Hijack that changed history

Arjimand Hussain Talib
Publish Date: Jan 30 2014 12:00PM

History has marked the Srinagar-Jammu Ganga Fokker plane’s hijack on January 30, 1971 with mystery and contradicting accounts. Who actually planned the hijack? Was it India? Pakistan? Or the two young Kashmiris - Hashim Qureshi and Ashraf Qureshi - acted on their own behalf and JKNLF to achieve a political goal? And what was the objective? Highlight the Kashmir issue internationally? Or sow the seeds of isolation of East and West Pakistan for the eventual birth of Bangladesh?
History has hardly answered these questions convincingly. History hasn’t given us any credible first-hand account of the hijack saga either. Today, 43 years after that fateful event, a 13-year school boy then on his maiden air journey on the same flight, adds to our understanding of the events with a stunning first-hand account of the hijack story. The details raise new questions. They also renew the need for fresh answers.

On a sunny but chilly morning of January 30, 1971, two teenage boys, Pirzada Fayaz and his schoolmate, Ashfaq Hussain, left their Srinagar homes for their life’s first air journey. Headed for their boarding school at Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, the boys, on way to Srinagar airport, were nursing somewhat mixed feelings of nervous excitement and some sadness. Within the next few minutes, an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship plane – named Ganga – would fly them to Jammu.
Saying goodbye to their family members, the boys head straight to the aircraft parked at the largely unguarded and least fortified tarmac of the Srinagar airport. Those days there was no passenger frisking or luggage search at the airport. Besides the two boys, 25 other passengers were on board the plane. Engines start and the pilots position the plane on the runway. For Fayaz it was a dream coming true.
As the Ganga was preparing for its Srinagar take-off, more than a thousand miles away, a deep political churning was unfolding on the banks of the Brahmaputra river in the then East Pakistan.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-headed Awami League had posted a landslide victory in both Pakistan National Assembly and the Provincial government in East Pakistan. The party had won 160 of the 162 seats allotted to the East, thereby making it the majority party in the 313-seat National Assembly of united Pakistan. Its power takeover looked certain.
One of the reasons for Awami League’s such landslide win was said to be the Cyclone Bhola of November 12, 1970, which had left East Pakistanis bitter and angry. Bhola had killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed much of the coastal areas. The Bangla people had felt that West Pakistan’s response to the cyclone was “insensitive, and sluggish.”
Meanwhile, the Ganga plane’s engines were put on full throttle and it just took off from the Srinagar airport. Pirzada Fayaz and his classmate, sitting in the second or the third row on the right side of the plane, were euphoric. They were enjoying their life’s first flying experience, craning their necks to the window to see the mountains and their snows.
Interestingly, Ganga had been recalled into the service only a few weeks after its formal decommissioning. Later, history would question that. History would later also debate if the Ganga’s Srinagar-Jammu flight had anything to do with all that was happening on the Brahmaputra river banks.  
As the plane was about to touch down, recounts Fayaz, two young men suddenly came from behind and started running towards the cockpit.
“What was that?”, Fayaz and his mate gestured to each other.
Within seconds came the moment of inevitability: one of the men holding a revolver in his hand kicked the cockpit door and headed straight to the pilots. Another one, holding a hand grenade in his hand, stood at front of the cockpit door facing the passengers. He looked nervous. His hands were trembling.
History would later tell us the youth who crashed into the cockpit was Hashim Qureshi while the guy to stand guard at the cockpit gate was Ashraf Qureshi.
As the passengers started shouting and sobbing, Ashraf Qureshi asked everyone to raise his hands.
Fayaz and his mate heeded the order. “Zyada hoshyari dikahne ki koyee zaroorat nahi”, Ashraf had shouted while holding the grenade. Neither Fayaz nor other passengers had any inkling of what all was happening. They were nervous and their hearts were beating fast.
In a hoarse but trembling voice Ashraf Qureshi directed us not to touch anything and told us keep our hands up; says Fayaz, adding he had still no idea about what all was going on.
“Since we were sitting nearer to the cockpit door I could see one of the men pointing the revolver at the head of the pilot”, recalls Fayaz.
The two pilots flying the plane were later known as Captain Kachroo and Captian Oberoi.
The plane started to gain altitude again and tearing through the clouds it headed in a direction not leading to Srinagar. It was a beginning of a long new journey for Ganga, a journey that would change the course of the sub-continent’s history. 
Dhaka, meanwhile, was witnessing acute political strife. The stage was set for the West Pakistani establishment to prevent Mujibur Rehman and his party from forming a government. Awami League was being banned and declaration of martial law was on the cards.
By then Indira Gandhi’s political secretary D. P. Dhar, a Kashmiri, had succeeded in getting Indira Gandhi deeply interested in the happenings in Dhaka. West Pakistani establishment saw Mujibur Rehman’s claim for Prime Ministership and his insistence on his “six-point program” as a recipe for imminent secession. Awami League was being listened to in Delhi. Lahore was beginning to hear the alarm bells.
Back in Ganga, it was an atmosphere of relaxed nervousness and anxious wait now. The hijackers were fully in control of the plane and the passengers seemed to have acquiesced with the inevitable. They were now somewhere above the plains of the Punjab. Fayaz was drowned in the thoughts of his family and his school.
But in the midst of the whole anxious drama something hilarious was happening too. A Sardar Ji gentleman was all along cracking jokes and trying to engage the hijacker in a witty conversation. Fayaz says Ashraf Qureshi standing in front of the cockpit didn’t respond to the “jokes”. He didn’t object either.
Sitting ahead of Fayaz and his friend in the front row was Dr. Naseer A. Shah, the then Principal of the only Medical College of the State of Jammu & Kashmir. Sensing the passengers’ curiosity about the location of the plane, he had turned behind and informed them that they were flying somewhere over the Punjab. The hijackers had not objected to this intervention either. Incidentally, Ashraf Qureshi, a student of medical science at Srinagar’s Medical College happened to stand right in front of his college principal. So, possibly, his nervousness!
And then suddenly some noise started coming out from the cockpit. A heated argument was going on between Hashim Qureshi and the pilots. Due to the noisy engines the nature of the argument was not exactly known. The argument sub-sided after a while.
And then the plane started another descend. As the plane started its final touch- down, the passengers still had no idea about the place the plane was landing at. A big surprise was awaiting them.
As the plane started taxiing, Fayaz’s school-mate Ashfaq pulled him to show the planes parked on the tarmac. The boys were perplexed to read the PIA- plane markings. They had never seen those crescents and stars painted on any plane’s tail.
Now worry had started to dawn on the young boys. In the plane there were mixed expressions of excitement and alarm. The airport Ganga had just landed at was witnessing a high security activity. Security guards had surrounded the plane, and the airport was being quickly secured.
After some moments of pause, the plane door was thrown open. Fayaz and his school mate saw two aluminium boxes being thrown out of the plane from the door, presumably to act as a stair case for getting down. And one of the hijackers was the first one to jump out, most probably Hashim Qureshi.
Since the aircraft had run out of drinking water some drinking water bottles for the passengers were brought on board. After a few minutes came the announcement that women and children could get down of the plane if they wished.
Fayaz and his schoolmate were the first ones to heed the call and arrived at the door. Fokker Friendship plane being small in size didn’t make jumping out difficult. Both jumped onto the aluminium boxes and finally on the tarmac. They were on the Pakistani soil now.
Within moments Pakistani security guards guided the two boys to the terminal building, recalls Fayaz.
And then began the Lahore hospitality – with tea and special Lahori bread. Curious security guards were scrambling to talk to the boys. They were interested to know about Kashmir, their families and their flight experience.
It was now known to them that they had landed in Lahore. The PIA marked planes belonged to the Pakistan International Airlines and the guards in vigil were from Pakistan’s security agencies.
Soon all other passengers got down from the plane and two airport buses brought them to the terminal building. They were next taken to the airport lounge – which Fayaz recalls as “a large hall with quality furniture.”
Teas, snacks and hugs kept pouring in. And then was the turn of Pakistani government officials to greet the passengers. Leading the team was none other than the then Pakistan External Affairs Minister and chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had just arrived from Dhaka. Mr. Bhutto’s plane had flown over the Indian airspace from Dhaka to Lahore, as all Pakistani flights would normally do then.
After sharing pleasantries with the passengers Mr. Bhutto had invited the passengers to have lunch with him. As the youngest passenger on the plane, he had kept Fayaz close to him.
So how did Mr Bhutto exactly treat Fayaz him?
“He seemed to be very happy to meet me. We had a long chat. He asked me about my education, my family and my future plans. I was quite excited”, says Fayaz.
One of the major events that marked the hijacking and also the larger India-Pakistan relations was Mr. Bhutto’s press conference on that occasion. Interestingly, Mr. Bhutto made Pirzada Fayaz to sit alongside him in the press conference he held at the Lahore Airport. But the young Pirzada had no clue about what all was being said and the questions being asked.
But what was Mr. Bhutto’s feeling about the whole hijack episode then?
Khalid Hassan writing in The Friday Times, on 11 April, 2003 about the Ganga episode says he was present at the Lahore airport when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrived there from Dhaka.
“A crowd had gathered at the airport. And many among them had jumped over the railing to greet the PPP leader. I was already on the tarmac. They wanted Bhutto to go towards Ganga. Bhutto said to me, “Look, I don’t know what this is all about and who these people are, so I won’t say anything.” He was practically pushed towards the parked aircraft by the crowd. He exchanged a few words with Hashim and Ashraf”, writes Khalid Hassan.
At dusk all the passengers were made to board two buses from the airport terminal. But no passenger got any baggage to carry. Whatever baggage was carried in Ganga was left in the plane itself. A security convoy surrounded the buses as it moved through Lahore’s roads.
“We were curiously watching the life on the roads. Lahore looked a busy city – with lots of buildings and transport”, recalls Fayaz. 
And finally the buses stopped at a glitzy Lahore hotel. Fayaz remembers the building looking like a five-star hotel. It had looked impressive to him. All the Ganga passengers were allotted rooms in the top floors of the hotel on twin-sharing basis. Fayaz, his schoolmate and two other men got a suite of two rooms. And it had all the facilities they needed, including the basic toiletry and other things the passengers had left in their luggage in Ganga.
“So how were the people treated at the airport?”
“We were made to feel very special. Everybody was being extremely hospitable to us. We were being taken care of so well. But there were no radio sets, TVs or newspapers in our rooms”, recalls Fayaz. 
Pakistani security officials had told the passengers not to visit each other’s rooms without permission from them. However the young Fayaz recalls he was able to move around in the corridor of his floor without any restriction. And that he even visited his co-passengers’ rooms and no one objected to that.
Tired and still unaware about their fate, that night all passengers slept with unease. The first thing next morning they wanted to do was to know what all was happening. What was to happen to them?
Being the youngest person of the group – and perhaps outside the gambit of any suspicion - Fayaz would assume the role of some sort of an intermediary. He was tasked by his co-passengers to request the security officials for newspapers and radio sets. “I didn’t hesitate doing that. Perhaps, I was oblivious of the sensitivity of the matter then”, recalls Pirzada Fayaz, who has grown to become a businessman and heads Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK) today. 
Fayaz boldly went to the official responsible for their stay in the hotel and asked for newspapers and radio sets. He returned with a promise from the official that he would seek permission from his seniors about the issue. A few moments later came the good news: the passengers got the newspapers but not any radio sets. The first thing the passengers and Fayaz would notice on the front page was the news of the hijacking and Mr. Bhutto’s press conference photo featuring Fayaz too.
In the day some more surprises came by for the passengers. Fresh carom boards, chess Boards, playing cards and some other indoor games were delivered to the passengers in their rooms. At least they had something to engage with and kill their time.
Although the passengers could see the life on the streets visible from the hotel windows they were not allowed to open any windows.
As the Ganga passengers were anxiously killing their time, India and Pakistan had some work to do – to negotiate the release of Ganga and its passengers. The hijackers had demanded the release of some two dozen jailed members of JKNLF, besides political asylum in Pakistan.
Like always, that was not an easy time for negotiations between the two countries. India and Pakistan were just coming to terms with each other in the aftermath of their war fought a few years back in 1965. Those were also the times when united Pakistan was struggling with the unfolding events in Dhaka. As history would tell us later, India was pre-occupied too, far more than Pakistan had realised at that stage.
After two days of anxiety and Lahori hospitality, the Ganga passengers were asked to get ready for a departure. Two buses were waiting for them at the hotel to take them somewhere. They still had no idea about where they were heading to.
After a warm send-off at the hotel, the Ganga and the crew passengers left the hotel. The departure was happening in a tight security vigil. The bus journey wasn’t as short as when they had arrived from the Lahore airport. More than one hour of travelling and the passengers still didn’t know their destination. Another half an hour of travel would lead them to the India-Pakistan border in Punjab.
“As our buses stopped, some official addressed us and told us that we were going home. We were told that we were being released at the Hussain walla border”, recalls Fayaz.
Everyone was jubilant. And then began their short walk to cross the border into India.
But the crossing wasn’t without the normal show of military etiquettes at that India-Pakistan border. As the passengers walked through the no-man’s land, the tall border guards of India and Pakistan, donning their usual colourful uniforms, presented the guard of honour.
And there was hospitality on the Indian side too – garlands and high tea. It was as if both the sides had won and had reasons for similar celebrations.
The passengers were next made to board buses and were taken to an airbase. It was the Ferozpur airbase. The passengers there were received by Dr. Karan Singh, the first Sadre Riyasat of Jammu & Kashmir. He asked the passengers, including Fayaz, about their experiences. Fayaz remembers he had laughed at some of his replies.
The Indian Air Force plane took the passengers to Amritsar. After a short travel, the plane landed at Amritsar. There the passengers were received by the Station Manager of Indian Airlines and other government officials.
At Amritsar the passengers were separated in two groups: one group would go to Delhi and another one to Jammu. 
Fayaz says he was the first passenger to board the Indian Airlines airplane for Jammu, and also the first one to be searched. It was perhaps the first time that frisking was introduced in air travel in India.
On the occasion the passengers were given blankets and letters of felicitation by Indian Airlines.
As the Indian Airlines flight landed in Jammu, hundreds of people had gathered there to greet the returning passengers. The then Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq was there to receive them. Passengers de-boarded and G. M. Sadiq garlanded them. People accompanying the CM shouted slogans and welcomed the passengers warmly. It was the expression of the third-land’s “victory.”
Young Fayaz was made to stay at G M Sadiq’ official residence for more than a week. Once back to school he and his mate got hero’s welcome.
But all jubilation was short-lived.
Khalid Hassan recalls that while Pakistani journalists had no bar for walking across the tarmac and talking to the two hijackers in the initial days, their access was suddenly blocked.
In a dramatic turn of events Pakistani security agencies set Ganga airplane on fire. And no one was allowed to go close to it. Not even the West Pakistan chief secretary, Afzal Agha, who happened to be originally a Kashmiri from Srinagar.
Both Hashim and Ashraf Qureshi were arrested and later tried and sentenced by a special court on charges of being “Indian agents”. Something had brought about a significant turnaround.
As the situation was getting out of control in East Pakistan for the united Pakistani establishment, indications were clear that Awami League was preparing for the declaration of autonomy, and possibly even the independence of East Pakistan.
And then something quite dramatic happens. India bans all flights from West Pakistan to East Pakistan over its airspace. All flights between the two separate territories would now take the much longer journey via Sri Lanka spanning India’s entire west and east coasts.
With the air space barred, West Pakistani establishment began to see “conspiracy” in the Ganga hijack. And then came their conclusion: “that the Ganga hijacking was basically an Indian intelligence operation to be used as an excuse to ban Pakistani aircraft flying over India so as to isolate Pakistani military in East Pakistan.” Hashim and Ashraf were suspected to be “Indian intelligence agents.”
The crackdown extended to J&K National Liberation Front (JKNLF). Maqbool Bhat and the entire JKNLF leadership was arrested and tried for “treason”.
K. H. Khurshid, the Srinagar boy picked by Muhammad Ali Jinnah as his personal secretary and also the first President of Azad Jammu & Kashmir was a witness in the case. His statement to the court was critical.
He had told the court that “he had arrived at the Lahore airport on February 2, 1971, at about 7 pm after having been told that the situation was tense and that PIA had stopped its daily supply of food to the hijackers.”
Khalid Hassan has recounted his first-hand knowledge of those grim moments in detail. As Pakistani agencies were trying to understand the “genesis” of the hijacking plan – which at first instance appeared to them to be a JKNLF plan – they soon began to “smell” conspiracy.
According to Khalid Hassan, JKNLF leader Maqbool Bhat arrived in Lahore from Peshawar. The hijackers Hashim and Ashraf had asked to meet Mr. Bhat. According to Mr. Khalid, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) of Lahore, Sardar Abdul Vakil Khan, took Khurshid and Maqbool to a room where Hashim Qureshi sat with some officials. He told Bhat that “these men” were telling him to set fire to the plane.
According to Khalid Hussain, Maqbool Bhat had clearly said that doing that would be unwise.
After the meeting, as K H Khurshid and Maqbool Bhat were being escorted out, the SSP said to them, “Khuda ke liye hamari jaan chhod do, jahaz ko urha do” (For God’s sake spare us and destroy the plane).
And Khalid Hassan says that is what happened. But the hijackers didn’t do that.
But soon there was a feeling in Pakistan that Maqbool Bhat and other JKNLF members were not part of the conspiracy. Although they were jailed for two years, the Lahore High Court eventually challenged their detention and called them “patriots fighting for the liberation of their motherland”.
All JKNLF leaders were exonerated and released, including Maqbool Bhat and Ashraf Qureshi. Hashim Qureshi remained the only person in jail and was released in 1980.
While Hasim Qureshi went to Europe after his release in 1980, Ashraf Qureshi went on to become a renowned academician in Pakistan. He died in February 2012 in Pakistan of a cardiac arrest at the age of 58.
So what had actually motivated Hashim and Ashraf?
There is a theory that Hashim Qureshi had crossed into Pakistan a couple of years earlier and met Maqbool Bhat there. And that the actual plan had taken birth then. But many others dispute the idea that Maqbool Bhat actually knew what Hashim Qureshi was up to.
While crossing back to Kashmir, Hashim Qureshi was picked up, interrogated by Indian agencies and later released. According to Khalid Hassan, one Indian account says he “confessed” that he had been trained by Pakistan to hijack an Indian plane and agreed to become a double. Another theory is put forth by M.B. Sinha, a former Indian intelligence officer, in a book that suggests that Hashim “agreed to hijack an Indian plane to Pakistan, befriending Maqbool Bhat and infiltrating JKNLF.”
According to Sinha’s book, “Hashim was instructed not to hand over control of the plane to Pakistan but to insist that he would only do so if Bhutto came to meet him and his comrade.” This, says the author, “was to establish his credibility with his Pakistani masters and help India at the same time”.
A lot of people, including Khalid Hussan, see all these theories as “non-sense” and believe that Hashim Qureshi had also “acted in good faith.” 
Hashim Qureshi’s detailed interview to this newspaper in December 2008 after his return to Kashmir from Europe shed some interesting light on the hijack episode, but not all questions seem to be answered.
As Pakistan’s agencies remained busy with the Ganga episode in the winter of 1971, East Pakistan was making its own history. 
In March 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made his historic freedom speech and the Pakistan Army responded by launching Operation Searchlight. Sheikh Mujib is arrested on 26th March.
On 26th March itself Major Ziaur Rahman broadcast the declaration of independence on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman over the radio. In April a provisional Bangladesh government-in-exile was formed.
With the formation of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra radio station in Calcutta on 24 May that year India’s support and abetment to the East Pakistan’s liberation had become too visible.
And then happened what Pakistani Army had feared all along – on 21st November, 1971 a joint force of Bangladesh and Indian troops in the name of Mukti Bahini was formed. On the very second day Pakistani and Indian air force were locked in an air battle in what history knows as the Battle of Boyra. As Pakistani Air Force in East Pakistan was almost completely isolated from West Pakistan, its disadvantage was clear. 
On 3rd December the formal Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 breaks out. Bangladesh Air Force destroys Pakistani oil depots on the ground. The next day India officially invades East Pakistan. On 6th December India becomes the first country to recognize Bangladesh.
And then came the fateful day of 16th December, 1971: Pakistan army formally surrendered before the Indian army and the liberation of Dhaka was declared. A new nation was born on the banks of the Brahmaputra River.

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