New Delhi: Countering former Union finance and external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha’s claim that Mamata Banerjee had offered to go to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to secure the release of hostages on the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in 1999, his cabinet colleagues at the time have said Banerjee had made no such offer in ministerial meetings.
Former BJP leader Sinha had made this claim while joining Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Sunday, ahead of the West Bengal assembly elections, and hailed her “fighting spirit”.
However, senior BJP leader Shanta Kumar, food and consumer affairs minister at the time, insisted no such discussions took place in the cabinet meeting, since it was a matter for the Cabinet Committee on Security to decide, and then-external affairs minister Jaswant Singh was handling the entire operation.
“No such offer was made in the cabinet meeting, to the best of my best knowledge. No such conversation happened in the cabinet meeting when the plane was hijacked. Even after the crisis ended, no such thing came to my attention,” Kumar, also the former CM of Himachal Pradesh, said.
Other ministers also contradict Sinha
Other members of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet in 1999 ThePrint spoke to also said no such conversation took place among ministers, or that Mamata Banerjee, the railways minister at the time, made an offer to go to Kandahar to secure the release of hostages. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was an alliance partner of the BJP at the time.
Then-petroleum minister Ram Naik, environment minister Suresh Prabhu, labour minister Satyanarayan Jatiya, and even tribal affairs minister Jual Oram all said the deliberations took place in the CCS — consisting of PM Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and defence minister George Fernandes — and not in the cabinet, and if Mamata Banerjee made the offer in a meeting with Vajpayee, they had no knowledge of it.
“The CCS was discussing the matter once the incident took place, not the cabinet,” Prabhu told ThePrint.
Jatiya added: “Maybe Mamata ji expressed her emotions before Yashwant Sinha privately, but no such offer was made in cabinet. Since the matter was being handled by Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes and principal secretary/national security advisor Brajesh Mishra, there was no need to deliberate in the cabinet.”
However, Arun Shourie, who became a minister in the Vajpayee government in 2003, defended Sinha, who, like him, has been estranged from the BJP. Shourie said if Sinha is saying Banerjee made the offer, the matter must be treated with gravity as his memory of minutes and details was sound.
The 1999 hijack
On 24 December 1999, six men hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 en route from Kathmandu to New Delhi. There were 178 passengers and 11 crew members on board, and the hijackers demanded the release of 36 terror-linked prisoners in exchange for the release of the hostages.
The aircraft made halts at Amritsar, Lahore and Dubai, where the hijackers released 27 passengers, plus an injured passenger and the body of one man who had been stabbed to death. The aircraft, an Airbus A300, then landed at Kandahar in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The entire hijack incident lasted eight days.
Jaswant Singh detailed the events of the hijack in his book A Call to Honour, mentioning how he heard the news after reaching home from office, and when he was about to leave to see his granddaughter who was born that day.
An urgent CCS meeting was called at the PM’s residence, and he spent two days calling up Pakistan’s foreign minister Abdul Sattar, trying to prevent the flight from leaving Dubai, and contacting US secretary of state Strobe Talbott to use his influence in the Arab world and with the powerful Saudis to stop the plane from taking off again.
He said two days were wasted because the entire Western world was on holiday for Christmas, and because the Kandahar air traffic control was communicating in Persian, for which the Ministry of External Affairs did not have language resources.
Jaswant Singh’s ministry then sent one official from Islamabad to Kandahar to establish a link with the hijackers, following which negotiations started. Eventually, the hijackers agreed to the release of just three terrorists, including Masood Azhar, and three officials — Vivek Katju, the joint secretary of the MEA’s Pakistan-Afghanistan desk; Ajit Doval, the intelligence officer who was one of the main negotiators and rose to be National Security Advisor; and RAW officer and later chief C.D. Sahay — unanimously requested that someone should be on the spot to take a decision if the situation changes.
Jaswant Singh wrote: “I was naturally inclined to go as it was MEA’s responsibility.”
In the 31 December CCS meeting, it was decided to release the three terrorists and that Jaswant Singh would go to Kandahar to take on-the-spot decisions. He travelled with the terrorists and officials and the hostages were released.
But in Singh’s book, the entire chapter on the hijack doesn’t mention any other politician offering to go to Kandahar, though on a lighter note, he mentioned when he called up his son, he offered to go and negotiate with the hijackers.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)