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The Hijacking That Was Not: How A Toy Pistol And Wooden Grenade Helped Pakistan’s Dismemberment 

The “hijacking” was the ruse for banning Pakistani over-flights that would have enabled West Pakistan to carry supplies to East Pakistan at much lower cost.
Snapshot
  • The little-known tale of how a toy pistol and a wooden grenade helped the process of dismemberment of Pakistan.

When it comes to bitter battles fought between India and Pakistan, there are seldom any moments of amusement. Which is why it both amazed and amused me when I accidentally stumbled upon an interesting case proceeding (an appeal actually) that was brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by India on 30 August 1971, challenging the jurisdiction of the ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organisation). But before we go into the details of the case and its ramifications — and why it makes for an interesting tale, we need to understand certain basic principles of international law. Let us just for now say that the appeal was part of the story of a secret exploit of Indian external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the war of 1971 that would ultimately lead to the liberation and creation of Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan).

Etymologically speaking, “international law” was a term coined by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who defined it as a collection of rules governing relations between states. Since Bentham, however, the scope of international law has broadened to not only include sovereign states but also international organisations and certain individuals too. Thus, international law is a distinctive aspect of the general structure of international relations. Sources of international law, therefore, include (a) treaties or conventions, which are binding upon the countries that sign them; (b) customary international law, which is binding upon all states, (c) general principles of law, which too are binding upon all nations; and (d) court decisions and judgements.

One such important source of international law was the Convention on International Civil Aviation, drafted in 1944 by 54 nations, and signed by 52 nations, including India. The convention was established to promote cooperation and “create and preserve friendship and understanding among the nations and peoples of the world”. Known more commonly today as the “Chicago Convention”, this landmark agreement established the core principles permitting international transport by air, and led to the creation of the specialised agency which has overseen it ever since — the ICAO.

As far as the case history before the ICJ is concerned [citation: Appeal Relating to the Jurisdiction of the ICAO Council (India Vs Pakistan), 1972 ICJ 46 (Order of 18 August)], the counter-memorial filed by Pakistan reveals that “the dispute has arisen because the Government of India has thought fit to challenge the jurisdiction of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation to consider the ‘Application’ and the ‘Complaint’ presented by the Government of Pakistan, wherein Pakistan challenged the decision of the Government of India to suspend overflights of all Pakistan aircraft over the territory of India as from 4 February 1971”.

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The obvious question is why India banned overflights of all Pakistan aircraft over its territory… that too in direct contravention of the Chicago Convention. Especially since India was a signatory to the original convention, which made it binding for India to follow the rules as laid down by the convention.

In fact, in addition to the Chicago Convention, the International Air Services Transit Agreement of 1944 too mandated that India would provide Pakistan two freedoms of air: (i) to fly across its territory without landing (i.e. the right of overflight) and (ii) to land for non-traffic purposes. Thus, through these two international agreements, the Indian sky was literally the “aero”-bridge that joined East and West Pakistan. And there was precious little India could do to destroy that convention(ally)-guaranteed aero-bridge. However, before we proceed to the “how” of this cloak-and-dagger tale, we need to address the “why”. Why did India need to devise a plan to ban Pakistani overflights?

When India signed the Chicago Convention in 1944, it was not yet a dismembered nation that was to be flanked by Pakistan on either side. However, in less than three years, independence left India vulnerably sandwiched between the improperly-divided East and West Pakistan — a situation that needed a solution. But what could India do? Well, precious much — as time would tell.

The 1962 Chinese invasion and the 1965 India-Pakistan war taught India an important lesson about the importance of espionage and intelligence gathering, which ultimately led to the creation of RAW on 21 September, 1968, under the leadership of Rameshwar Nath Kao, who then headed the external intelligence division of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). In fact, according to veteran spy B Raman, who not only headed RAW’s counter-terrorism unit in the last six years of his career, but who was also handpicked by Kao himself: “…in the first few months after its (RAW’s) formation, he (Kao) gave it two priority tasks — to strengthen its capability for the collection of intelligence about Pakistan and China and for covert action in East Pakistan.” (B Raman’s memoir, The Kaoboys of RAW: Down Memory Lane)

The RAW, headed by R N Kao, went into action the moment Indira Gandhi decided to help the people of East Pakistan achieve their independence from Pakistan. The RAW, headed by R N Kao, went into action the moment Indira Gandhi decided to help the people of East Pakistan achieve their independence from Pakistan.

As Raman recalls, “(while) a little over two years (was) too short a time to build up an effective covert action capability, the RAW managed to do so. It went into action the moment Indira Gandhi took the decision to help the people of East Pakistan achieve their independence from Pakistan.”

Thus, Kao was clear in his plan — a covert action in East Pakistan. The only question was: how.

Kao’s idea was not only simple, it was ingenious — and was accomplished through a “staged” hijacking of the Fokker Friendship plane Ganga.

On 30 January 1971, the retired aircraft Ganga, which had been recalled into service only a few weeks after its decommissioning, was to depart for Jammu from Srinagar. While the take-off was smooth, trouble unfolded during its descent, when two Kashmiri teenagers, Hashim Qureshi and his cousin Ashraf Qureshi, hijacked the plane, using what time would later reveal to be a “toy” pistol and a “wooden” grenade. And that’s how the two “raw” (pun intended) terrorists not only managed to change the course of the plane, but of history as well. When the plane landed in Lahore, the two were hailed as heroes and received with conspicuous fanfare.

What was particularly interesting was that there were no casualties; unless of course you count Ganga, which was set ablaze soon after the release of the 28 passengers and four crew members. India, of course, reacted unkindly by banning all overflights between West and East Pakistan — a design that it had all along (and it was this move by India that Pakistan had complained about to the ICAO).

In fact, Raman, in his book, writes, “Indira Gandhi’s dramatic decision to ban all Pakistani flights over India to East Pakistan in retaliation for the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight by two members of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) to Lahore, 1971, paved the way for the ultimate victory in East Pakistan. When the Pakistani aircraft tried to fly around India over the sea by availing of re-fuelling facilities in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi pressurised the Government of Sri Lanka to stop providing the re-fuelling facilities. This greatly weakened the ability of the headquarters of the Pakistani Armed Forces in West Pakistan to send reinforcements to East Pakistan and to keep their garrisons in East Pakistan supplied.”

Of course, even as India did its best to draw international attention to the hijacking and the burning of its aircraft in Pakistan (as part of its stratagem), Pakistan cried foul. In fact, point 16 of the counter-memorial submitted by Pakistan to the ICJ read: “Pakistan categorically denies that it had any connection whatsoever with the hijacking of the Indian aircraft which was hijacked when in the airspace of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir. The allegations oaf the Government of India to implicate the Government of Pakistan therewith, are baseless and unjustified.”

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Point 17 of the same counter-memorial went on to highlight that “a commission of enquiry headed by a senior judge of the High Court of Pakistan examined the two hijackers and other witnesses and took into consideration the statements made by Sheikh Abdullah and other Kashmiri leaders and came to the conclusions, inter alia:

“(i) The persons directly responsible for the hijacking are: Mohammad Hashim Qureshi, who is a known agent of the Indian Intelligence Services, and who held the post of Sub-Inspector in the Indian Border Security Force and who visited Pakistan in 1969 as such an agent, and was again put across the Cease-Fire Line in April, 1970, by the Intelligence Services of India, apparently to play the role of an agent provocateur, and his accomplice, Mohammad Ashraf Qureshi.

“(ii) The Indian Intelligence Services, the Indian Border Security Force and other Governmental Authorities in the Indian-held Kashmir without whose active complicity, encouragement and assistance the plan for hijacking could not have been put into execution at all. It is probable that Mohammad Hashim Qureshi was even trained within India to hijack the aircraft, probably during his posting at the Srinagar airport.

“Maqbool Butt and his NLF do not appear to have made any significant or material contribution to hijacking except to fall in with the suggestion made to this effect by Mohammad Hashim Qureshi, and then when the hijacking occurred, to claim credit therefor.” (sic)

In fact, the two hijackers — who had been initially received with much fanfare — were later tried by a special court headed by a judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan for acting at the behest of an Indian intelligence agency. Thus, RAW was able to provide India the perfect ruse for banning all Pakistani overflights that would have otherwise enabled West Pakistan to send in aircraft carrying reinforcements into East Pakistan at a much lower cost.

The hijacking gave India the perfect opportunity to deny Pakistan its Indian aerobridge. Had India suspended the flights without proper cause, it would have done so in contravention of the international agreements that it was a signatory to.

This is the little-known amusing tale of the final dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, which was attained by RAW through a toy pistol and a wooden grenade.

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