NEW DELHI: Sometime in the autumn of 1995, Masood Azhar—holed up in Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu—blithely declared to India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) officials, “You have no idea how important I am. I am very important to Pakistan. I will go soon."
Four years later, on 24 December 1999, his prophesy came true—as Indian Airlines flight IC-814 took off from Nepal’s Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, it rewrote the entire narrative of militancy in Kashmir.
Hijacked by militants with 190 passengers aboard, India was forced to strike a deal in exchange of three jailed terrorists—Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh of the Harkat-ul-Ansar and Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar, who belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.
On 31 December 1999, bundled inside a police jeep, his face hidden in a balaclava cap, Azhar was handed over to representatives of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the centre and whisked away in a special chartered flight.
Supervising Azhar’s transfer was the deputy inspector general of Jammu and Kashmir police S.P. Vaid. The policeman had to live down the humiliation of watching India’s most wanted prisoner slip through his fingers. Still, there was something he could do to dampen Azhar’s audacity.
“Masood Azhar refused to put on the mask… the monkey-cap. He didn’t want his face to be hidden. I put my foot down and made him wear the mask," Vaid told Mint.
The air was thick with tension. The usually talkative Azhar, sandwiched between J&K police officers, kept quiet. The handover took an hour.
“He said nothing to us and we said nothing to him. We waited at the tarmac till he was handed over to officials who had come from New Delhi and thereafter the exchange happened," Vaid added.
It’s easy to see why Vaid was bristling. Just five years ago, Azhar was singing like a canary.
His arrest back in February 1994 happened by accident. He was riding in an autorickshaw in Anantnag town when police stopped it for a random check. Azhar attempted to escape but was caught after a chase.
Questioning the man, a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer recalls, was a walk in the park. While Azhar’s confessions centred on how he was influenced by the Deobandi Ulama, a revivalist movement within Sunni Islam, he spilled the beans on what it took to funnel terrorists into India from Pakistan.
“It was easier than we had expected. He was communicative and gave us all the details about his network, how it was set up, how recruitment happened for the terrorist groups, how training was imparted and how Pakistan and the Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) played a vital role. He was very forthcoming," former IB official Avinash Mohananey told Mint, insisting the prisoner was not physically harmed.
In October 1994, another terrorist, Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, was captured from his hideout in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, after he had kidnapped four Western tourists. All the hostages were freed and Sheikh was jailed within days of the kidnapping. (He is now in a Pakistani jail for his role in the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl).
Sheikh’s demand for freeing the tourists was the release of Masood Azhar and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen chief commander Sajjad Afghani, who had been arrested along with Azhar. But Azhar spurned the chance, apparently envious of Sheikh’s growing prominence.
“Azhar did not know Omar Sheikh and said nothing about him either. He’d read about the kidnappings in newspapers. But to him, Sheikh was unimportant and he said that he did not matter. In his mind, only he was important," Mohananey added.
Azhar’s ego came one more time in the way of his freedom.
In July 1995, Al-Faran, a Kashmiri Islamist militant group, kidnapped six foreign tourists from Pahalgam in Kashmir. Like Omar Sheikh, the Al-Faran also demanded Azhar’s release in exchange for the tourists. But its cardinal error was to undermine Azhar’s “importance"—by also demanding the release of Nasarullah Manzoor Lagaryar, the commander of another jihadi group.
“Azhar didn’t know the Al-Faran group and when they demanded Langaryar’s release along with his, Azhar was extremely unhappy because his ego had taken a beating since they hadn’t solely demanded his release. The deal never happened," Mohananey said.
All along, Azhar knew he was indispensable to Pakistan. His freedom gave birth to the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which soon struck in the heart of the national capital when armed JeM militants stormed Parliament in 2001.
“Not once was he worried about the consequences of his confessions. He shot to fame when he returned to Pakistan because he was sought after by the ISI, because any maulana who was capable of rabble rousing against India suited Pakistan. To Pakistan, the cost benefit analysis was simple—he was more useful to them than the transgression of his confessions in Indian jail," Mohananey added.