Twilight Zone

Twilight Zone

I:     Diplomatic intrigue

II:    The underworld warlord

III:   Working on the Gurkhas

IV:   The auctioned airport

V:    Down with India!

VI:   The Naxal connection

VIII: The ambassador speaks

From Nepal Home Page

The hijack and the Kathmandu connection

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

    The mission in Uganda, in one short hour, strengthened the backbone of the Jewish people and the whole Free World. This was the time when the fate of a nation was determined in one hour by a small band of brave men.

-- Israeli defence minister Shimon Peres (1976) after the Entebbe raid which freed hijacked Israeli hostages.

E-Mail this special report to a friend The waiting-to-happen hijack of the Indian Airlines Airbus was both a pity and a miracle. A miracle because it had not happened so far. And a pity that, had it happened earlier, the Central Bureau of Investigation team sent to Kathmandu would, long ago, have uncovered the Inter-Services Intelligence network in Nepal.

Counter-skyjacking consists mainly of two operations: intelligence and security and Psywar. India failed in both. Further, a dangerous and delicate mission requires guts, guile and experience. And, most of all, a willingness to learn. India lacked all these.

Before King Birendra's coronation in 1975, security in Nepal, Kathmandu in particular, was watertight. As the Royal procession was to be exposed to extended public glare, King Birendra was advised to see the movie based on Fredrick Forsyth's novel, The Day of The Jackal. He did, several times over. So it is not true that Nepalese security is always lax.

One wonders whether any Indian leader or bureaucrat involved in the recent hijack crisis had any clue of how, in 1976, the Israelis stage-managed Operation Thunderbolt, the world's most spectacular strike against terrorism at Entebbe. This will, no doubt, figure in Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh's forthcoming trip to Israel. But then, that's closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In another spectacular failure of Indian intelligence and security, the ISI was allowed to do a Kargil in Kathmandu and not, as is made out, at Kandahar. Barely three months earlier, the same IC 814, carrying Jaswant Singh then, could have been hijacked just as easily.

The ISI's members have extensively cultivated Nepalese police, intelligence personnel and bureaucrats, all this in the face of a large Indian intelligence set up in Kathmandu, including the Research and Analysis Wing and Military Intelligence.

This writer entered Nepal the day the Airbus was hijacked and travelled in the country till much after the Indian capitulation in Kandahar. The general reaction of the Nepalese press and people was not so much one of shock and surprise as it was about the failure of Indian intelligence, inaction at Amritsar and the safety of the five Nepalese passengers.

Anyone familiar with the geniality and easy work-style of the Nepalese won't be surprised by the cheerful confusion and the laidback culture at the Tribhuvan International Airport.

Speak about the X-ray machines that were not working during the security check for the hijacked flight and the Nepalese argue, "It was the same security for all the other airlines too. No one has stopped India from conducting its own additional security checks." But Nepal has indeed repeatedly disallowed India from carrying out ladder-point security checks.

Many imaginative versions of how the hijackers deplaned from the PIA aircraft are doing the rounds in Nepal. The most popular is that ISI operatives whisked them off the earlier PIA flight, took them to the Pakistan embassy and then put them on board the delayed IC 814 without violating the departure SOP.

How do the ISI and the Pakistan embassy exercise such influence, and enjoy an importance and size of operation disproportionate to their stated interests and official activities in Nepal? And why does Nepal generally ignore Indian complaints of ISI activities in Nepal beyond ritually reiterating that it will not permit any activity inimical to India's security from its soil?

The ISI made its formal debut in Nepal in 1989 as part of its third proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. At the time, due to the Indian economic blockade of Nepal that led to the restoration of democracy, relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb. Nepal was badly hurt by the economic crisis, especially the poor there. Its China card was gradually weakening. So, as a shortsighted gain, Nepal chose to play the Pakistan card instead. There were other spin-offs: Funds from Islamic countries and a growing Muslim vote bank. By 1994, the seven-member Pak embassy in Kathmandu, which included a defence advisor, had become the hub of ISI operations.

For over 200 years, Kathmandu was regarded as the intrigue capital of the warring factions in the kingdom. In orgies of mayhem and massacres, Rana rulers, led by Jung Bahadur, outdid one another. In 1919, a British foreign office document noted: 'Nepal is in a position to exercise powerful influence in Indian internal politics and if it were disaffected the anarchy could spill over.'

Britain was playing the Great Game in high Asia to checkmate Russia and China. Kathmandu soon became the playground for international intrigue, crawling with intelligence operatives and undercover agents from many countries. More lately, Nepal has acted as a window to Tibet and China, even more so after the return of Hong Kong to China.

Nepal's Terai has served as a staging post for a deeper sanctuary inside Nepal. All kinds of fugitives, from several countries, have found refuge there.

The ISI game plan flowered in late 1993, with a secret anti-India project called Operation Tufail run from the premises of the two-star Hotel Karnali in Kathmandu. The hotel was managed by a Pakistani couple who took orders from one Brigadier Anis Bajwa of the ISI in Rawalpindi. This name, elevated in rank for service in Nepal, resurfaced during the Kargil war.

On January 9, 1994, Nepalese intelligence and revenue officials raided the Karnali Hotel and recovered a cache of photographs and secret documents pertaining to Tufail. The Nepalese press was full of it.

As a result, Indian Military Intelligence and RAW realised that a comprehensive network run by the ISI was in place. It dabbled in business ventures to Islamic organisations and NGOs, and the whole show was run by the Pakistan embassy. With PIA providing the transport.

Much of the money-laundering, drug-running, gold smuggling, counterfeit currency and small-arms businesses there are controlled by the ISI. The agency has established field bases in the Terai on the Indo-Nepal border, stretching from Dhangarhi in the west to Biratnagar in the east.

Following the Tufail blow-up, Indian defence and home secretaries visited Kathmandu and voiced concern on the ISI's activities there. Even after the Tufail case, Nepal insisted on proof-specific details of ISI activity first. Though there have been several subsequent complaints, India has not emphatically pushed them forward. So the ISI has grown from strength to strength and so has the Muslim population in Nepal.

India and Nepal have a deep and abiding relationship, without parallel in the world. Which is why Nepali Gurkhas, fighting under the Indian flag, battled Muslim terrorists at Kargil. These terrorists are the very group of brigands that hijacked Flight 814 from Kathmandu. There are nearly 100,000 Gurkha pensioners and an equal number of serving soldiers from Nepal whose welfare is the prime responsibility of the military wing of the Indian mission in Kathmandu.

Recently, there was a distress call after a landslide in Syangja district, the heart of Indian Gurkha recruitment in Nepal. Although the Indian relief package arrived first, Pakistan made a more substantive contribution soon after. This overt display of humanitarian concern by Pakistan in a sensitive area is worrying, not only because the ISI has broken new ground -- their traditional beat is Terai -- but also because of its capacity for subversion.

Prakash A Raj is a former Nepalese civil servant who has worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In his book, Road to Kathmandu, written after the raid at Karnali, Raj says: 'Recent events demonstrate that Nepal has become a terrorist base.'

In his sequel, The New York Connection, published last year, he indicates Nepal is being used by Pakistan to export drugs, explosives and the cult of violence.

Criminals, dubious politicians, their accomplices and ISI agents roam freely in Nepal. Operation Tufail was traced to Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai and a chain of banks in Pakistan; ganglord Yaqub Memon was caught in Kathmandu and the notorious Mirza Dilshad Beg, once Nepal's minister for science and technology and an avowed ISI supporter, was gunned down in the heart of Kathmandu. These events are fresh in Nepalese memory but still do not seem to bother them.

Nepalese frequently attribute their land-lockedness to India, not realising it was the Rana and Shah rules who perpetuated this geographical reality. Now, nine years down the path of democracy, the Himalayan nation's doors are wide open. Nepal, with Indian help, has to devise mechanisms to deter terrorists from making it an operational base. But Nepal has to first recognise the ISI menace to its own internal stability and acknowledge its spillover effect into India.

Flight 814 was not the first aircraft to be skyjacked from Nepal. There was at least one other domestic flight that was taken over in Nepalese airspace. The lessons of that outrage have been forgotten by the present regime in Kathmandu. But the lapse of intelligence and security is as much India's as it is Nepal's. The victor in this game is the ISI.

The lesson from this hijack fiasco is that there is a need for a 24-hour manned crisis management centre on the lines of the military Ops Room in South Block. Time-critical responses cannot be revved up from a cold start.

     Thursday: The ambassador speaks

Design: Dominic Xavier

Twilight Zone | Diplomatic intrigue | The underworld warlord
Working on the Gurkhas | The auctioned airport | Down with India!
The Naxal connection | The ambassador speaks

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