During the hijacking of Indian Airlines IC814 to Khandahar in Afghanistan in 1999 one of the men India freed in return for the hostages was Maulana Masood Azhar, who had been jailed in Kashmir on terror-related charges. He returned to Pakistan and floated the Jaish-e-Mohammad and that outfit carried out the deadly Parliament attack in 2001.
C D Sahay, who was the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing at that time, spoke of the events that led up to the Parliament attack. In this interview with rediff.com's Vicky Nanjappa, Sahay points out that the Khandahar incident and the Parliament attack cannot be linked with each other. The hijack was not aimed at destabilising the nation, but the only objective was to secure Masood Azhar's release.
Ten years down and questions are being asked whether our investigators have failed to put out the real picture regarding the attack on Parliament. What are your thoughts on the issue?
You should understand that the Parliament attack was a very well planned operation and hence the leads that came out during the investigation were extremely limited. You cannot even compare it to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in which one terrorist was caught alive. Most of the evidence in the 26/11 attack rested on the confession of Ajmal Kasab and the case was built up on the basis of that.
However, in the Parliament attack that was not the case and all the five terrorists were killed and hence it was a very difficult case to investigate. The investigation was based on the information gathered through which we could reach the planners of the attack. Looking at this I would say that our agencies did a very credible job during this investigation.
Do you think that our agencies were in a hurry to close this case?
I would not say that. They have gone about their job well, picked up and followed the leads properly. The fact that we did not arrest any of the attackers was a constraint on the quality of the evidence that came the way of our probe agencies.
Do you think it was an intelligence failure?
I would say that the intelligence levels in our country at that point in time were deficient. Almost all matters pertaining to terrorism rested largely with the central intelligence agency. The state agencies never played an active role and they thought all matters pertaining to terrorism needs to be handled through telephone intercepts and the inputs provided by central agencies. This was the biggest problem at that time.
How do you compare the Parliament attack to the 26/11 attacks?
Both were very big attacks. However, I feel that the Parliament attack was a more serious one when compared to the 26/11 attacks. They challenged Parliament directly which means they were trying to hit at the democratic set up of the nation. Economies can be built, but if democracy is hit, it takes forever to build it up. The terrorists were trying to hit at our democratic values and thankfully they did not succeed. Look at countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh and how they are struggling to build up their democracy. However, when I look back I do not think that the Parliament attack raised the national concern that it should have. I just wish that more action was taken after the Parliament attack like what was done after the 26/11 attacks.
Now coming to the Khandahar incident. Do you think India was seen as a soft state by releasing prisoners in exchange for the passengers and this eventually led up to the Parliament attack?
Khandahar was one part of the story. The limited objective was to secure the release of Maulana Masood Azhar. There were four attempts prior to this which attempted his release and it was an ongoing affair. The objective of the hijacking was not to destabilise the nation, but to secure the release of one man. However in the Parliament attack the symbol of our nation was attacked. There are many who speak about IC 814 and there are arguments galore whether this could have been handled in some other way.
I was continuously associated with this incident and I have no hesitation in admitting that we were in a box. We had no other way of dealing with it because the persons who hijacked the plane had the support of the structure of a state. The entire state and machinery was sympathetic to their cause. All through we were not negotiating with the hijackers. We were negotiating with the Inter Services Intelligence. Every conversation that we even shared with the hijackers was being bounced back to Mullah Omar and the ISI. It was Pakistan and the Taliban which was working together here and they were deciding on how to package the entire show to get Azhar released.
There have been allegations that India was soft during this operation.
We could not possibly launch a commando operation. The hijackers were welcome at Afghanistan and not us. We were looked at as terrorists. We did the best we could at that time and our objective was to save those who were taken hostage.
The question of war arose after the Parliament attack which eventually ended with an eyeball to eyeball confrontation between the two countries. What is your take on this?
This would be subjective as many believe that we should gone ahead and attacked Pakistan. There are some who also believe that war was not the solution as it does not result in anything. However, those with a defence background felt that it was time to teach Pakistan a lesson. We could have fought the war for 20 days, but the world is a different place and we would not have been allowed to fight that long.
I am not trying to suggest that we should have remained soft so as to compromise on the core national interest. But one also needs to moderate the assessment. I for one feel that going to war would not have solved the problem.
So did we convey any message at the end of it after having our Parliament attacked?
Of course we did send a very strong message. The kind of mobilisation we had on the border did send a very strong message. Pakistan was worried sick as they realised that they could not match us. They saw the kind of mobilisation that was taking place and what worried them further that we did so at a very short notice. This probably was the biggest mobilisation in independent India. The message was well sent out.
Do you think that India has changed its approach after this attack?
There are claims that we are ready. However, I still have very serious doubts that the structures that have been set up after 26/11 especially will stand the real test of any further attack.