In one of India’s most popular lore of spying, the story goes how RAW used a teenaged Kashmiri boy as a double agent who would go on to facilitate the isolation of Pakistan from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Hashim Qureshi was one of the earliest plane hijackers in Asia. The story begins when Qureshi, all of sixteen, crossed over to Pakistan with the aid of a BSF official. The border security officer let the young Qureshi trespass on promise that he would spy on Pakistan. What the BSF official didn’t know was that it was actually him, who was taken for a ride. Qureshi had crossed over to get trained in plane hijacking. He was in cahoots with the separatist leader of Kashmir, Maqbool Bhat.
When Qureshi returned to India, he was apprehended by Indian security officials, and the agent spilled the beans that he was actually planning to hijack an Indian Airlines plane. Here on, everything went accordingly; Qureshi, along with his cousin Ashraf Qureshi hijacked the Srinagar-Jammu bound Ganga aircraft on 30 January 1971 to Lahore. He was armed with a mere toy pistol and a fake grenade! Security checks during those days were unheard of.
Once in Lahore, the two hijackers demanded the release of 36 jailed members of JKNLF of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (POK), besides seeking political asylum in Pakistan. To render authenticity to the incident, India’s national radio AIR broadcasted the news of the hijacking.
On surface, it all seemed India had nothing to do with the hijack, except negotiate the safety of its flight passengers. This was the time when terror was unheard of, and the hijack raised great curiosity in the masses of Pakistan. All the passengers were given a warm welcome in the Pakistani soil, offered teas and snacks, and given shelter at a grand hotel in Lahore, before they were transported back to the Indian border.
In the meanwhile, the two young hijacking cousins were given the rousing welcome of heroes in Pakistan. And for some inexplicable reason, the plane was burned down by the Pakistani authorities. Three months after this incident, India as ‘retaliation’ to the burning down of Ganga aircraft, banned all flights from West Pakistan to East Pakistan over its airspace. Travel of Pakistani flights to East Pakistan via Sri Lanka would take three times the time and fuel.
With the air space barred, Pakistan began to see the ‘conspiracy’ when they learned that Ganga was long withdrawn from service, but was re-inducted just a few days before the hijacking occurred.
Pakistan was trying to suppress the civil unrest in East Pakistan by sending men and other resources in planes. With the ban, they had to slow down their exercise. Knowing that they had been fooled by India, the ‘hijacking heroes’ suddenly fell from grace, and were sent to prison for being ‘Indian spies’. Although his co-accused cousin was let off earlier, Hashim languished in Pakistani jail for a decade and when set free, went to live in Europe.
As Pakistan’s agencies remained busy in detangling the Ganga episode, East Pakistan, with support from Indira Gandhi’s government, charted its own course to rewrite history. In March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made his freedom speech, and the Pakistan Army smelling secession and mutiny, launched Operation Searchlight to arrest the tide.
Finally, when on November, 1971 a joint force of Bangladesh and Indian troops took on the Pakistani soldiers, the role of India in the hijack became all too clear. The Pakistani Air Force deployed in Dhaka was isolated and cornered, and the disadvantage was fully utilised by India to liberate the region, what came to be known as Bangladesh.