Getting Christian Michel, the alleged Augusta Westland middleman, extradited to India was no earth-shaking event. But a drama was played for political purposes by the BJP and their acolytes in the media, diplomacy and security establishment. Michel was, as a prominent national daily reported, the 20th fugitive to be brought from the UAE since 2002.
The only difference in the present case is its timing to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to add this “achievement” in his campaigning in Rajasthan on December 5 to proclaim dramatically that “the entire family is shivering” since the “Raazdaar (Michel) will reveal secrets”.
It was also meant to divert public and media attention from the breakdown of security and law and order in most of the BJP-ruled states, especially in Uttar Pradesh where public anger exploded since December 3 at the dastardly killing of police inspector Subodh Kumar Singh in Bulandshahr. The resentment even in the ruling saffron alliance is so strong as to provoke the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana to ask in an editorial on December 5: “Was violence in Bulandshahr planned to polarize society on religious grounds?”
From the visual media “breaking news” on December 5, it was very clear that our national security establishment had actively timed the extradition to suit the electoral convenience of the BJP just prior the assembly elections in four key states. This will be clear from NDTV headline calling the entire operation as “The Ajit Doval Project”. What was the need for the drama of rushing Michel in a gulfstream aircraft to beat the deadline of the canvassing end when the Court order allowing extradition was issued on November 19? It is relevant to point out that almost all such fugitives, including the Indian Mujahideen financier Abdul Wahid Siddibapa (Bhatkal Gang) responsible for ten bombings (2007-13), were flown in by commercial airlines.
Was India’s diplomacy in the Emirates so weak even after our security establishment in March 2018 allegedly helped intercept Dubai princess Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum in international waters near the Indian coast? Or was this drama necessitated because of the difficulties of getting a British national extradited from the Emirates for which our Prime Minister had to speak to Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Buenos Aires on the sidelines of the G-20 summit as stated by an Indian paper?
In the past too, several extraditions, much more of national importance than a mere bribery case like that of Michel, were obtained without such drama. On August 24, 1984, a Chandigarh-Srinagar IAC A 300 flight was hijacked by six Khalistani militants and taken to Lahore. From there, it was flown to Karachi and finally to Dubai. This was the second hijacking incident in 1984, following the one in July 5, 1984, also by Sikh militants. The magnitude of this incident could be gauged by the fact that this and other similar incidents had led to a crescendo of serious security breaches culminating in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on 31 October 1984.
This incident was perhaps the first to provide solid proof of Pakistan’s active complicity in encouraging separatist Sikh militancy in Punjab. At Lahore, a Pakistani intelligence official handed over a German-made pistol to Kamaljit Singh Sandhu, leader of the hijackers. Till then, they possessed no arms. Hijacker Tejinder Singh would tell the BBC 19 years later that the “petrol bomb” they had with them was nothing more than a bottle of cough syrup. Our intelligence agencies worked silently and obtained proof by liaising with the BND, their counterpart in West Germany, to prove that this was part of the 75 pistols sent by their country to Pakistan.
The most difficult part was getting the custody of the six Khalistani hijackers. Pakistan’s leadership felt that it would be difficult for India to get their custody from Dubai, where, they felt, they had better clout than India. Pakistan’s ambassador Amir Gulistan Janjua met defence minister Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid several times to prevail upon the Emirates to keep the hijackers in the the UAE or to send them to the US as demanded by them.
But they had underestimated the personal contacts and quiet diplomacy of the late Romesh Bhandari, then the secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs Ministry (MEA). Bhandari, who had befriended most of the heads of the oil producing states, in a dramatic breakthrough obtained extradition of these hijackers although there was no extradition treaty between the countries. They were all flown in to India on September 3, 1984 and later sentenced to life imprisonment.
All these prove that our diplomacy, intelligence wings and political leadership earlier always succeeded in protecting our national interests without the drama associated with the Modi-Doval era. I wish the NDA government had shown the same urgency and importance in rescuing the 39 abandoned workers in Mosul in June 2014. Doval promised on June 20, 2014: “We have a serious challenge at hand, make no mistake, but with persuasive diplomacy we will deal with the problem. We are very confident that we will overcome the imponderables and get our people back home safe.” Tragically, the NDA government went on assuring their poor relatives that were safe till the end.
The writer is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.