New Delhi: Contradicting LK Advani, former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh has said the then Home Minister was aware of the controversial decision about his travelling to Kandahar along with three terrorists released in exchange for the hostages of hijacked Indian Airlines plane in 1999.
Singh, however, said Advani along with Arun Shourie were the two ministers who had opposed the decision which he had taken on his own and informed the Cabinet.
"He was in Cabinet (meeting)," Singh said when asked whether Advani was aware of the decision. Advani, then the Home Minister, has claimed that he was not aware of the decision that Singh was going with the terrorists.
Asked how he ended up travelling to Kandahar along with terrorists, Singh said the decision was his own. "I decided... So I informed the Cabinet that I am going. Cabinet did not tell me. Therefore I went," said Singh who has written in detail about the episode in his new book "India At Risk" but made no mention about how the controversial decision was taken.
He emphatically said "no, none at all", when asked if he regrets the decision for which he has been widely criticised.
In the book, he writes that the decision to release three terrorists was the "most demanding and emotionally the most draining period of my life".
Singh writes: "At first I stood against any compromise, then, slowly, as the days passed I began to change my mind." The Indian Airlines plane was hijacked during its flight from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24 and the crisis ended with the hostages being released on January 1, 2000 in exchange for the three terrorists.
"Taking a decision about the situation was difficult: for three terrorists, 161 men, women and children. Will it be right? Wrong? A compromise? Between two moral rights -- saving the lives of the innocents, and a fight against terrorism -- falls this hollow, unfilled space of the undetermined," Singh writes in the book.
Explaining the reasons for his decision to travel to Kandahar, the then External Affairs Minister said he felt that it was his responsibility to be on the ground when the exchange of terrorists for the 161 hostages was taking place so that there are no last-minute glitches.
"I was in touch with Vivek Katju (then Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry in charge of Pakistan- Afghanistan division)... We had agreed to the terms," he said.
Narrating a conversation he had with Katju who was in Kandahar for negotiations along with some other officials, Singh said the Joint Secretary told him that, "What will happen sir if at last minute there is a glitch. I would not have time to refer back to Delhi and obtain approval, directions from Delhi."
"He (Katju) did not say you must come but I realised that somebody must go there who could take on-the-spot decisions. I went because I thought it was my responsibility," he said, adding "promptly my colleagues in other parties said I was escorting the terrorists."
He said the hostages were so grateful to him and some of them bumped into him at some places much later and profusely thanked him.
"Occasionally, I meet people. I was going to Jodhpur. I met one person who said do you recognise me. I was one of the passengers. Can I embrace you? These are touching moments.
"The Captain of the aircraft also met me later and said he was grateful to me for saving his life."