Kashmir is a major bone of contention between India and Pakistan; it is a long-standing territorial dispute that has triggered three wars.

India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. Kashmir was split as well, with two-thirds going to India and a third going to Pakistan. Kashmir was predominantly Muslim, and so Pakistan maintained that all of Kashmir should have been part of Pakistan.

The conflict over this territory started soon after the two countries were formed, and in 1949 a cease-fire was brokered by the United Nations and a resolution was passed, calling for a referendum allowing Kashmiris to decide their future for themselves. According to Pakistan, India has never implemented the resolution.

A historical hijacking, an inferno, jailbirds, a beloved leader and espionage — the story has plenty of turns and twists

The conflict between the two countries over Kashmir has also generated battles fought between the two states with the help of ‘non-state actors’. This has often led to various complexities in which sometimes the two states are not quite sure about the true intentions of the non-state actors.

One of the first examples in this respect can be traced back to the tale of two radical Kashmiris in 1971.

In January 1971, two young men belonging to a Kashmiri liberation group in India hijacked an Indian Airways plane from Srinagar and ordered the pilot to land it at the Lahore Airport in Pakistan.

As the Pakistani authorities were busy negotiating with the hijackers for the release of the passengers, the leader of the PPP, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, arrived on a PIA plane from Dhaka in former East Pakistan.

Bhutto’s party had won the largest number of seats in West Pakistan (in the 1970 election). He had gone to Dhaka to hold talks with the chairman of the Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League, which had swept the polls in East Pakistan.

East Pakistan was on the brink of a civil war and the Pakistani government, then led by General Yahya Khan, had accused India of arming Bengali nationalists.

When Bhutto arrived in Lahore, he was greeted by a large number of his supporters. But as he was about to make his way out of the airport, some of his supporters demanded that he talk to the two hijackers and declare them heroes.

Not knowing exactly who the two young Kashmiris were and exactly what was the Pakistan government’s stance on the hijacking, Bhutto was reluctant.

Nevertheless, he was almost carried towards the hijacked plane by a dozen or so of his supporters.

Bhutto shook hands with the hijackers, exchanged a few smiles and hastily bid goodbye. The crowd cheered.

Bhutto beat a hasty retreat but the Pakistani authorities managed to get the hijackers to give themselves up and release the passengers.

But as the passengers (most of them Indians and a few foreigners) were being put on another flight back to India, the now empty hijacked plane went up in flames.

It was first reported that the plane had been blown up by the hijackers. However, many years later, late Khalid Hasan, a veteran journalist, claimed that the former Head of The Indian Desk in the Pakistan government, Aftab Ahmed, told him (in London) that the plane was set on fire by Pakistani authorities.

But just as newspapers were reporting that the two hijackers, Hashim and Ashraf Qureshi, were being hailed as heroes by the people of West Pakistan (mainly due to Bhutto’s meeting with them), Bhutto insisted that he was forced into meeting them by an emotional crowd and that he had no clue who the two men were or what they wanted.

More irony ensued when the Indian government and press accused Pakistan of masterminding the hijacking, while the Pakistan government not only arrested the two hijackers but also a leading Kashmiri leader who had escaped India and was residing in Pakistan.

The Pakistan government, on the other hand, accused the Indian government of staging the hijacking to put Pakistan in a tight spot and create a negative image about the Kashmir issue. It declared both the hijackers as Indian agents, whereas the Indian government declared them to be Pakistani agents!

So in a way, the hijackers became villains in the eyes of both India and Pakistan. Both men were tried for spying by a Pakistani court and jailed.

After spending 10 years in Pakistani jails, they were released in 1980. Whereas, Ashraf decided to stay in Pakistan, Hashim flew out to Europe. However, after a few years there, he returned to India where he was immediately arrested by the Indian authorities who charged him with high treason and threw him in jail.

Ashraf led a quiet life in Pakistan, while Hashim who had spent 10 years in a Pakistani jail and then another 10 in an Indian jail was finally released in the early 2000s. He still resides in India and has since become a pacifist.

The late Khalid Hasan who first investigated the story suggested that both men were declared to be ‘enemy agents’ by Indian and Pakistani governments simply because they were acting independently and weren’t recruited by either government.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 15th, 2015

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