New Delhi: Ten years after the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814, on its way from Kathmandu to New Delhi, India remains vulnerable to such assaults but key protocols are in place to thwart such incidents, say security experts and strategists.
If circa 1999 exposed the total unpreparedness of both the security and political establishments to resolve swiftly one of the country`s most trying crises, a decade later much water has flown under the bridge ensuring that such incidents are unlikely to recur.
In place now is a tough anti-hijack policy that lays down procedures for shooting down a hijacked aircraft, heightened security presence in all airports by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), sky marshals in flights and a fortified internal security mechanism.
Minister of State for Railways E Ahamed, who was the main negotiator with the `Holders of the Black Banners`, a rogue outfit which held three Indians hostage in Iraq in July 2004, points out that there has been considerable fine-tuning of both the Crisis Management and Disaster Management Groups.
"We have an anti-hijack policy that rules out negotiations with hijackers. What is more important is that we have ironed out the bureaucratic delays during crisis situations. But we still have to be cautious," Ahamed told IANS.
The Bureau of Civil Aviation Security has prepared an aviation security manual that lists out a three-stage classification process for shooting down a hijacked aircraft.
"On securing India, especially after the 26/11 attacks, there is better coordination among intelligence agencies to sharing of information. But there is no room for complacency," Home Minister P Chidambaram warned officers of the Intelligence Bureau on Wednesday.
"We have been lucky. Sooner than you think, there may be another crisis like the hijack of IC-814 or another catastrophe like the Mumbai terror attacks. Hence, the time to act is now and I would spell the last word with capitals, NOW," he added.
When India was celebrating its last Christmas eve of the millennium, IC-814 was commandeered by five Pakistani militants and forced to land in three different airports - Amritsar, Lahore, and Dubai - before spending a week on the tarmac in Kandahar with 186 hostages on board.
On New Year`s eve, former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, accompanied three terrorists to Afghanistan, in exchange for the release of the hostages. Omar Sheikh, Maulana Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar were swapped. Sheikh is in custody in Pakistan for the killing of US journalist Daniel Pearl, Azhar runs the Jaish-e-Mohammed group that is held responsible for the 2001 parliament attack and Zargar still roams free.
"It is only when the next incident happens will we know how vulnerable we are. Protocols differ in every crisis situation. But in the case specifically of the 1999 hijack, the errors were overwhelmingly political...decisions were delayed which led to the lingering crisis," terrorism expert Ajay Sahni told agency.
India`s lack of recognition of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan complicated negotiations between authorities and the hijackers then.
In contrast to 1999, when there was a hostile Taliban regime in Kabul, India now enjoys excellent relations with the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan having invested USD 1.2 billion in socio-economic reconstruction.
But there is always a danger of the Taliban takeover that makes India vulnerable to a repeat of the 1999 hijacking.
Former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief AS Daulat, who personally escorted Azhar from Kashmir, says the 1999 hijack was an act of desperation and rules out a similar incident.
"They (militants) had earlier tried many ways of getting Azhar out of custody. It (hijacking) was a tactic at that point of time. Can you imagine such an incident happening now? Certainly not, especially when there is heightened security in airports all over," Daulat told agency.
The CISF that took over the security of airports soon after the Kandahar incident in early 2000 maintains that it is fully geared to prevent such incidents.
"We have proper security checks at the pre-embarkation stage. We conduct both manual and computerised checks of passengers and luggage. This was one thing which was lacking when IC-814 was hijacked," said Rohit Katiyar, a CISF spokesperson.