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December 30, 1999
Them and UsOn Friday, December 24, yours truly boarded an Indian Airlines flight from Delhi to Bangalore. The plane took off at 4.50 pm or thereabouts, and the seatbelts sign was switched off around 5.05 or thereabouts. And, as is usual on planes carrying Indians, the moment the air-hostess began saying something to the effect of "kursi ki peti ki sanket ab bandh kiya gaya hain. parantu apni suraksha ke liye kursi ki peti baandhe rakhna hi uchit hain," the moment the hawaai-sundari began saying this, a tough-looking guy got up from one of the front rows and proceeded menacingly towards... the toilet.
Call it a macabre instinct or whatever, but when Mr Macho stood up so threateningly, a feat pretty easy to accomplish if a six-foot Punjabi squeezed into an economy class seat suddenly finds an entire aisle to fill, when Mr macho stood up so threateningly, the first thought that passed my mind was, "God, it's been such a long time since we had a really good hijacking." Trust me, I'm not lying. These are thoughts that pass through every reporter's mind all the time, although few of them will admit it publicly. It probably what makes us such stinking cynics, but it prepares for the worst most of the time, and it helps.
Our plane landed in Bangalore around 7.15 pm or thereabouts, and although Captain Madan Lal may have been aware all through the two-and-a-half hour flight of what had happened to his colleague on IC-814 between Kathmandu and New Delhi, he kept us all blissfully in the dark. Probably so that none of us would get any ideas. So imagine my surprise when, upon reaching home, the mother says her heart was doing such a dhak, dhak at the news of the hijacking that she switched from her usual soap and watched BBC for a change to hear it for sure that it wasn't our plane which had been taken to Amritsar.
I'm not claiming prescience or anything -- although when I was a kid my parents were aghast when a neighbour checked my tongue for moles (there are two) because apparently I would say things which would uncannily come true. So, although the hijacking wish came good much to my disgust, I believe the wrong passengers are on board judging from the government's tardy response. So please find underneath the 75 passengers who ought to have been on this flight but weren't. Even if just a couple of them were on the plane, believe me, the agony of the passengers and the trauma of their relatives would have ended on day one. And we wouldn't have been subject to this charade.
But a disclaimer to start with: I do not wish any of these 75 hypothetical passengers any physical harm -- now or in the future. Far from it. What I wish to know is had they been on IC-814, would the hijacked plane have been allowed to take off from Amritsar?
Would a negotiating team have been sent after the first deadline had lapsed?
Would the government have waited for four days to establish contact with the hijackers to ascertain their demands?
Would it have so categorically rejected the demand to release the "Moslem cleric" Maulana Masood Azhar?
Would Sq Ldr Ajay Ahuja's wife have met the prime minister and reminded him of her husband's grisly death at the hand of Kashmir freedom-fighters during the "war-like situation" in Kargil?
Would Jai Prakash Agarwal of the "Surya Foundation" have held a press conference where he and other "security experts" would urge the government to not buckle in to the pressure and set a bad precedent?
Would the government have sat on its adipose for five nights and six days had these 75, instead of those poor souls sitting inside that stinking plane in Kandahar, been on board?
The answers are no, no, no, no, no, no and no. Respectively. Because as the response to the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping and to this hijacking proves, there's one rule for us mere mortals, and one rule for them.
So, here goes my fantasy passenger manifest of 75, one for each year of the prime minister's existence on this planet, a celebration of which was duly spoilt by the hijacking. All those who fly Indian Airlines are henceforth advised to "identify their VVIP baggage" everytime they board the aircraft. Because only the presence of such VVIPs could propel this government (motto "Rely on Us. We rely on inexperience") to act and act fast in the best interests of the paying public. Remember: if five/six nuclear bombs couldn't stop Kargil, it isn't going to stop some crazed hijacker. We need a couple of VVIPs on every flight. Just in case.
Call this my wish-list for the new year of the new century of the new millennium.
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