It was meticulously planned, and carefully executed. As the Twin-Otter was flying over the Koshi River, five minutes after it took off from Biratnagar airport, a youthful passenger got up from his seat, went to the cockpit, grabbed the pilot by the scruff of his neck, pointed a gun at him and said, “This plane is being hijacked.”
It was June 10, 1973, when the pro-democracy fighters of Nepal shocked the world by hijacking the 19-seater plane bound for Kathmandu. They forced the pilot to land in the suburbs of Forbesgunj, Bihar, and took away Rs 3 million in Indian currency belonging to the Nepal government before letting the plane return to Biratnagar.
The sensational news shook the Panchayat regime to its roots, boosted the morale of democracy fighters and drew the attention of the world toward the then little-known tiny Himalayan kingdom. The whole plan had been masterminded by none other than the late Nepali Congress (NC) leader Girija Prasad Koirala (GPK), who was not only a wily politician but also had a swashbuckling streak.
With the Panchayat regime taking to repressive measures, most pro-democracy leaders, including charismatic NC leader BP Koirala, were in self-exile in India. And there was little hope of the restoration of democracy in Nepal any time soon.
The NC revolutionaries planned to launch an armed struggle but that needed lots of money, and the party was reeling under a severe financial crisis. So the first concern of the revolutionaries was to collect money.
In the beginning, the young democrats planned to raid headquarter of Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) at Baluwatar. The plan was to break into the gold storage of the central bank and loot as much gold as possible. The survey of the NRB headquarter was done and escape routes decided. Some Indians, willing to help the democracy movement in Nepal, were also involved in the plan. Finally, they sought GPK’s help to recruit sharpshooters from India to carry out the raid. Perhaps GPK felt that it wasn’t a feasible plan and replied that he was not in a position to send any sharpshooters to Kathmandu. ‘Operation Ganesh’ was aborted after much preparation. “Thus, we had to make another plan: hijack a plane,” recalls Chakra Bastola, one of the hijackers.
Many had their doubts: How could some young men who had never even flown in a plane carry out a hijack? Given the lack of experience of the prospective hijackers, they were right in their argument, but wrong in underestimating GPK. He surprised one and all by turning the plan into a grand success.
It had been a couple of years after GPK was released from jail. And he was becoming restless again. The party had decided to launch an armed struggle against the Panchayat regime, and GPK had been entrusted with the task of recruiting fighters and arranging for their training and weapons. But he did not have the money.
Meanwhile, Durga Subedi, who was to be one of the hijackers, was freed from a jail in Kathmandu. He went straight to Forbesgunj where an NC party office was located. There he met GPK, who told him about the problem the party was facing. Suddenly, Subedi remembered a Reader’s Digest story he read while in jail. It was about the hijacking of a plane by Japan’s underground Red Army and the collecting of ransom. “Let’s hijack a plane,” Subedi volunteered. But GPK declined.
One day Subedi came to know that Madan Aryal, whose family was devoted to the democracy movement, worked at the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) branch office in Biratnagar. He also knew that the bank would send wads of bank notes in boxes to Kathmandu. The plane hijacking plan came to mind once again, and he discussed it with GPK. “Okay, I shall talk to Sandaju (BP Koirala) about it,” GPK said.
“A dangerous thing it is. It may even cost lives,” BP argued. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” replied an obstinate GPK.
It was known that NRB would import Indian currency notes from Attariya in India and bring them to Kathmandu via Biratnagar. In the beginning, they planned to loot the money on its way to Biratnagar from Attariya. But the plan was later cancelled due to security reasons. They decided to go ahead with the hijack plan instead as it would also draw the attention of the world. GPK took on the responsibility of arranging for the weapons, while Subedi was to form a team of hijackers. Nagendra Dhungel and Basanta Bhattarai agreed to join Subedi’s team. After some dithering, NRB employee Aryal finally agreed to pass them information about the transport of money to Kathmandu, while his brother Binod Prasad Aryal, self-exiled in India for his involvement in the democracy movement, was to take the money to safety in Darjeeling and Sikkim.
The plan was kept secret, and even most of the team members did not know about the entire operation. GPK only told them that they were carrying out a historic task in the near future. The hijackers were just waiting for NRB to send the notes to Kathmandu. They bought two tickets of Rs 175 each, but cancelled the tickets twice because they were not sure on which day NRB was sending the money. Finally, they received information that Rs three million was being flown to Kathmandu on June 10, 1973 at 8.30 a.m., and Nepal Army personnel were escorting the vehicles carrying the money to the airport.
Dilip Jung Thapa, executive manager of the NRB branch office in Biratnagar, suddenly had to go to Kathmandu on some emergency, but he did not have a plane ticket. “Sir, the army personal will escort the vehicles to the airport here, and others in Kathmandu will take the money to its destination. So why not take the ticket of the security guard accompanying the money,” Madan Aryal opined. “Good idea,” Thapa replied.
The three hijackers had only two tickets. Subedi knew that cinema actors CP Lohani and Mala Sinha were also going to Kathmandu on the same plane. Subedi requested Lohani, “Brother, I have tuberculosis. I plan to go to Kathmandu tomorrow for treatment. But I don’t have a ticket. Please let me have yours.” Lohani agreed. Things were surprisingly turning in favor of the hijackers. They were now fully prepared for something they had never done before. “I could not sleep the whole night. I was restless,” says Basanta Bhattarai, who was then just 21 years old. "But as a member of the NC army, I had already signed a paper with my blood to sacrifice my life if need be,” he adds.
The hijackers were to land the plane on an isolated stretch of grass in Forbesgunj, which had been used as an airport by the British during World War II. There was a large cotton tree nearby. A red flag was placed atop the tree so that the hijackers could easily spot the place. Binod Aryal, Sushil Koirala, Manahari Baral and Biru Lama were deployed there.
Meanwhile, the rookie hijackers headed for Biratnagar airport by rickshaw. Subedi went inside the terminal, leaving Bhattarai and Dhungel at a rice mill in Bargachhi. He wanted to confirm that the money had been brought there. His eyes flashed at the site of the boxes and informed his buddies. The armed hijackers took advantage of the lax airport security and entered the terminal with no hassle. With their hearts pounding heavily, the three boarded the plane.
Within five minutes of takeoff, Bhattarai turned his pistol at the pilot, switched off the communication equipment and ordered him to fly the plane to Forbesgunj. But he was shocked to see the plane steward grabbing Subedi while the latter was pulling out his pistol. Luckily Dhungel had already turned his gun at the steward. Subedi then turned to the co-pilot. The hijackers now took the crew under control. When the pilot hesitated to fly the plane to Forbesgunj, they showed grenades and threatened to blow up the plane. But the plane had already flown far from the Koshi Barrage. The pilot said he would land somewhere in Birpur of Bihar as the plane would run out of fuel in an hour. But the hijackers declined.
He was asked to divert the plane to the Koshi Barrage again and fly low along the Koshi canal heading southward. Within minutes, Sultan Pond was seen, and they were close to the grassland. Everybody was happy except the crew and passengers who were in tears.
Aryal, Sushil Koirala, Manahari Bhattarai, Rajendra Dahal and Biru Lama were already there on the ground. At first they could not believe their own eyes as the plane prepared to land. Aryal took off his red t-shirt and waved it to signal that they were at the right place. The plane was about to land, but it nosed up again. After two or three minutes the plane reappeared and landed safely. The passengers were in panic.
Three boxes full of bank notes were taken out. The plane took off again immediately. Meanwhile, GPK’s vehicle, driven by Ganesh Sharma, an Indian national sympathetic to the democracy cause in Nepal, also reached the spot. The boxes were loaded in three different vehicles and these zoomed off to Darjeeling. But most had no idea where the money was being taken. The hijackers went to Darjeeling, then to Banaras and then to Mumbai and occasionally made trips to Delhi to meet BP Koirala. “The next day of the hijacking we were in a train bound for Banaras, and we saw people reading newspapers with banner headlines on the hijacking. We were so nervous that we could not even peek at what the people were reading,” recalls Bhattarai.
Then, there was a state of emergency in India under Indira Gandhi. The times were not appropriate for Nepali democrats. Within a year, all the hijackers, except Narendra Dhungel, were arrested one by one by the Indian government. After the emergency was over, they were released on bail, and BP Koirala returned to Nepal “floating the idea of national reconciliation”. The hijackers also returned to Nepal just ahead of the referendum in 1980. “In retrospect I see that we made history,” recalls Bhattarai.
Many including BP Koirala himself suspected that the money was misused. When police seized some Rs 150,000 in unaccounted-for money from the house of LP Sharma in Darjeeling, there was speculation that GPK might have hidden the money there. Later, police also seized some unaccounted-for money from the house of CP Lohani in Mumbai. But Bastola, who was hiding in Delhi with the pseudonym of Sunil Tiwari before being arrested by Indian police, dismisses the speculation. “Running the party in exile was not so easy. The party needed lots of money,” said Bastola, seated relaxed at his private residence in Kathmandu the other day.
(Based on conversations with Chakra Bastola and Basanta Bhattarai)