It’s New Year’s Eve 1999, a much-anticipated evening before the New Millennium.
India’s then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh didn’t think he would be spending that evening on a flight to Kandahar, Afghanistan of all places.
But this was no ordinary flight. Accompanying him onboard were three terrorists, who had been released from Indian prisons just hours earlier.
The reason – they were part of a swap deal for 160 passengers and crew members on board the Indian Airlines Flight (IC 814) that had been hijacked eight days earlier.
Just how did the government of India allow the exchange of terrorists for the hostages?
I seek to evaluate the case of the hijack of flight IC 814 through the lens of ‘group decision making’ and the ‘rational actor model’, looking closely at the issue of ‘time’ in crucial high stress national security decision-making.
It’s Christmas Eve (24 December 1999) and passengers are in a festive spirit as they board the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi, India.
It’s a short, routine one hour and forty minutes flight, but it would never reach its final destination.
On entering Indian skies, five armed men accosted the cabin crew and pilots. The flight was hijacked and the instructions were to fly westward and not land on Indian soil.
After alerting air traffic control, flight captain Devi Sharan slowed down the aircraft speed by 40 per cent. In the guise of needing more fuel, he landed in Amritsar.
Meanwhile in New Delhi, a Crisis Management Group (CMG) was set up.
The group was chaired by Cabinet Secretary Prabhat Kumar. Other members included A.S. Dulat, head of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW); Nikhil Kumar, chief of the National Security Guard (NSG); Deputy Prime Minister & Home Minister L.K Advani; Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh; Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav; and senior BJP leader Arun Shourie. The meeting was organised by National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, who was also Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s chief security advisor.
Defence Minister George Fernandes was not a prominent part of the group and was largely ignored during the decision-making process.
The news of the hijack was communicated to PM Vajpayee 100 minutes later, causing a severe time-lag in crucial information sharing.
The government was intimated of the hijack at 4.40 pm. The Crisis Management Group (CMG) learnt about it at 5.30 pm and decided to meet at 6.00 pm.
Punjab Police chief Sarabjit Singh alerted the CMG that commandos trained in anti-terrorism operations can storm the aircraft. But he didn’t get the go-ahead. Instead, the preference was to have elite NSG commandos fly in from New Delhi.
The NSG were told to get ready to depart for Amritsar at 6.25 pm. The forces were ready to depart at 7.10 pm. At 7.40 pm, the CMG told NSG to leave. The NSG left at 7.55 pm. However, it was too late.
The hijackers, suspicious of the time it was taking to refuel and of the fast speeding tanker getting in the way, demanded that the pilot take off or hostages would be killed. With a gun to his head and with no immediate help from the special forces, captain Sharan took a brazen decision and took off towards Pakistan.
The NSG commandos reached Amritsar an hour after the hijacked plane had departed.
The Punjab Police were left in the lurch for the 40 minutes that the aircraft stayed on tarmac. Reports later confirmed that the police chief was not contacted at all about the CMG’s decision.
For 55 minutes, from 5.30 pm. to 6.25 pm, when it seemed that the hijacked plane could land at Amritsar, the CMG operated without urgency.
The CMG erred on two crucial counts and fell into the ‘bounded rationality’ trap.
First, it failed to factor the aircraft leaving Amritsar without refueling. It also hadn’t calculated for reserve fuel.
The aircraft had been turned away from Pakistani airspace by Lahore Air-Traffic Control. Pakistan and India had just fought a bitter Kargil War six months ago, and wanted nothing to do with what it saw as an Indian crisis.
The Vajpayee government had little choice but to turn to traditional diplomatic ties.
Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh asked Pakistan for safe passage for some hostages (women and children) in Lahore. Pakistani authorities promised to refuel the aircraft on the condition it would leave their airspace immediately.
India contacted the Americans whose pressure made the UAE government allow the aircraft to land in Dubai. The hijackers released 26 hostages, including the slain body of one of the male passengers, instead of all 70 women and children that they had promised.
R&AW chief AS Dulat said with the Americans on Christmas week, there was no real help from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Indian government requested the UAE if they could conduct a military raid on the aircraft. The request was blatantly denied. With no assistance from Pakistan, the US or the UAE, the government of India found itself battling an uphill battle.
IC814 would soon take off once again – this time for Kandahar, Afghanistan. New Delhi was about to face its biggest diplomatic hurdle: of negotiating with the Taliban government – an Islamic fundamentalist militia regime that India did not recognise and was one of its most vocal critics.
Analysing the decision to release three terrorists
New Delhi had identified that the five hijackers belonged to Harkat-Ul-Mujhaideen, with links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
On 26 December, PM Vajpayee boldly told reporters: “My government will not bend before such a terror.”
The hijackers demanded the release of Pakistani terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar (the secretary of the terror group) along with 35 other militants who were captured and incarcerated in Indian prisons. In addition, a ransom of $200 million was demanded.
Decision makers in New Delhi found themselves in the firing line from the relatives of the hostages. Each day, more pressure arrived.
PM Vajpayee was a defeated man and with little cards to play with, he agreed to send a team of negotiators to Afghanistan led by Intelligence Bureau (IB) head and future National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.
The Taliban authorities, in an attempt to gain international recognition, agreed to co-operate and took the role of mediators between the hijackers and the Indian government. Miraculously, they got the hijackers to drop their demand for the money and reduce the number of militants to be released from 36 to three.
A 40-minute high level cabinet meeting was scheduled for 28 December.
PM Vajpayee, under the ‘rational actor model’, prioritises the safety of the hostages and agrees to release the three terrorists in exchange for the 160-odd passengers. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh is told to accompany the terrorists to Afghanistan and bring back the hostages.
This doesn’t go down well with the other decision makers.
Dulat thinks it’s worst deal for India. Jaswant Singh, initially not a fan, finally agrees. NSA Brajesh Mishra says if the government had not negotiated, there would be more casualties.
Advani is seething. He later writes a two-page letter to the PM saying the swap will make India a soft target for future attacks. Fernandes is appalled that the government hasn’t taken a more hardline stance.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah warns of future dangers if these men are released. The three terrorists – Maulana Masood, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar – were arrested for terrorist activities in Kashmir, and two of them were incarcerated in the state. He doesn’t agree with the decision but his silence is seen as assent.
The ‘rational’ swap
The terrorists are flown to Afghanistan and released as free men. The government sees the exchange of three for 160 as a victory.
Of the terrorists released, Omar Sheikh went on to finance one of the hijackers of the 9/11 attacks and the kidnap and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Maulana Masood Azhar formed Jaish-e-Mohammed, which carried out the dastardly Parliament attacks in 2001, the 2016 attacks on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, and targeted CRPF jawans in 2019 in Pulwama. The combined death toll exceeded more than 200.
Knowing what they know now, was this a case of bounded rationality by the Vajpayee government to take this crucial decision to release these terrorists in a swap exchange?
Years later, Jaswant Singh addressed this issue in his book India at Crisis.
Using the rational actor model, he says national security decisions are not made in black or white; instead, they are made in multiple shades of grey. More often than not, decisions are made between bad and less bad decisions. The decision to release three terrorists is no doubt bad, but he added the decision to not do anything and risk the lives of 160 innocent civilians is very bad. No responsible democratic government would risk the latter. If given a choice again, he would always lean towards saving lives.
The author is a former business and international news reporter with Channel NewsAsia and was based in Singapore. He is currently based in the US and is a two-time TEDx speaker and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts. He tweets @Akshobh. Views are personal.