Celebrations over the release of prisoners on Indian Airlines flight 814, hijacked last month by Kashmiri militants and held for eight hellish days, were brief. Hours after India secured the release of the 188 passengers and crew, the recriminations began. Everyone, from the authorities at the Nepalese airport where the plane was seized to the New Delhi government that agreed to swap the passengers for three jailed militants, has been blamed. And even as questions continue to swirl around the incident, it is plain that many of the charges are justified. But the real cause is the festering wound of Kashmir: That territorial dispute is the chief source of tension in the Indian subcontinent. The hijacking is yet another reminder that there will be no peace there until the problem is resolved. Unfortunately, there is no sign of progress on the issue — and the fallout from the hijacking will only harden the antagonists’ positions.
The crisis began at Katmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, where the Christmas Eve flight originated. The airport is notorious for lax security; apparently, the terrorists boarded the plane virtually unchecked. Forty minutes into the flight, the plane was hijacked. It then hopped from India to Pakistan to Dubai and finally to Afghanistan, where, after seven days on the tarmac in Kandahar, a deal was made. After originally demanding the release of 35 pro-Kashmiri militants and $200 million, they settled for three men, one of whom is alleged to be the brother of one of the hijackers. During the ordeal, one passenger was killed, stabbed to death reportedly for ignoring the hijackers’ order not to look at them.
Many questions hang over the episode. How did the hijackers get their weapons on board? Why was the plane allowed to leave Amritsar in India, where the Indian government could have better controlled the situation? Did the hijackers receive weapons in Kandahar, as alleged by several of the passengers? Finally, who were the hijackers, where did they come from, and where did they and the newly freed militants go?
Despite the many uncertainties, the hijacking has exposed the Kashmir conflict for what it really is: an international conflict capable of poisoning relations throughout the region. Nepal has now been dragged in, as has Afghanistan, compliments over its handling of the situation notwithstanding.
India’s government claims that Pakistan’s intelligence services were behind the incident. It has produced no evidence to substantiate that charge, but says it will do so at the right time. The assertion does not seem far-fetched. Certainly, the hijackers’ enjoy Pakistani sympathies. Their demands coincide with Pakistan’s. Although the government in Islamabad claims no connection to the men and says it will arrest them if they are found on its territory, the odds are slim. Reportedly, Mr. Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, one of the militants freed in the deal, has been seen in Pakistan. If the charge is true, then some sanction is in order: There can be no indifference to state-sponsored terrorism, no matter who the sponsor is.
Some of the Indian government’s anger is intended to deflect criticism of its handling of the incident. New Delhi has been under attack from the start; first for letting the plane escape Indian airspace, then for not talking to the families of hostages and finally for striking a deal that undermined its hardline stance against terrorism. The government’s nationalist credentials — its political strong suit — have been tarnished by its willingness to deal.
Already strained relations between Pakistan and India are going to worsen. No Indian government can now even talk peace without inviting further domestic criticism. The results are plainly visible. The Indian Army has stepped up its shelling of Pakistani positions in Kashmir; earlier this week, five civilians were reported killed in the fire.
With U.S. President Bill Clinton expected to visit India in the next three months, violence is likely to intensify as militants attempt to focus international attention on their cause. A bomb blast in Srinigar on Monday, which killed 18 people, is an evil portent. History offers equally depressing lessons: Terrorism increased 10 years ago after five militants were released in exchange for a kidnapped government minister’s daughter.
One good thing may come from this sad incident. The threat of international ostracism for its support of the hijackers, as well as the recent military coup in Islamabad, could tip the scales in Pakistan in favor of signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Other nations should nudge Pakistan and India along that path. It will be difficult work, however: Neither government will permit itself to be pushed — or perceived to be pushed — into a corner. Nevertheless, both might welcome some escape from the mess they have created.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.