- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999

The grim reality of terrorism has been facing India since the hijacking of India Airlines Flight 814 on Christmas Eve. How it is dealt with will be a defining moment for the Indian government. Giving in to the demands of the hijackers, who have connections both to Kashmir forces and to the Taleban militia of Afghanistan, could bring on a flood of similar acts of terrorism. Defying them and losing the suffering 155 hostages aboard the plane would precipitate a massive crisis at home. This is not a choice to be envied. As this page went to press, the situation remains unresolved.

The U.S. State Department has strongly condemned the hijacking, as indeed it should. Passengers aboard the plane like other victims of hostage-taking have no connection to or power over the issues that led to their capture. They were simply trying to get from point A to point B, in this case Katmandu to New Delhi. That was when the five hijackers, armed with knives, pistols and grenades, took their fates in their hands. Their demand is the release of a Pakistani militant cleric jailed since 1994 as well as 35 Kashmiri prisoners in Indian jails. A demand for $200 million in cash was dropped yesterday. As in other acts of terrorism, the most appalling aspect is that the victims are randomly chosen, mere instruments in the hands of fanatics for whom their lives mean little if anything.

There appears to be blame enough to go around. Dealing with a planeful of hostages on Taleban territory has to be a nightmare. As the terrorists threatened to start executing the passengers, Taleban troops surrounded the plane, a mixed blessing probably because it has also prevented other forces from attempting an armed rescue. The Taleban of Afghanistan are the same people who refuse to give up terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden; they are hardcore Islamic fundamentalists.

Meanwhile the government of India has been roundly criticized for being slow to act. The opportunity did apparently exist early in the drama to stop the terrorists in their tracks as the plane was forced by lack of fuel to land in Amritsar, north of New Delhi. It remained on the ground for 30 precious minutes, which were wasted before taking off for Lahore, Pakistan, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and finally Kandahar, Afghanistan where as of this writing it still sits on the runway with its desperate human cargo and with Indian negotiators facing an ordeal with no end in sight. It will take the unlikely combination of Indian, Pakistani and Taleban cooperation if this situation is to be resolved.

But there are also even larger questions at play here. Back in the '70s and '80s, terrorist movements were often an ideological outgrowth of the Cold War, financed by Soviet sponsors or other communist governments. Today, new networks have sprung up, financed by the wealth of people like Osama bin Laden or countries like Iran. They may have a religious dimension, or equally likely, a nationalist one. With ethnic conflict flourishing across the world and new nations increasing in numbers exponentially, the India Airlines hijacking is not likely to prove unique. For India, the conflict in question is called Kashmir, and it has been handled for years by Indian governments with brutal repression. The drama now unfolding on Afghan soil should be an urgent wakeup call that a more humane solution is called for.

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