DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Monday, January 19, 2009

Time to shun partisan politics


Ever since Liela Khaled of Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine hijacked a TWA flight in 1969 many planes have been hijacked around the world. India, too, has had its share of hijacks but the one which is never allowed to remain buried in the sands of history is the hijack on Christmas eve of 1999 of IC 814, the Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi. What distinguished this hijack from others is the fact that, at the end of the tortuous hard bargaining, Jaswant Singh, the then Indian External Affairs Minister, travelled to Kandahar Airport with the three terrorists whom the Indian Government agreed to release in exchange for the freedom of the passengers held there as hostages.

With 177 passengers and 11 crew members the hijackers forced the pilot to fly to Kandahar via Amritsar, Lahore and Dubai. The passengers, one of whom was killed on the way and his body unceremoniously dropped off the aircraft at Dubai, became objects for a trade off against 36 terrorists held in Indian prisons. Unless that was done, the hijackers threatened, they would blow up the plane. The lengthy negotiations that ensued eventually ended with Indian government agreeing to release only three, though dreaded, terrorists, viz. Mushtaq Ahmed Zergar, Ahmed Omer Sheikh and Maulana Masood Azhar. While Masood Azhar was later alleged to be the mastermind of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, Ahmed Omer Sheikh was widely perceived to be responsible for the kidnapping and, later, murder of Daniel Pearle, the Mumbai correspondent of the Wall Street Journal.

This hijack has been flogged ad nauseam by the Congress Party to run down and denigrate its opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the dog-eat-dog world of Indian politics politicians cannot let go of an opportunity to snap at each other. No sooner had the leader of the Opposition happened to accuse the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in the last session of the Parliament of being soft on terror Congressman Kapil Sibal harked back to the 1999 hijack. In a classical instance of one-upmanship, he wanted that the Opposition, National Democratic Alliance (NDA), should apologise to the people for not only freeing three terrorists, some of whom later perpetrated even more vicious acts of terror, including the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, but also had them shamefully “escorted” personally by the country’s External Affairs minister. As is their wont, regardless of their assurances to the contrary given earlier, politicians started barking at each other.

Later, claiming firmness in handling of the Mumbai attackers, Digvijay Singh, another Congress biggy, a general secretary to boot, asserted that his party led-government refused to negotiate with the Mumbai attackers. He went on to claim that, yielding no quarter to the attackers, the government had them eliminated. The innuendo was clearly directed at the NDA. However, the question of any negotiations with the attackers never arose because they had never made any demand. During his interrogation the captured terrorist, Ajmal Amir Quasab, has also asserted that the mandate given to him and others with him did not include putting forth any demand.
In the highly competitive politics truth is often the casualty and bluff and bluster occupy centre stage. That the then fledgling NDA government was faced with an extraordinary situation was never so much as mentioned. The unseemly demonstrations by the relatives of the passengers, covertly stoked by some of those in the Opposition, sustained right through the better part of the week asking for total surrender, including ceding of Kashmir (to Pakistan) and the inexperience of the government which had just assumed power have never been referred to. Curiously, even Jaswant Singh’s unpleasant trip, undertaken only because of his keenness to ensure safe release of the hostages, was also given a malicious twist.

And, the fact that terrorists had earlier been released in exchange for hostages is conveniently forgotten. In the early 1990s five terrorists were released from Kashmir jails to free the abducted Rubaiya Saeed, daughter of the then Indian Home Minster, Mufti Mohammed Saeed. Sibal (or others of his ilk) have never made a mention of it as his Party not only ran until recently a coalition government with the Mufti’s party in Kashmir, the latter has also been one of its allies in the UPA until the other day. That is precisely what politics is about – to obfuscate, dissemble and misrepresent to keep the opposition down.

In their petty squabbles politicians tend to forget that the misfortune that befell the NDA government can chance upon any regime. Given our lackadaisical way of functioning, a bomb blast, a terror attack, a high-profile abduction or a hijack are eminently possible. A number of terrorists, including one captured alive on 26/11 and another in the death row, continue to languish in Indian prisons. An attempt to free them is very much on the cards. There were several attempts to get Masood Azhar out of the Jammu prison. Their failure led to the IC 814 hijack as we never woke up to the threat his incarceration posed.

Jihadies and their promoters in the Pakistani establishment do not distinguish between this regime or that. They seem to have an unqualified antipathy for India, an entity that they keenly desire to Islamise. India’s multi-culturalism, its pluralist society and its economic progress despite all its handicaps are what bug them. What is more, they simply hate India and could even launch attacks out of sheer hatred for it. Already a formation for promoting hatred for India has become operational in Pakistan.

If our politicians are really interested in doing good to the people – and they keep claiming all the while that they do so – they need to shun their narrow partisan agendas and cooperate with each other in devising ways and means to achieve what they claim. The need of the hour is ensuring security of life and property of the people. And, this is precisely what politicians of all shades neglected while they bickered all the time. To make itself secure the country needs to pull itself by its boot-straps. From plugging the porous land and sea frontiers to creation of a well-oiled internal security apparatus with all its concomitant paraphernalia – there is enormous amount of work lying ahead before the country’s political bosses.

With neighbours on its two flanks harbouring hostile elements the country cannot visualise a future without terror and/or devious attempts to bleed it and retard its progress. Unflinching vigilance is necessary – a price that has to be paid to ensure to the citizens freedom from fear and anxiety. It is, therefore, time politicians stopped playing politics with national security. People want no less, for the security disaster that “26/11” was has made them angry – yes, at none other than the politicians.


Published online by Indian News & Features Alliance, New Delhi, on 9th January 2009

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