bomb, forfeiting the option of survival the moment he accepted the mission. Masood Azhar, now ensconced comfortably in Pakistan, was back in business.
On Christmas day that same year, the Jaish ordered another young suicide bomber to strike at the army barracks in Srinagar. This time, when the bomb exploded, six soldiers and three Kashmiri students returning home for Eid were killed. Thee Zarb-i-Momin, a weekly mouthpiece for the Jaish, eulogised the twenty-four-year- old bomber from Birmingham, Mohammad Bilal, and called him a “martyr”.
This was proof that the attempt by the militants and their sponsors to internationalise the Kashmir issue by locating it within the larger global “jihad” was beginning to make headway. The homespun separatist insurgency of the late eighties and early nineties was moving firmly into the control of foreign hands, simultaneously transforming in nature from the political to the religious. Over the next few years, in graveyards across the Kashmir Valley, I would see tombstones commemorating “fighters” not just from across the border in Pakistan or Kalashnikov-rich Afghanistan, but also from as far away as Sudan and Libya. With the conflict now lurking in the deep shadows of global terrorism, it was often impossible to isolate the enemy.
Excerpted with permission from This Unquiet Land: Stories From India’s Fault Lines, Barkha Dutt, Aleph Book Company.