Mohammed Azhar Masood: Praised, Luminous, Lucky
by Himanshu Jain on 15 Dec 2008 1 Comment

Azhar Masood is the villain of several large attacks on Indian soil. These include the first suicide (fidayeen) attack in Srinagar, the attack on Parliament, and the 26 November massacre in Mumbai. Azhar Masood was freed by the NDA government in exchange for 166 lives in the IC-814 hijack.

Azhar Masood was arrested in 1994 for entering India on a forged passport. From 1994 to his release on 31 December 1999, he was tried in Indian courts, and lodged variously in the Tihar Jail and the Srinagar Central Jail.

In these five years in Indian custody, his associates tried strenuously to get him freed. There was a gruesome kidnapping of foreign tourists, an attempted jail break, a letter from the Pakistan Interior Minister calling him a journalist and seeking his release, and finally the IC-814 hijacking.

India is a democratic state with a proper judicial system and laws. Azhar could not be hanged for entering India on a forged passport and meeting separatists in Kashmir. He could only be tried in court and jailed for illegal acts according to Indian laws. Police and army officers who understand the magnitude of the problem these terrorists can create often shoot them without bringing them to trial. Sadly, most such officers are today being prosecuted for alleged human rights violations.

Indian Airlines flight IC-814 took off from Kathmandu at 1615 IST on 24 December 1999, and was hijacked. Lahore airport authorities refused it permission to land, forcing it to head back to Amritsar, India. At Amritsar, the hijackers demanded that the aircraft be refueled. The airport was sealed off, but the plane was not incapacitated.

After 25 minutes, the hijackers forced the plane to takeoff by killing passenger Rupin Katyal, and headed for Lahore with just enough fuel for the trip. India persuaded Pakistan to permit the aircraft to land. The aircraft nearly crash-landed and was surrounded by Pakistani commandos. It was refueled and allowed to move towards Kabul, but on account of the lack of night-landing facilities there, and later at Kandahar, the plane was diverted towards Dubai.

The hijackers demanded food, medicines and a step-ladder as none was available. UAE officials agreed to negotiate if women and children were allowed to disembark. The hijackers released 25 passengers and allowed the body of Mr. Katyal to be released to the UAE authorities. Early on 25 December 1999, the flight took off from Dubai for Afghanistan, and landed at Kandahar at 0855 hours. The passengers were finally released on 31 December 1999 after the Government of India released three terrorists.

Afghanistan was then a terrorist state. The Twin Towers tragedy had not happened then and the world had not woken up to the terror posed by these Islamic jihadis and the true condition of Afghanistan. India was alone in its confrontation with terror. Thus, in a hostile territory with enemy surrounding the plane, the then NDA government decided to release Azhar Masood and two other terrorists to save 166 lives on board the flight.

The first aim of a government is to save the maximum lives in such a situation. There was no precedent in India before this event to allow 166 innocent citizens to be killed to retain three terrorists. India would not have been able to bear it. Today we know that the release has harmed us so grievously, but few could then have imagined the consequences of releasing Azhar Masood.

In 1989, the somewhat shadowy kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, then Union Home Minister in the V.P. Singh regime, took place and the kidnappers demanded the release of five comrades in exchange for Rubaiya. The government accepted their demands and freed the jailed terrorists.

The NDA government in 1999 was mandated by all political parties including Congress, the main opposition party, to do what was necessary to save the hostages. But in the 2004 general elections, Ms. Sonia Gandhi made it a major political issue and Congressmen even today blame NDA for this lapse. 

Azhar Masood’s human rights were not violated In India. He entered the country illegally, was detained, and had enough time and guile to get out of jail and kill Indians by the hundreds after his release. The story of Azhar’s evolution from clergyman and teacher in a Karachi madrasa to an international jihadi leader began in Bahawalpur where he was born on 10 July 1968.

In his book, The Virtues of Jihad, Azhar revealed that his father had Deobandi leanings and was extremely religious: “One of my father’s friends, Mufti Sayeed, was working as a teacher at the Jamia Islamia at the Binori Mosque in Karachi. He prevailed upon my father to admit me in the Jamia.”

Azhar’s Kashmir trip was primarily a brief assignment. The Harkat had been divided into Harkat-e-Jihadi Islami and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and he was sent to affect a patch up. The Harkat factions did merge subsequently, but Azhar was nabbed in the Valley along with another top commander, Sajjad Afghani.

Incidentally, his entry into India was dramatic — unlike most militants he did not cross the Line of Control in Kashmir. In January 1994, he flew into Delhi from Dhaka as a Gujarat-born Portuguese national, Wali Adam Issa. He checked into Ashoka Hotel and later shifted to Janpath Hotel, from where he left for Deoband with two Harkat men from Kashmir. He flew to Srinagar and met the Harkat’s top commanders, Sajjad Afghani and Amjad Bilal, in the Lal Bazaar area of downtown Srinagar.

On 10 February 1994, Azhar was arrested by security forces along with Afghani at Khanabal. He told his interrogators: “we fight for religion and do not believe in the concept of nation-state.” During captivity, Azhar told his interlocutors: “Soldiers of Islam belonging to twelve countries have infiltrated into India to liberate Kashmir. We fight for religion and do not believe in the concept of nation-states. We want Islam to rule the world.”

On 19 June 1996, Pakistan’s Minister for Interiors and Narcotics Control, Maj-Gen (retd.) Nasrullah Khan Babbar, in a letter to India’s External Affairs Ministry [D.O No. 1/10/96-IM] requested the release of Azhar Masood on humanitarian grounds. The latter was referred to as a journalist who had entered India to see the condition of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Harkat made several unsuccessful attempts to get Azhar and Afghani out of jail. Two British nationals were kidnapped on 6 June 1994 at Pahalgam, Jammu & Kashmir. Another group comprising three British and an American national was abducted in Delhi in September the same year.  Six foreign tourists, including two American nationals, were kidnapped again at Pahalgam in July 1995. 

One of the hostages, John Childs (an American) escaped, but a Norwegian national was beheaded by the Harkat and four others, including an American, are missing to this day. The kidnappers of the six western trekkers in south Kashmir – a mysterious Al-Faran, believed to be a front for the Harkat – had demanded the release of Azhar and Afghani. An attempted jailbreak was foiled, but Afghani was killed by the police later, allegedly in a jail uprising.

It is pertinent to ask if such a sensitive and highly prized (by the terrorists) prisoner should have been executed before further attempts to release him were made. Perhaps the tragedy of IC-814 would not have happened at all. Sadly, India cares more for abstract human rights as opposed to the rights of living citizens.

Maulana Masood Azhar was released from jail on 31 December 1999 as part of the hostage swap and provided safe passage to Pakistan. The ringleader of the hijacking was his brother Ibrahim Athar.At that time, the NDA government had two options – to send in commandos, which was not possible in rouge Afghanistan; or to negotiate and risk letting 166 hostages perish. Mr. Vajpayee saved 166 lives in a ticklish situation and today India should not politick about it.

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