Muskan Sharma, one of the 122 passengers, is greeted by her uncle on arrival at Delhi airport on Monday. Picture by Yasir Iqbal
New Delhi, July 9: Whether Manmohan Singh can accept Asif Ali Zardari’s long-standing invite is uncertain but 128 Indians were today treated as “state guests” when chance brought them unannounced to the Pakistan President’s hometown early this morning.
Recent Indo-Pak recriminations over 26/11 suspect Abu Jundal’s alleged revelations didn’t come in the way of Pakistani authorities going “out of their way” to help an Air India plane’s 122 passengers and six-member crew after it made an emergency landing at Nawabshah, Sindh.
The passengers, however, spent some 12 hours cooped up inside the plane after the pilot declined the offers of transit visa for them to use the airport lounge.
But Indian officials were full of praise for the way the Pakistanis went beyond what is expected in such situations to make the Indians comfortable, even before foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai or Indian high commission officials in Islamabad could officially request help.
Sources in New Delhi said the incident was an example of the warmth in people-to-people relations between the two countries.
“The passengers were very well treated by the Pakistani authorities. They were very helpful and cooperative in providing emergency landing facilities, speedy clearance to the relief plane, and water and refreshments to the stranded passengers and in offering transit visas, if needed,” a South Block official said.
Pakistan’s national carrier, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), later provided the money for refuelling the Indian relief plane with the Indian high commission serving as guarantor.
Sources said the Air India crew didn’t have enough credit on the fuel card — something each international flight carries to pay for fuel it buys outside its country of origin.
As soon as the flight from Abu Dhabi had landed in Nawabshah, Pakistan defence secretary Nargis Sethi instructed the country’s Civil Aviation Authority chief, Nadeem Khan Yousufzai, to provide all possible assistance to the crew and passengers.
The transit visas were offered at the instance of Rehman Malik, adviser to the Pakistan Prime Minister on internal affairs. Malik instructed his officials that the passengers and crew should be treated as “state guests”, a Pakistan high commission official said in Delhi.
“Food was arranged with the help of the district administration as Nawabshah is a small airport and does not on a daily basis cater to such a large number of passengers,” the official said.
However, the pilot apparently refused the food. The relief plane, which landed at Nawabshah airport by afternoon, carried full meals for the passengers.
“It was a small airport and probably with limited facilities. Some passengers panicked; some others got angry when there was a delay in the arrival of the rescue aircraft,” said passenger V. Radhakrishnan, 65.
The airport is a former Royal Air Force World War II base that has been operating commercial flights since 2008 and is a four-hour drive from Karachi. The Nawabshah district, where Zardari fought his first election and lost, was recently renamed Shaheed Benazir Abad district.
Foreign ministry special secretary Ashok Tomar, who received the passengers on their return to Delhi, said: “The aircraft and the passengers got good cooperation from the Pakistan authorities.”
The incident comes a day after Indian external affairs minister S.M. Krishna had again chided his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar, on the sidelines of a conference in Tokyo, for Islamabad’s failure to take action against the terror infrastructure on its territory.