The truth about the Ganga hijacking
It is thirty-two years since the Indian Airlines flight that had taken off from Srinagar on the morning of January 30 for Delhi was hijacked and brought to Lahore by two young Kashmiris cousins, Hashim and Ashraf Qureshi. The official Pakistani story has been that the Ganga hijacking was elaborately planned by Indian intelligence to be used as an excuse to ban Pakistani aircraft flying over India in order to keep its beleaguered garrison from being supplied. Hashim and Ashraf were denounced as Indian agents, although when they brought the plane to Lahore they were greeted as heroes and freedom fighters. On a popular level they continued to be seen like.
I was at the time a reporter working for The Pakistan Times and just happened to be at Lahore airport when the plane landed. In the first few days, there was no bar to us walking across the tarmac and talking to the two hijackers. Later, however, our access was blocked. I was also present when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto arrived 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 the two young men.
The late Aftab Ahmed Khan was then head of the India desk at the Foreign Office and had remained in Lahore throughout the episode. He also briefed the press where we subjected him to some hard questioning. Years later in London I asked him about Ganga. He said it had been set on fire by the ISI. On the day that happened, he told me, he was disallowed access to the plane. Even the West Pakistan chief secretary, Afzal Agha, a Srinagar Kashmiri, could not get through. Both Hashim and Ashraf were later tried and sentenced, the special court having found them to have been “Indian agents”.
My cousin KH Khurshid appeared as a witness in that case. His testimony which I saw for the first time a few days ago sheds new light on this strange event and separates truth from the falsehood in which it has so far been kept wrapped by the Pakistani establishment. Khurshid, who was personal secretary to the Quaid-e-Azam from June 1944 until the Quaid’s death in 1948, told the court that he had arrived at the airport on February 2, 1971, at about 7.00pm having been told that the situation was tense and that PIA had stopped its daily supply of food to the hijackers.
The late Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front (JKNLF) leader Maqbul Butt arrived in Lahore from Peshawar. Muslehuddin, who was working for PTV News, and I were the first people to meet him and we briefed him about the situation. We also helped arrange his press conference at the Hotel International. The hijackers Hashim and Ashraf had asked to meet Butt. Sardar Abdul Vakil Khan, the SSP of Lahore, took Khurshid and Maqbul to a room where Hashim sat with some officials. He told Butt that “these men” were telling him to set fire to the plane. Butt said that would be unwise.
As Khurshid and Maqbul were being escorted out, the SSP said, “ Khuda ke liye hamari jaan chhorh do, jahaz ko urha do” [For God’s sake spare us and destroy the plane]. And that is what happened, but not at the hands of the hijackers.
After the destruction of Ganga, the two hijackers were taken away. In the next few days, Maqbul and the entire leadership of JKNLF was arrested and tried for “treason”. All these brave and innocent men remained in jail for two years and were finally released by the Lahore High Court which called them “patriots fighting for the liberation of their motherland”. However, Hashim was not released until 1980 and only after he won his appeal in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
While Ashraf stayed on in Pakistan, Hashim settled in Europe. He returned to India a couple of years ago and was arrested for the 1971 hijacking. What kind of an “agent” then was Hashim Qureshi who was jailed by both India and Pakistan?
In my view, it establishes that he was a Kashmiri patriot. The theory that India arranged the hijacking because it wanted to ban Pakistani over-flights makes no sense as India could have banned the over-flights anyway by merely saying that the Yahya regime was ferrying troops and arms to crush the people of East Pakistan – which it was - and India did not wish to be party to it.
Hashim had crossed into Pakistan a couple of years earlier and met Maqbul. When he was crossing back, he was picked up, interrogated and released. 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 story that makes no sense. You don’t need “training” to hijack a Dakota, just a toy gun which is what the two cousins had when they hijacked Ganga. Another cock and bull story floated by MB Sinha, a former Indian intelligence officer, in a book said that Hashim agreed to “hijack” an Indian plane to Pakistan, befriending Maqbul Butt and infiltrating JKNLF.
This is absolute nonsense because the total JKNLF cadre could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If that was all India wanted, it could simply have sent an agent or two to Pakistan instead of getting one of its own planes hijacked. 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 with a rather rich imagination, was to establish his credibility with “his Pakistani masters and help India at the same time”. This is another ridiculous claim because first, Hashim never made any such demand and second, Bhutto’s meeting the hijackers was accidental. Sinha goes on to say that Hashim was instructed to blow up the plane after meeting Bhutto, which is utter rubbish because the plane was blown up not by Hashim, who had no means of doing so, but by the ISI.
In April 2001, Hashim Qureshi wrote to a Jammu newspaper after it published a fanciful article about the Ganga hijacking that he was and remained a Kashmiri patriot working for an independent Kashmir. He quoted KH Khurshid in his defence. Why did Yahya’s military destroy the plane? Because by then it had decided to jettison East Pakistan and also because it was inept beyond belief with some very strange notions.
Hashim, who has since been released, has turned pacifist but he still believes that Kashmir should be independent of both India and Pakistan, a position no patriotic Kashmiri differs with. It is time Kashmir stopped being treated as a choice piece of real estate by the two states.