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January 11, 1999

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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

What's 'hard', what's 'soft'?

After Pokhran II, they dubbed us as warmongers; less than 20 months later, they now dub us as a "soft" State. If the "they" were firangis, the fickle labelling would be understandable, for the foreigner chastises us for almost everything save our ancient civilisation. But when the turn of epithets is flung at us by our own very lot, the blood pressure shoots up.

The recent release of three terrorists to secure the freedom of 155 passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane has evoked condemnatory and derogatory comments from large sections of our press and all politicians in the Opposition. Even that is understandable, for the brunt of our columnists revel in jumping into calumny while our political Opposition believes its dharma is to criticise the government.

What really hurts most and boils the blood is when the RSS chief attacks the terrorists-for-hostages deal as exposing the "cowardice of Hindu society." What, in the name of Ram, did the RSS chief expect the Vajpayee government to do in Kandahar? Invoke the mighty Hanuman to lift Flight 814 bag and baggage to the courtyard of Rashtrapati Bhavan? Or shoot some brahmastra from Delhi at the five hijackers in the plane so as to reduce them to cinders? Or, finally, to hang on to the non-convicted terrorists and let 155 humans be blown to smithereens?

The belief of the RSS chief and some others that the release of the terrorists will demoralise our armed and security forces is also ridiculous. These forces do their duty and let the politicians do theirs, that's all. They are neither foolish nor faint-hearted to let the release of just three terrorists affect them; if they were, so many events in the past --- from Kashmir being let go to the UN when within the army's grasp in 1947 to Kashmir being let go again for the Shimla pact in 1972 --- would have rendered our brave jawans and officers totally incapable of doing what they did in Kargil last year.

If the latest hijack episode has exposed anything conspicuously, it is our public perverse penchant of old: vilify first, verify later, sensationalise first, make sense later, upbraid first, understand later --- if at all. All of this under the banner of democracy and, the latest fad-cum-fashion, "the right to information" --- but only in respect of government's actions, not of private organisations.

Before considering the latest hijack in the light of events that have subsequently emerged, let's look at the past of some so-called "hard" States.

In 1972 at Munich (in Germany), a commando mission tried to rescue nine Israeli Olympians captured by Palestinian terrorists. Result: all the Israeli athletes dead along with five terrorists. Surprise, surprise: lax security by the "super efficient" Germans -- at the Olympic Games Village too --- and failure of "bold and brave" rescue action.

In 1979 at Teheran, Iranian students held the American embassy captive for days on end. Surprise, surprise: the rescue mission --- by the great US of A, no less --- fails.

In 1985, hijackers of a TWA flight (a USA carrier) demand freedom for Shiite prisoners. US President Ronald Reagan plays the tough cowboy of the Wild West, says no deal. Surprise, surprise: 30 prisoners were eventually released.

On December 30, 1999, Israel --- the symbol of the "hard" State --- releases 26 Palestinian prisoners who had earlier murdered Israelis. Surprise, surprise: that release is but a part of the peace accord with Yasser Arafat.

In 1993, operatives of the CIA of the mighty USA were killed outside the gates of the secret agency"s headquarters, the World Trade Centre in New York was bombed and more CIA personnel were killed in Pakistan. The USA thereupon threatened Islamabad with the "terrorist state" label. Surprise, surprise: the world's supercop turned impotent --- even after four more US citizens were killed in Karachi.

So, who the Dickens is hard/soft? Israel? The USA? Or the Palestinians and the Iranian students?

Let"s now look at our latest hijack. It was news, hard news, all right, but Star News sensationalised it without any worthwhile "hard" input. The channel instead went into such a hype of emotion that it mindlessly showed scenes of the cremation of Rupin Katyal, the passenger cold-bloodedly stabbed to death by the masked hijackers. The restiveness and anger of relatives of the passengers held hostage were given extensive exposure without thought to the extreme tension it was spreading in the country. All this without knowledge of the initiatives and steps that the government was taking in what was a bizarre happening pregnant with disaster.

As will be seen, there were very solid reasons why the government was not revealing what it was doing and how the ground situation was constantly evolving. However, those brash young smart-Alecs and smart-Alices of Star thought they and the whole nation had the right to know, then and there -- everything from Jaswant Singh's phone call to Strobe Talbott to Washington"s discreet nudge that facilitated the landing of Flight 814 at Dubai and the release there of 26 hostages.

The English press -- and the regional one that apes it -- was not much better. Views of all kinds were freely allowed to be expressed on a most delicate issue without the opinions being rooted in more than a superficial knowledge of what precisely was happening behind the scenes. Perhaps the worst was a Calcutta daily printing a person's view that he was going off to buy bangles for our 540 MPs.

There was that veteran columnist Inder Malhotra whose arrogance on Star is invariably directly proportionate to his animosity towards the BJP and its coalition government. Malhotra thought Flight 814 being allowed to leave Amritsar was a monumental bungle. He believed a truck or anything else should have been shoved in the path of the plane so as to block it from flying away. Poor chap, he didn't know the hijackers had forced the engines of the plane to keep running and the plane moving. Nor did the old man know had the fuel tanker (sent apparently not to re-fuel the plane, but actually to block the plane) not suddenly screeched to a halt, the hijackers would not have panicked and forced the pilot to take off -- narrowly missing the tanker by a few feet.

Indeed, judging by the hijackers's brutal tendency, evidenced by Katyal's killing and re-experienced at Dubai by Sheikh Makhtoom, a member of the UAE royalty, Malhotra's plan would have blown up Flight 814 and all at Amritsar --- leaving the old man free to comment that the government should have used diplomacy rather than bravado to tackle the situation!

The reality, it now transpires, was that, unknown to the media and, therefore to the public, the government was hardly in slumber during the crisis. Indeed, the following fabric of action pursued by the Vajpayee government does it quite proud:

The Crisis Management Group was in session at 6 pm, 45 minutes after the hijack. When, within minutes, it deduced from the pilot's radio message that the plane would have to land at Amritsar if only to refuel in view of Lahore refusing landing permission, it instructed the National Security Guard at 6.25 pm to leave for Amritsar and engage the plane there -- this was 36 minutes before the plane actually landed at Amritsar.

The NSG Task Force was ready to fly off at 7.10 pm -- with enough time to engage the hijackers at Amritsar. The absence of two negotiators of RAW (India's external intelligence agency) delayed the NSG and when, 30 minutes later, the CMG instructed it to proceed without the RAW negotiators, it was too late to stop the plane from leaving Amritsar.

The CMG maintained its directive to Amritsar to immobilise the plane. Armed personnel of the Punjab police were already in position to force the issue and would have done so but for the fuel tanker's screeching halt (mentioned earlier) when it had instead been instructed to slow down, not stop altogether.

Jaswant Singh, the external affairs minister, spoke to 15 foreign ministers in just a few days in order to seek a variety of assistance on the crisis --- including influencing international opinion and contemplating military action with US help at Dubai that did not become operational because the hijackers quickly took off for Kandahar.

Yes, the NSG waiting for the two RAW negotiators and the latter not showing up were major blunders. However, it is at best only speculation whether the hijackers, widely recognised as fanatics and desperados, would have succumbed to the NSG; chances are they would have blown up everything, men and machine, women and children. And then what would the RSS chief have said? What would Malhotra have said on the idiot box? Besides, if the mighty USA security couldn't catch a Chinese stealing nuclear secrets over a long period and if all its surveillance gadgetry couldn't detect Pokhran II, why should we decry and degrade ourselves so much over the real or imagined failure at Amritsar?

The irony, as usual, is while the private sector media, and, therefore, the public, expects the vast government organisation to be perfect, accountable to the public and transparent, the press and television outfits succeed in constantly getting away with their own bureaucracy and inefficiency and much else.

See what Star News and Zee News did on the fifth day of the hijack crisis. Both of them reported the release of all the hostages in Kandahar. Both quoted CNN for the report. CNN lost its shirt and denied putting out any such news. Have heads rolled in Star and Zee? And to think that a Star ad exhorts us daily to rely on them because they rely on experience!

Arrogance and addiction to controversy doesn't constitute experience, Mr Prannoy Roy. And does the public have the right to know the progress on the government investigation regarding some financial dealings of yours, Mr Roy?

Take just one more example. According to a report filed by a special corespondent of The Hindu on December 30, the number of taxpayers in the country had reached 2 billion by the end of November 1999, and was expected to go up to 2.5 billion by March-end of 2000. This, wrote the special correspondent, was what the finance minister said at some meeting in New Delhi.

It is clear that, on that particular day, The Hindu's special correspondent, chief reporter, news editor, and chief sub-editor (who must in all cost Rs 150,000 or so a month to the newspaper) became totally na´ve or negligent to believe that the number of taxpayers in a country can be twice or two-and-a-half times that of the country's population. What is the accountability of such supercilious "professionals" in inflicting such bullshit on a million and more readers?

May one then request the entire Indian public not to hijack perspective and patience from now on? If what is "hard" can become "soft" in just about 20 months, what is "soft" can surely be transformed into "hard" in two weeks. Remember, circumstances alter cases.

Arvind Lavakare

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