The story of Hashim Qureshi, one of the first plane hijackers in the world is a stark reminder that the path to militancy is often paved with quixotic moves and miscommunication. That it is fed with the misguided idealism of teenage and that it is blundered into than consciously undertaken.
When Hashim Qureshi, armed with a toy pistol and a wooden hand grenade managed to hijack the Indian Airlines Srinagar-Jammu flight to Lahore he was just sixteen. The media attention which followed was the message, and it brought the Kashmir cause to the forefront.
While not many would recall the incident, after all it has been forty-three years since it happened, Hashim still remembers every detail clearly and at the age of 59, has turned from a freedom fighting teenager to a wizened advocate of peace and progress.
A key feature of the incident, the torching of the plane, was a blunder that Hashim rues. In his narrative it happened because he was misinformed, but to those looking with the sagacity of hindsight, it also happened because Hashim was willing to do it, and perhaps one was the reasons he was willing to do it was that he knew no better at that time.
It is the bitter consequences of that mistake which has turned him to peace now. Much like Yasin Malik he too has decided that peace is without price.
His trial for the case is still going on and is in its twelfth year now. It has been more than forty years now since he went to Pakistan to meet his sister.
Talking about Maqbool Bhat, the founder of the pro-independence outfit JKLF, Hashim said, “I met Maqbool Bhat in Peshawar. Bhat said India would never leave an inch of Kashmir to Pakistan, but an independent Kashmir could always be negotiated.”
Hashim became dedicated to the freedom cause. He came back and circumstances helped him use the Border Security Force (BSF) for his plans.
“In a haircutting salon in Lal Chowk, I met a Kashmiri Border Security Force (BSF) officer. I told him I wanted to go to Pakistan. He agreed to help me cross the border provided I brought some information the BSF needed. I agreed and the BSF managed my clandestine entry into Pakistan through the Sialkot border.”
He was actually double-crossing the BSF. In Pakistan, Hashim was trained for the hijack.
“Maqbool Bhat said to highlight the Kashmir problem we must hijack an Indian plane. Javaid Mantoo, a retired pilot, helped familiarise me with a Fokker Friendship plane. He took me to Chaklala airport where I was allowed to see the plane from inside.”
After hijack training, Hashim crossed back into Kashmir from the Sialkot border.
“I boarded a bus, but the bus was stopped by police and I was caught with a pistol and a hand grenade. I was taken to a BSF interrogation centre. I told them how I had been trained along with three others for the hijack in Pakistan.
“I was asked by the BSF to keep a watch at the Srinagar airport. An advertisement appeared in a newspaper about the sale of a look-real pistol which could be used to scare away thieves. I ordered one by post. I fabricated a wooden hand grenade and painted it with metallic colour.”
Hashim booked tickets on the Srinagar-Jammu Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship flight for Jan 30, 1969, for himself and his cousin Ashraf.
“Once airborne, I rushed to the cockpit, placed the pistol on the pilot’s head and announced the hijack. We ordered the pilot to fly the plane to Pakistan. There were 34 passengers, including the crew.
“We landed at Lahore airport at 1 p.m. Jan 30, 1969. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto reached there. The Pakistan authorities asked us to release the passengers. I said not before I had spoken to Maqbool Bhat. We remained at the airport till 8.30 p.m. Feb 2, 1969.
“Then a Lahore police official came and told us to finish the drama and set the plane ablaze. Bhat opposed the torching of the plane. He said we should continue the ordeal at Lahore airport to get maximum media attention.
“Finally, one Pakistan army officer came with a canister of fuel and told us Bhat had said we must now set the plane on fire. We did it, but later learnt that Bhat had opposed torching of the Indian plane till the very end,” Hashim told IANS.
After the hijack, Hashim and his cousin were treated like heroes in Pakistan for three months. “Everywhere we went, a hero’s welcome awaited us,” he said.
But glory was shortlived. “I was arrested in April 1971 in Pakistan and released in 1980. After my release, I was told by Pakistan intelligence that we should arrange groups of Kashmiri youth for training in firearms.
“They said after militancy spread in Kashmir, Pakistan would come to our assistance by an armed invasion. It was clear they were looking for Kashmiris to fight Pakistan’s proxy war against India without committing themselves to our independence.
“I finally left Pakistan in August 1986 for Holland and remained there till December 27, 2000, when I got homesick.”
Today he advocates freezing of the Kashmir issue for 20 years to address the hatred between India and Pakistan.
Hashim lives on a hillside mansion in the Nishat area of the city where he gazes at the Dal Lake from his multi-terraced lawn, playing golf in between – and recounting his story.