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THE CONGRESS AND THE HIJACKER

by A. Surya Prakash

On December 20, 1978, Bhola Pandey of Azamgarh and his friend Devendar Pandey of Ballia hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC 410 from Lucknow to Delhi, soon after it took off from Lucknow. There were 132 passengers on board. The hijackers, who appeared to be armed, made several demands and forced the aircraft to land at Varanasi. They said they were members of the Youth Congress. They wanted Indira Gandhi to be released from jail; all criminal cases against her and Sanjay Gandhi to be withdrawn; and the Janata Party Government at the Centre to tender its resignation. They demanded that the authorities should convey “their regards” to Sanjay Gandhi and summon the Chief Minister of the state for talks. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the Inspector General of Police and the Chief Secretary took a special flight to Varanasi and arrived at that airport soon after 1 a.m. the following morning, to negotiate the release of the passengers. The hijackers also demanded that arrangements be made for them to address a press conference at the airport lounge and that the Prime Minister and All India Radio should be informed of the hijacking. Following protracted negotiations with the Chief Minister and senior state officials, the two hijackers released the passengers and surrendered.

The hijacking incident created quite a stir in Parliament and the Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation Mr.Purushottam Kaushik made a statement the following day and explained the sequence of events beginning with the hijack of the aircraft soon after it took off from Lucknow the previous day. That week was marked by large-scale violence in many states triggered by members of the Congress Party in protest against the arrest of Ms.Indira Gandhi in a breach of privilege case and her disqualification from Parliament on December 19. Tha Pandeys hijacked the plane on December 20 to protest against Parliament's decision to punish Ms.Gandhi. On December 21, Congress mobs went to the extent of hurling bombs into the Calcutta residence of Mr.Samar Guha, the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges of the Lok Sabha, which had indicted Ms.Gandhi. Congress goons also went on the rampage in Bangalore and Hyderabad and targeted public property. Seeveral persons were killed in these incidents. These violent incidents became the subject matter of an intense debate on December 23 in the Lok Sabha.

MPs belonging to other political parties condemned the hijacking and said that such trends smacked of fascist tendencies, which the Congress Party had in any case displayed in abundant measure during the dreaded Emergency imposed by Ms.Indira Gandhi for 19 months from June, 1975. However, leading lights of the Congress Party including Mr.R.Venkataraman, who later became President of India and Mr.Vasant Sathe, sought to rationalize the conduct of their party members and even tried to dismiss the hijacking incident as nothing more than a joke.

Leaders of the Congress Party went to extraordinary lengths to defend Bhola Pandey and Devender Pandey when the Lok Sabha debated the hijacking incident on December 23. The debate was revealing in terms of the respect that the Congress Party had for Parliament and its committees.. It shows that despite the humiliating defeat of the party in the March, 1977 Lok Sabha election, when it was punished for imposing a dictatorship on India, it had learnt no lessons. The debate once again exposed the Congress mindset, its fascist inclinations and revealed a lot about the party's respect for the rule of law.

Among those who stood up to defend the violence unleashed by the party was Congress veteran R.Venkataraman, who went so far as to talk about the right of every citizen to express dissent."It is a lesson we have learnt from Gandhiji.....when in South Africa, he protested against discriminatory laws and courted imprisonment.....When Gandhiji broke the salt laws in the country for the purpose of agitating the peoples' right to freedom , he exercised the right to dissent. Therefore, the people of the country feel that a certain punishment is out of proportion or is unwarranted (expulsion of Indira Gandhi from the Lok Sabha and her arrest) and they have a right to dissent and to take recourse to such things as to bring forth their point of view.....".

After this near shameful justification of country-wide violence, including the hijacking, Mr.Venkataraman claimed that the Congress Working Committee had passed a resolution condemning violence. However, "if in spite of it (the resolution), certain people take to certain measures, it is not because of the bidding, it is in spite of it". Therefore, he claimed, the party was not to blame. He then went on to claim that "there are always recalcitrant and intransigent elements in every party. There are always extreme elements in every party and extreme elements cannot be shown or brought up as an argument for condemning the party as a whole". This argument sounds hollow today because the Congress Party has rewarded the "recalcitrant and intransigent and extreme elements" with party tickets to contest not just the state assembly election in Uttar Pradesh but the Lok Sabha polls four times in a row! It shows that those to hijacked the aircraft in 1978 are deeply loved and respected by the Nehru-gandhis and the Congress Party.

Finally, Mr.Venkataraman dismissed the hijacking as nothing more than a joke. He said when they first heard the news about the hijacking, there was great deal of anger in the country. "But, ultimately, when it turned out to be nothing more than a toy pistol and a cricket ball, Sir, it has become the joke of the year". On hearing this, the Speaker said "fortunately" Mr.Venkataraman was not in that plane.

Mr.Vasant Sathe, another senior parliamentarian in the Congress ranks, said at the outset that he was not justifying the conduct of the pandeys but said he did not know how to describe the incident. Was it hijacking, skyjacking or skyjoking? According to him, it was "a prank by misguided young men" because they had deployed on a cricket ball and a toy pistol.

Mr.Janardhana Poojary blamed the ruling Janata Party government for the violence that culminated in the hijacking. He said there was an overwhelming sentiment across the country in favour of Ms.Gandhi and people were willing to sacrifice their lives and their property for her sake.

Lok Sabha records show that Mr.K.P.Unnikrishnan informed the House of the political connections and antecedents of the two pandeys. He said they were closely connected with a confidant of Ms.Gandhi and were "very active" in the campaign to oust Mr.Bahuguna from the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh.

Mr.Yadvendra Dutta spoke of how members of the Congress Party were saying that "if Indiraji goes to jail, rivers of blood will flow". The Congress had just a single point programme – "release the queen bee or the honey bees will die. Is this not sycophancy of the highest order?".

Mr.Saugata Roy said Mr.Dharam Bir Sinha, a former MP was on the hijacked plane. He told him that the hijackers were dressed in khadi kurta and pyjama . They came out of the cockpit and addressed the passengers and told them why they were hijacking the plane. They said they wanted to focus the attemntion of the world to Ms.Gandhi's arrest. "There may not have been specific instructions; but these young men had a specific purpose in mind – to demand the release of Mrs.Gandhi". He said he heard from Varanasi that groups of Congress Party supporters went to the Varanasi airport that day and raised slogans like "Pandeyji ki jai".

Mr.P.G.Mavalankar, a member of the Committee of Privileges which found Ms.Gandhi guilty of breach of privilege of the House, said ‘there was ample proof of her guilt". He did some plain speaking and said he was shocked to hear of the bomb attack on the house of Mr.Samar Guha, Chairman, Committee of Privileges. He said the House must stand as one and condemn this incident and build up public opinion against such behavior. He said neither Mr.Guha nor other members of the Committee of Privileges would be intimidated by such conduct. He said such protests were highly objectionable "as they lead to disruption, dislocation and sabotage" and we cannot tolerate it. He said some public decency and standards of morality had to be maintained in politics. Mr.Mavalankar was also amused at Mr.Venkataraman talking of the right of dissent in a democracy after Indira Gandhi had crushed dissent during the Emergency and jailed MPs who spoke against her in Parliament.

Prime Minister Morarji Desai lambasted Mr.Venkataraman and other Congress MPs who were trying to down play the hijacking. He said it was fortunate that the incident did not end in a disaster."If the pilots had lost their nerve, anything could have happened". This was the gravity of the hijacking. He said he waqs pained to hear Mr.Venkataraman's comment that the incident was a joke. "How was it a joke? Such a thing can never be defended, whether it wqas a toy pistol or whether a ball was presented as a bomb.How was it possible for the pilot to know that it was a toy pistol? They could not take a risk. If anything had happened, I do not know how many lives would have been lost". He also referred to the largescale violence unleashed by the Congress Party in the country including the bomb attack on the house of the Chairman of the Committee of Privileges of the Lok Sabha, the violence in Karnat6aka and the attack on the house of another MP Mr.Shejwalkar in Gwalior the previous night; and attempts to burn the office of the Janata Party in Delhi.

The Congress hatched a plot to split the Janata Party in Parliament in 1979 and succeeded in doing so by weening away Chaudhary Charan Singh and his followers. The Congress Party tempted him with prime ministership if he broke away with his MPs. It offered him support to form the government. These moves led to the fall of the Morarji Desai Government. Mr.Charan Singh was sworn in as prime minister by the President, but he never faced Parliament as Prime Minister because the Congress P[arty withdrew support before the next session and thus forced elections. Meanwhile, the Charan Singh Government, under pressure from the Congress Party, initiated the process to withdraw the case against the hijackers. The case against the two Pandeys was dropped. Thereafter, the Congress Party honoured both of them by giving them tickets in the 1980 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. They were elected to the assembly. Devendra Nath Pandey too has held key posts in the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee apart from successfully contesting elections to the state assembly.

Since then Bhola Pandey has been a favourite of the Nehru-Gandhis and given tickets to contest Lok Sabha elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009. On all these occasions, he has been unsuccessful. Further, Bhola Pandey has had his brush with the law on several occasions since the hijacking. For example, he was arrested and remanded to judicial custody by a local court in Ballia in March, 2009 following a non-bailable warrant in an extortion case dating back to 1982. Though remanded to judicial custody, the magistrate permitted him to file his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha election.

However, his clout with the Nehru-Gandhis is such that he has been once again given the ticket for the Salempur Lok Sabha seat in 2014! Who knows? Given their persistence, the Nehru-Gandhis may well succeed in their efforts to bring the man who hijacked a plane in 1978 into their ranks in Parliament!

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