Hijacking Ganga and the case of Hashim Qureshi
On January 30, 1971, at 1305 hours an Indian Airlines Fokker F27 Friendship aircraft named Ganga flying from Srinagar to Jammu, landed at Lahore airport under the control of two hijackers, Hashim Qureshi and his cousin Ashraf Qureshi, who were apparently armed with a hand grenade and a pistol. The aircraft carrier, apart from the crew (four in all, including the Captain), had 26 passengers. The two hijackers, through a local spokesman, commanded that they be granted refuge in Pakistan; that the Government of India release 36 political prisoners said to be members of the National Liberation Front (NLF) or Al Fatah, and further, that New Delhi guarantee that the families of the two hijackers in Kashmir would in no way be harmed.
To British Journalist and Historian, Alastair Lamb, the episode looked suspicious and chary. He writes “It was discovered that they were armed with toy weapons which were anything but lethal (the hand grenade was made of wood and the Pistol was just a toy). For another, it appeared that the passengers were either Indian service personnel in ‘Mufti’ or their families. Finally, it transpired that the aircraft in question was the oldest of its type in the fleet of the Indian Airlines and was in a poor state of maintenance and lacked certain items of equipment usually carried on such aircraft.”
Nevertheless, the ‘hijackers’ received a very warm welcome at Lahore, where they were lauded as heroes of the freedom struggle of Jammu and Kashmir. All the passengers were released and were allowed go back to India, and subsequently, Ganga was set on fire by the hijackers on upon the advice of SSP Sardar Wakil. Whereas, on the other hand, no activist of Al Fatah was released by Indian authorities.
A few weeks later, when India reacted by banning overflight of Pakistani aircraft over India, the same heroes were now seen as villains. Authorities in Pakistan had arrested the hijackers and 150 other activists of National Liberation Front. Seven of them were brought to trial. Eventually, the court acquitted and released all of them except Hashim Qureshi who was convicted and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.
What made Hashim Qureshi or the Hijacking suspicious?
The answer to this question and the Pakistani version of the story is well explained in the following conclusion by the police authorities in Lahore;
“In July 1970, on his way back to the Indian side of the cease-fire line in Kashmir, he was picked up by the Indian security authorities (the Border Security Force or BSF) who recruited him as an agent – making him, it is probable, an offer which he could not refuse. He spent, he said, three weeks or so in New Delhi in the service of the BSF to keep watch on Kashmiris entering the premises of the Pakistan High Commission. In January 1971 he became involved in the scheme to hijack an Indian aircraft which was being considered by Indian Intelligence in Srinagar where it was seen to be a “disinformation” device of great promise. He then recruited the second hijacker as an assistant, but probably did not inform him of the Indian involvement.” [Source: Kashmir, a Disputed Legacy; Alastair Lamb page. 291]
The first part of this version of the story i.e. Hashim Qureshi was recruited in BSF, was accepted by Qureshi himself. To quote Hashim “In a haircutting salon in Lal Chowk, I met a Kashmiri Border Security Force (BSF) officer. I told him I wanted to go to Pakistan. He agreed to help me cross the border provided I brought some information the BSF needed. I agreed and the BSF managed my clandestine entry into Pakistan through the Sialkot border. There I met Maqbool Bhat. Maqbool Bhat said, to highlight the Kashmir problem we must hijack an Indian plane. Javed Mantoo, a retired pilot, helped familiarise me with a Fokker Friendship plane. He took me to Chaklala airport where I was allowed to see the plane from inside. When I came back, I was with gun and grenade. I was arrested by the BSF on the Jammu border. Maqbool Bhat had told me if they arrest me, tell them why I was here. “Just tell them that I have come for hijacking. Also tell them that there are two others, who have also been trained. [This is because] If they charge you for hijacking, our goal will be achieved. We will get publicity. If they don’t hold you, they can kill you. But if you tell them there are two others, then they won’t kill you. They will try to get you to identify those others.” said Maqbool to me. It happened precisely that way. I was arrested, I told them the story. They said, you can work with us, just point out those two at the airport. I agreed. They released me. They gave me a fake appointment letter that said I was a sub-inspector in BSF battalion 102, based in Bangalore.” [See; when a Kashmiri Teen hijacked a plane with a toy pistol; India Today, 21 March, 2012.]
Since Qureshi himself admits this fact, any further debate in this regard is unserviceable. So, let’s move on to the second part of the story.
Was Ganga Hijacking an Indian plot?
In connection to this, a prominent Kashmiri journalist and editor of ‘The Daily Aftab’, Sanaullah Butt writes in his book ‘Kashmir in Flames’ under chapter ‘Alfatah and 1971 War’;
“The day when the plane was hijacked from Srinagar, eight BSF personnel’s including some officers were present at the airport. When an officer of Kashmir Police enquired about the reason for their presence at the airport they said: “Al Fatah people are going and we have come here to see them off”. This very sentence was carried by a New Delhi newspaper that day.”
Similarly, Anil Maheshwari (Principal Correspondent of the Hindustan Times, who has covered Kashmir extensively) in his book “Crescent over Kashmir: The Politics of Mullaism” under chapter “Islamabadisation” writes;
“In fact, an Indian news agency, UNI, had flashed the story of the involvement of an Indian intelligence agent in the hijacking on the very day it occurred.”
Immediately after the hijacking, on 2nd February 1971 the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, G.M. Sadiq called it an Indian plot. To quote him;
“The [Fokker] plane had not been hijacked by a freedom fighter but by a paid agent of Border Security Force (BSF)… the Government had several times asked the Border Security Force to hand over Hashim Qureshi to Kashmir Police as it had reports of his frequent visits to Pakistan. But the BSF officials refused to do so on the plea that Hashim Qureshi was working under a plan for them.” [Kashmir in Flames by Sanaullah Butt page.154]
A week later, Sheikh Abdullah, who covertly led the Jammu and Kashmir Plebiscite Front then also denounced the Hijacking. In a letter to Mr. Jaya Prakash Narayan, published in the Indian Express on 15th February 1971, Sheikh Abdullah wrote;
“..The revelations made since the incident, by the responsible quarters, have raised grave doubts in my mind and perhaps in the minds of many others, as to the veracity of the stories put out in regard to the agencies responsible for this act. Nevertheless, it has become abundantly clear that the chief hijacker was an employee of the Border Security Force. He had crossed over to Pakistan and reportedly got training in hijacking there; after re-crossing to this side of the cease-fire line, he was re-employed by the Security Force, and stationed on the duty at the airport, ostensibly to keep watch on the possible hijacking, as reported by the Press. The hijacker has told his employers the possibility of “skyjacking”, which information was communicated to the Kashmir Government by the agency under whose employ the hijacker was. The Kashmir Police wanted to interrogate the person but according to chief minister Mr. Sadiq, the agency refused… Finally, the man with one of the accomplices, boards on the plan with the full knowledge of the Border Security Force, carries out his mission and forcing the plane to land at the Lahore.”
Abdul Ahad Waza, who met Raja Muzaffar Khan, the then Secretary General of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, in 1987 says that Raja Muzaffar also considered Qureshi as an Indian agent. (It was time when both of them were members of this organization). To quote Waza;
“… [Raja] Muzaffar described Qureshi as an Indian agent, who was working for BSF on some well-hatched ploy. His action, Muzaffar said, subsequently led to the fall of Dhaka on December 16, 1971.” [The Witness, Kashmir Life. January 6, 2014]
The Kashmir Times arranged an interview with two of Maqbool Bhat’s friends, G.M. Mir (former vice president of the Plebiscite Front) and Ghulam Mustafa Alvi, in Rawalpindi in 2001. Both of these leaders were held by Pakistani authorities during the trial of Ganga Hijacking Case. Both of them “were confident that Hashim Qureshi was working for India.”
But why they stood by him all the years? (Asked the KT correspondent)
To this G.M. Mir replied that they were morally bound to support him as he had hijacked the plane using the name of their organization and initially it was our plan that had been hijacked by India before the actual hijacking.” [The Kashmir Times, 3rd April 2001]
Braj Mohan Sinha, senior Indian journalist while gathering material on the ‘Samba Spy Scandal’ met a government official who, according to him, had revealed the whole Indian plan of hijacking Ganga in front of him. Sinha in his book “The Samba Spying Case” (1981) under the heading ‘Glorious Traditions’ writes “There was a double agent who operated both in India and Pakistan. His name was Hashim Qureshi. He first worked for India from Kashmir. He was given a job with the BSF and posted at the Jammu airport and then at the Srinagar airport, when the National Liberation Front, a PLO type movement was launched by one Muhammad Maqbool Butt from ‘Azad Kashmir’ to free ‘Kashmir’ from India, a decision was taken to send Qureshi to get information about it…But soon after Hashmi’s sneaking into PoK, he betrayed the Indian intelligence and defected to the Pakistani intelligence.
Qureshi returned to India but was arrested by the BSF on the Kashmir border. When thoroughly interrogated, his real identity was revealed and he disclosed that he had been trained in Pakistan to hijack an Indian plane piloted by Rajiv Gandhi, elder son of Indra Gandhi. This disclosure was reported to the BSF Chief [K.F.] Rustomji who met Qureshi and talked to him further about the Hijacking plane he had come to execute. By appealing his sentiments, Rustomji won him over and persuaded him to work for India which was then facing serious problems due to the heavy influx of refugees into West Bengal. A plan was then quickly prepared in consultation with the government. A part of the plan was disclosed to Qureshi who agreed to carry it out. It was then a masterstroke of cloak-and-dagger diplomacy.
The plan was that Qureshi would be allowed to hijack an IA plane from Srinagar to a nearby airport in Pakistan with some passengers on board. He would create the impression that he was a member of Al Fatah and was hijacking the plane for the release of Al Fatah saboteurs arrested in India. He would refuse to hand over the possession of the plane to the Pakistani airport authorities unless Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, came to see him. After the meeting, with Bhutto, he would blow up the plane. This, he was told, would establish his credibility with his Pakistani masters and help India at the same time. Since the finalization of the plan would take some time, he was sent to Bangalore to stay there in hiding. The J and K police also come to know about his having entered the State and were looking for him everywhere by raiding every possible corner. A senior officer, Narendrawerengh had been deputed to search him out.
Few days ahead, Qureshi was called to Srinagar from Bangalore. On January 30, senior BSF officials bid him adieu at Srinagar airport, where he entered into a Fokker Friendship plane carrying 26 passengers to Jammu. Soon the plane took off, he forced the pilot Capt. Kachru to divert it to Lahore. No sooner had the plane landed at the airport, the whole world was told about the hijacking and it was claimed that the Pakistan government was behind it. This worsened the already strained relationship between the two countries. Qureshi did at the Lahore airport what he was advised to do: he claimed membership of Al-Fatah and demanded the release of 36 of its members. The passengers were allowed to go out of the plane after two-days. Qureshi was allowed to move about freely at the airport, use telephone and meet the press, while Ashraf stayed in the plane…On February 2nd, Qureshi blew up the plane…The incident led to further bitterness in the relations of India with Pakistan. This gave India the long-awaited opportunity for the cancellation of the overflight facilities for Pakistan planes. The plans of President Yahya Khan to send reinforcements to East Pakistan were thus frustrated.”
The same government official, who according to Sinha narrated this incident to him, said that “those who had planned the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane were sure that Bhutto’s involvement in the incident would lend credence to the propaganda that it had been planned by the enemies of India.”
A similar story about Ganga Hijacking was narrated by former Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer, Mr. R.K. Yadav. He writes;
“There was an agent of R&AW – Hashim Qureshi in Srinagar. He was also working in league with BSF at Jammu and Kashmir border. In Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK), a Pakistan sponsored terrorist organization, National Liberation Front was formed by one militant Mohammad Maqbool Butt for subversive activities in Jammu and Kashmir. This organization launched a movement Al Fatah for the liberation of J&K from India and sent a large number of its members for subversive activities there. Thirty-six of their members were arrested by the J&K Police with the help of intelligence agencies.
In order to get the inside information about this movement, R&AW decided to infiltrate Qureshi into this organization since he was having full knowledge about the terrain of Pakistan occupied Kashmir and was also aware of the intelligence activities of Pakistan. But Qureshi changed his integrity when he was sent to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and subsequently won over by the Pakistani intelligence to work for them in J&K.
Qureshi himself had admitted that he was trained in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir by 1st operatives at the instance of Maqbool Butt. He was given training of hijacking by a former pilot of Pakistan. Qureshi was sent by Pakistani intelligence in J&K in the middle of January 1971 when he was arrested by BSF while he was crossing the border. When he was interrogated by the Indian intelligence agencies, he spilled the beans and revealed that he was sent by Pakistani intelligence to hijack an Indian Airlines plane from Srinagar airport. The plane was to be hijacked when it would be piloted by Rajiv Gandhi, son of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, who was a serving pilot with Indian Airlines. When this startling disclosure was reported to the head of BSF and R&AW, R.N.Kao devised a counter plan to defeat Pakistani intelligence in their Owls game through this hijacking. This was approved by Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister. R&AW and BSF, persuaded Hashim Qureshi to work for them in order to save him from prosecution from Indian authorities, to which he agreed. A plan was devised that Qureshi would be allowed to hijack a plane of Indian Airlines from Srinagar airport to Lahore where he would demand the release of 36 members of Al Fatah who were in jail in India in lieu of the passengers on the plane. He was directed not to give the control of the plane to the Pakistani authorities until he was allowed to talk to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, who was the chief architect of instigating political turmoil in Pakistan at that time. It was planned by R.N. Kao that he would blow up the plane after his meeting with Bhutto to prove his credentials for the cause of Al Fatah militants in jail, in the eyes of Pakistani authorities. In order to keep this operation a closely guarded secret, Qureshi was sent to a safe house of R&AW in Bangalore for security reasons till the finalization of the final plan. This was not disclosed to the J&K Government and other security agencies by R&AW. After the plan was given final shape, on January 30, 1971 Hashim Qureshi along with another operative Ashraf Qureshi, his relative, was allowed to hijack a Fokker Friendship plane Ganga of Indian Airlines with 26 passengers on board from Srinagar airport and forced Captain Kachru, the pilot of the plane, to take the plane to Lahore airport. R&AW allowed him to carry a grenade and a toy pistol inside the plane. Pakistani authorities at Lahore airport allowed the plane to land when they were informed that it had been hijacked by National Liberation Front activist militants of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
All India Radio soon made a broadcast of this hijacking and the whole world was informed that the Pakistan Government was behind this hijacking. Qureshi, as directed by R&AW, demanded the release of 36 Al Fatah members in custody of Indian Government in lieu of the passengers on the plane and asked the Pakistani authorities to arrange his meeting with Bhutto at the airport. Indian Government obviously refused to release the Al Fatah detainees. Qureshi was allowed to move freely at Lahore Airport by the Pakistani authorities where he used a telephone and meet media persons, while the second hijacker was guarding the passengers inside the plane. Bhutto met Qureshi on February 1, 1971, and they talked for some time near the plane. Thereafter, the passengers were released and the plane was blown up. There are contradictory reports, but it was later confirmed that the plane was put on fire by the ISI operatives of Pakistan. This was admitted by Hashim Qureshi also after his release from jail. All passengers and crew members were sent back to India via Amritsar, by road. Pakistan Government initially gave him political asylum and hailed him as a freedom fighter. Most of the political leaders of Pakistan condemned this incident but Bhutto did not criticize this hijacking which further strengthened the claim of India that Pakistan was behind this hijacking with full knowledge of Bhutto. This was a masterstroke planning by the Chief of R&AW, R.N. Kao, which brought international criticism for this hijacking. Indian Government immediately banned all the flights of Pakistan from its territory. In Pakistan, the truth behind this incident was known to the general public that the hijackers did not belong to any freedom movement of Kashmir and, in fact, were agents of the Indian Government. Even Sheikh Abdullah, who was released in 1968 because of the internal and external pressures, also denounced the hijackers as the Indian agents. Pakistan Government appointed an Inquiry Commission in this case. The Commission came to the conclusion that the hijacking of the aircraft was arranged by the Indian intelligence agencies as the culmination of a series of actions taken by the Indian Government to bring about a situation of confrontation between Pakistan and India. Taking advantage of this situation, the Indian Government banned the flights of Pakistani aircraft over Indian Territory in February 1971 and succeeded in its plans to create difficulties for overflights to East Pakistan and also to inflict financial loss because all flights from West to East Pakistan were enrouted via Sri Lanka. Inquiry Commission also gave the opinion that the motive behind this conspiracy was to disrupt internal communications of Pakistan and to encourage separatist movements to disintegrate Pakistan. This incident overtly gave India the right opportunity which was planned by R.N. Kao, to cancel the flights of Pakistan over its territory which hampered the plan of Yahya Khan to send its troops by air to curb the political movement of Mujeeb-ur-Rehman in East Pakistan. Later on, the United States Government offered Pakistan clandestinely to supply their planes to transport soldiers to Bangladesh via Sri Lanka and Himalaya range. Thus hijacking ultimately slowed down the arrival of Pakistan Army through air route. This was a masterstroke of R&AW during the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh which Pakistan Government did not apprehend and never denied the fact that Hashim Qureshi was not the member of Al Fatah terrorist organization. He was an Indian agent, who meticulously executed this top secret operation of R&AW which enabled the Indian Government to create far-reaching problems in the deployment of Pakistan Army in East Pakistan due to the ban on overflights from the Indian Territory. Hashim Qureshi and Ashraf Qureshi along with four others were subsequently prosecuted in a Special Court under the charges of working for the Indian intelligence services in this hijacking case. He was sentenced to nineteen years of imprisonment. He was later released in 1980 by the Pakistan Government. Thereupon, Hashim went to the Netherlands.
Afterward, R&AW did not let down its important agent, Hashim. The station chief of R&AW in the Netherlands was asked by the R&AW authorities to trace him there. He was duly traced and provided all sorts of help for his rehabilitation in Netherland.
Although R&AW used him as its agent in the hijacking in 1971 the legal system in India did not pay any credence to that so-called secret operation and Hashim was arrested in December 2000 when he was brought to India by R&AW authorities. He was also prosecuted in India for the Ganga hijacking case under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. In this double jeopardy case, because he had already been prosecuted by the Pakistan Government in the Ganga hijacking case. Hashim is still facing prosecution in Srinagar Court and R&AW authorities are still taking care of Hashim except for a brief period in May 2008, when the then R&AW Secretary Ashok Chaturvedi stopped his regular compensation. But it was soon restored by the next Secretary of R&AW when past facts were brought to his knowledge. He is presently involved in the political streamline of Jammu and Kashmir and doing social welfare program for Kashmiri people.” [Mission R&AW by R.K. Yadav]
Please note that Hashim’s statement that “He (The BSF officer in Srinagar Saloon) agreed to help me cross the border, provided that I brought some information the BSF needed” corroborates Sinha’s and Yadav’s accounts, that he was sent to collect some information about Al Fatah and Maqbool Bhat. Likewise, what Sinha said regarding the city of Bangalore (in 1981) was somehow confirmed by Qureshi two decades later?
Although, Qureshi rejects the claims by Sinha, Lamb, and Yadav and has filed a case against R.K. Yadav, but Maqbool Bhat fully owned this Hijacking during his life, considered it as his own plan (which is absolutely correct as the Plan of Hijacking was hijacked by Indian agencies without his knowledge) and was very much concerned about Qureshi’s release from Pakistani jails, still the above-mentioned confessions by Indian officials and his own mates make his character really suspicious.
Author can be mailed at email@example.com.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.