Ganga hijack, India plane hijack

Srinagar: On the morning of 30 January 1971, Peerzada Fayaz, then 11 years old, left his home in Srinagar to pursue better education outside – and embarked on his first air journey. Little he knew that soon the excitement would turn into the worst nightmare: the teenager found himself in the middle of India’s first airplane hijacking.

Fayaz boarded an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship plane, ‘Ganga’, from Srinagar to Jammu, heading towards a boarding school in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh.

“I had mixed feelings before boarding the plane. I was sad because I was leaving my family behind but at the same time I was excited to embark on a new journey,” Fayaz said.

Saying goodbye to his family, Fayaz boarded the flight along with a friend from Anantnag and twenty-five other passengers. 

Fayaz was sitting in the second row from the cockpit, on a window seat. As a child, Fayaz said, he was focused to enjoy the picturesque snow-clad mountains.

Only moments before the plane was to touch down in Jammu, two young men stood up and ran towards the cockpit. One of them, with a revolver in his hand, kicked the cockpit door; another, apparently with a grenade in hand, stood guard outside the cockpit.

“It was just like an English movie,” Fayaz said. “We could not comprehend the events that were unfolding before us.”

The plane was hijacked by Hashim Qureshi and Ashraf Qureshi, both members of the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front (JKNLF). 

Zyada hoshyari dikhane ki zaroorat nahi hai,” Ashraf had shouted, recalled Fayaz.

However, the tale’s twist came to the fore later when it was learned that Hashim, then 16-year-old, had, in fact, “hijacked” the plane with a toy pistol.

Fayaz recalled that though the hijackers didn’t resort to physical abuse, an air of gloom descended in the plane. While Ashraf was busy making sure that every passenger was adhering to his dictates, Hashim, who was in the cockpit, had a pistol at the head of the pilot, MK Kachroo.

The hijackers directed the pilot to take a detour.

“Nobody had any clue where we were flying to,” recalled Fayaz. “It was Dr. Naseer Shah, the then Principal of the Medical College of Jammu and Kashmir sitting in the front row, who informed the rest of the passengers that they were flying over Punjab,” Fayaz said.

Soon, the plane started to descend. Fayaz’s friend immediately noticed planes parked on the tarmac with a mark PIA with crescents and stars painted on their tails.

The plane was in Lahore, Pakistan.

“I was worried,” Fayaz said, “but at the same time excited to be in Pakistan.” The moment the plane stopped, Fayaz said, it was surrounded by the Pakistan army.

Ganga hijack, indian airplane hijack
Fayaz with Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Photograph arranged by The Kashmir Walla.

“After some time the plane door was opened and an aluminum trunk was placed. It was one of the hijackers, Hashim, who was the first one to jump out,” Fayaz recalls.

A few minutes later, an announcement was made that women and children could get off the plane. Fayaz and his friend were among the youngest in the plane, and the first civilians to de-board the plane.

Then began the fun for him. “We were escorted to the terminal and served tea and biscuits. We were like celebrities. Everybody was hugging us. A battery of security guards was visiting us keen to know about us,” Fayaz said.

Soon all other passengers were gathered in a large hall next to a lounge, where a team of Pakistani government officials, led by then Pakistan External Affairs Minister and chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto greeted them.

Fayaz said Bhutto came up to him and had a long chat about his family, education, and future plans. The Pakistan External Affairs Minister made Fayaz sit next to him in a press conference held at the Lahore airport on the hijacking.

At sunset, all the passengers were made to board two heavily guarded buses and were driven through the roads of Lahore. 

“It was a busy city,” Fayaz said of Lahore. “People were roaming around and there was a rush of transport playing on the road.”

All the passengers were kept in a hotel with two people in each room. “It was like a five-star hotel,” Fayaz said. “Tired by the day’s events, I fell asleep.”

The next morning without any means of communication, including an absence of radio, TV, and newspapers, the passengers were anxious to know what was happening outside.

Fayaz, taking an advantage of being young, he said, he arranged a newspaper from the authorities. A newspaper with a picture of Bhutoo and him at a press conference was published on the front page, he said.

Later, Fayaz said, they were also provided carrom boards, chess boards, and cards to kill time.

Meanwhile, the hijackers demanded the Indian government release 36 jailed JKNLF members.

Two days later, the passengers were asked to get ready pack their bags and board a bus.

“We were unaware of our destination till we reached the India-Pakistan border,” Fayaz said. “The moment we crossed the border, the Indian officials welcomed us with garlands, followed by a high tea.”

The passengers were then taken to the Ferozpur airbase where they were received by Dr. Karan Singh, the first Sadr-e-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir.

Later, the Indian Air Force plane took the passengers to Amritsar and was separated into two groups: one flown to Delhi and another to Jammu. 

In Delhi, then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi received them while in Jammu, then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq received them.

Ganga hijack, india first airplane
Fayaz with Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq, then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Photograph arranged by The Kashmir Walla.

Fayaz stayed at Sadiq’s official residence for more than a week.

“It was an experience of a lifetime. I still remember everything vividly,” Fayaz said.

What happened to hijackers and their demands? “It is well documented in history books,” Fayaz said, grinning.

Years later, a book by a former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) spy revealed that the intelligence agency had staged the hijacking. As per the book by R K Yadav, the RAW had arrested a Pakistani agent and foiled the move by the ISI to hijack a plane that was being piloted by Rajiv Gandhi from Srinagar Airpot. 

Then RAW’s leadership made the agent hijack a plane and landed it in Lahore, which gave India an opportunity to ban flights from Pakistan from using the Indian airspace, and hampered military transport to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

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