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Remembering the 1971 Ganga episode : THE NEWS

LAHORE: On 30 January 1971, an Indian airliner, a Fokker Friendship (F27) named "Ganga" enroute from Srinagar to Jammu, landed at Lahore airport after it was hijacked by two young men who were armed with a hand grenade and a pistol.

Ganga carried twenty-six passengers and an aircrew of four including the captain. After landing at Lahore airport, the two hijackers demanded that they be granted asylum in Pakistan, that the Government of India release thirty-six political prisoners belonging to the Kashmiri National Liberation Front and further, that, the families of the two hijackers should not be harmed by the Indian authorities. Two days later all the passengers were released by the Hijackers who returned to India by road via Amritsar. New Delhi demanded immediate return of the "Ganga" which had been parked in an isolated corner of Lahore airport. Before a decision could be reached by Islamabad, the hijackers managed to blow up the aircraft on February 2, 1971.

The destruction of the "Ganga" spawned an angry Indian reaction. On February 3, through a protest note, New Delhi accused the government of Pakistan of assisting the hijackers and demanded compensation from Pakistan for the loss of the aircraft. On February 4, New Delhi suspended the overflight of all Pakistani aircraft, civil and military, over the territory of India and demanded that Pakistan should hand the two hijackers over to it for trial in India under Indian laws.

These Indian protestations were accompanied by violent public demonstrations outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. Led by Jana Singh and students, angry Indian protesters attacked the Pakistan High Commission premises with stones and badly damaged the building. Refusing to accept these Indian demands, Islamabad linked the hijacking incident to the "repressive measures taken by the Government of India in occupied Kashmir" and regretted that "instead of employing normal diplomatic procedures for resolving" the matter, "the Government of India has used this incident to heighten tension between the two countries." Islamabad expressed its optimism that there was "no reason why this problem, like other matters between our two countries, cannot be solved by mutual discussion, in a spirit of understanding".

The question of overflights was referred to the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organisation in April 1971. New Delhi not only repeated its original conditions but also added the demand that Pakistan "give adequate assurances regarding the safety of flights in the future". The ban was not lifted until after the December 1971 India-Pakistan War which resulted Pakistan's dismemberment. During the height of the "Ganga" hijacking episode, the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, G.M. Sadiq made the startling revelation that the whole incident was an Indian plot and that one of the two hijackers was a RAW agent. G.M. Sadiq's claim that "Ganga" hijacking was an Indian sponsored venture was confirmed by Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah a week later and also further corroborated by exhaustive investigations conducted by a Pakistan Commission of Enquiry under Justice Noor Ul Arfin. In May 1973, a Special Court in Lahore ruled that only one of the two hijackers was knowingly working for the Indians. He was sentenced to nineteen years rigorous imprisonment.

The consequences of the hijacking of the "Ganga" were profound. For one, by denying Pakistan overflight rights, India effectively severed the vital air corridor link between East and West Pakistan - a condition which played a key role in the Indian military victory against Pakistan during the December 1971 War. Second, the "Ganga" episode allowed India to create conditions of "war hysteria" against Pakistan which Indira Gandhi skillfully exploited to mobilise domestic support for "her" war against Pakistan later in the year. Finally, the Ganga episode allowed India an opportunity to "discredit" the Kashmiri freedom struggle as Indian-sponsored hijackers were allowed to masquerade as "freedom fighters".

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