KATHMANDU: Yesteryear's crime maestro Charles Sobhraj, who was once close to Pakistani militant leader Maulana Azhar Masood and claimed to have acted as an intermediary on the behest of the Indian government during the Indian Airlines plane hijack in 1999, has rubbished the allegation by India's ruling Congress party that then BJP government paid the militants a ransom of $10 million.
"It is a ridiculous allegation," said Sobhraj, who despite being behind bars in Kathmandu's Central Prison since 2003 has been closely following the frenzied campaign in India as the subcontinent goes to polls from Thursday. The 64-year-old, who had once run a flourishing crime syndicate from New Delhi and did time in Tihar Jail, was reacting to the claim by Congress spokesman Rajiv Shukla that Jaswant Singh, the external affairs minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 1999, had flown to Kandahar with a "booty of $50 million" to secure the release of the over 180 passengers taken hostage by Pakistan-based militants who also demanded the release of their leader Maulana Azhar Masood. Though Masood and two of his companions were released, the BJP government had always maintained that it did not pay any ransom. However, as mudslinging in India intensified between the major parties on the eve of the elections, Shukla alleged that the then BJP-led coalition government had parted with the money that was later used by Masood's terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to attack the Indian parliament and two Hindu temples. "I was in touch with both Masood and Jaswant Singh during the hijack drama," Sobhraj told IANS in an exclusive interview given through his lawyer. "Money was never mentioned. Masood is neither short of arms nor money." Sobhraj, who made several trips to Pakistan after the hijack drama was over, said he was in touch with several underground outfits but never heard anything about money changing hands between Singh and the militants. "Masood has wealthy financiers in the Arab world," he said. "Soon after his release (from Tihar) Masood was meeting Osama bin Laden. He had no need of meagre sums from the Indian government." During his Pakistan trips, Sobhraj said he saw that even small roadside shops, like tobacco kiosks, kept a small donation box intended for the JeM. "Funds for Masood keep pouring in from everywhere," he said. "During elections, parties tell voters any kind of story they want, even when they are aware it is not true, in the hope that they will get two percent more vote." Ten years later, the Kandahar hijack, which both the Nepal government and Indian Airlines had hoped to leave behind them, has been resurrected by the Congress and made an election issue. Congress leader and current Home Minister P. Chidambaram also criticised the BJP-led government's role during the hijack, saying he would not have allowed the release of the militants. The hijack dealt a severe blow to Nepal's tourism industry as the militants had boarded the flight in Kathmandu. Even today, Indian Airlines employs its own staff to run an additional security check on passengers before they board their flight in the Nepali capital. Now the poll results next month will indicate if the Kandahar hijack still remains a burning issue in Indian politics.