Christmas Eve, 1999. Just seven days were left for the turn of the millennium.
The Indian Airlines flight, IC -814, carrying 178 passengers had just taken off from Kathmandu.
For Captain Devi Sharan, it was a routine flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. But soon after the takeoff, the lives of everyone on board changed forever.
Terrorists hijacked the flight. "The moment I turned my face towards the galley, I saw somebody wearing a mask. A bespectacled, short-stature fellow," recalls Anil Sharma, senior flight steward on IC-814.
"Koi harkat nahi honi chaiye. Ye bomb hai udane ke liye (There should be no movement. This is a bomb, to blow up the plane)," the chief hijacker said before ordering Captain Sharan to "fly West".
The hijackers wanted Capt Sharan to land in Lahore, but there wasn't enough fuel. Wary of being linked to the hijackers, Pakistan quickly refused permission to land at Lahore. Capt Sharan told the hijackers that they have to land in Amritsar.
"I felt now (after landing at Amritsar), we will not take off. I was hoping that we will get some kind of assistance there and this hijacking will end in Amritsar," recalls Capt Devi Sharan.
The government did mull assistance for IC-814. "We said to Amritsar that they should have a sniper or a sharpshooter go along with the browser and shoot at the tyres to disable the aircraft. Somehow or the other, this didn't happen. There could be many reasons for it, but none that was communicated to us at the CMG," says Brajesh Misra, former National Security Advisor.
The failure to end the hijack in Amristar proved costly. Local forces were told to wait for the National Security Guard. A deliberate delay in refueling frustrated the hijackers. They threatened to kill all the passengers, starting with Rupin Katyal.
"Pilot ne jahaaj nahi uraya. To all of a sudden kya hota hai ki, mar denge kehne ka baad vo ek Doctor terrorist aata hai to, vo see vo yaha pe Rupin Katyal ki chaati mein usne kaafi zada attempt kar deta. (When the pilot didn't take off, all of a sudden one of the terrorists called 'Doctor' came in and stabbed Rupin Katyal in the chest a number of times)," remembers Daman Soni, one of the passengers on IC-814.
At his end, Capt. Sharan was helpless. "Now I had to take some decision. ATC is not doing anything. I'm not getting any assistance. The browser is not coming in front of the aeroplane and nothing is happening," he recalls.
Getting no help from the Indian security forces or the government, Capt Sharan flew to Lahore without refueling. This time, Pakistan allowed the plane to land, but only to refuel. IC-814 then set course for Kabul.
"We have been hijacked and are headed towards Kabul," was the SOS that came from Captain Singh.
But Kabul had no night-landing facilities and so the hijackers forced the aircraft on to Dubai. There, a few passengers were released and Katyal's body thrown out. Then, with 162 passengers and the crew on board, IC-814 landed at Kandahar, 18 hours after it was hijacked.
"In the morning, I went to the cockpit and saw a lot of different kinds of weapons, different colours of hand grenades. The pedestal was full of bullets." The sight is still fresh in Capt Sharan's memory.
What followed has gone down as the longest hijack in aviation history. But then there were lessons to be learnt. First of all, the hijack of IC-814 was well planned, it caught the entire intelligence machinery unawares. But then, the biggest lapse on the part of the government was its failure to stop the hijackers in Amritsar. In Kandahar, Taliban militia surrounded the plane, pre-empting any Indian commando operation.
This all ensured that the Government of India succumbed to their demands, leaving it ruing the missed opportunity to foil the hijack in Amristar.
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