The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Heavy price for panic
- SMS girl sent to jail, slapped stiff charges

Calcutta, March 12: A young woman flying alone for the first time hears some youths discuss “doing something” inside the plane and sends a panic SMS to her father.

She is arrested, sent to jail for 14 days and faces a 10-year term if convicted of endangering co-passengers and the flight with the information she passed.

If Mehak Ahuja were on a US flight, her mistaken terror alarm may have had Washington scrambling F-16s to escort her plane to safety. In India, she must pay for her panic.

Would anyone ever raise the alarm in a plane again if they spotted anything suspicious' The country’s highest aviation official, Kanu Gohen, admitted the point but insisted Mehak should have spoken out before boarding the plane.

The 25-year-old MBA student had spotted the youths, who she says made lewd comments at her, in the departure lounge.

Her SMS just before take-off last night led to the Delhi-bound flight later turning back mid-air and returning to Calcutta.

“You can’t use mobiles inside aircraft. Action should be taken against her,” director-general of civil aviation Gohen said over the phone from Delhi.

Mehak said she had switched her mobile off as soon as she was warned by the stewardesses.

Mehak is unluckier in her own country than the 12 Indian passengers who were detained in Amsterdam as terror suspects last August after ignoring crew’s requests not to speak on their mobiles. After a couple of days’ questioning established they were not terrorists, they were sent back to India.

She’s also unluckier than those Americans who have reported “suspicious” co-passengers to crew only because of their appearance. The “suspects” have often been shamefully harassed, but the government has desisted from any action against the passengers that might deter future alerts.

Mehak’s family wouldn’t speak but neighbours said she was a “nice person”.

“She has grown up in a protected environment and had never flown alone. So she panicked,” a neighbour said.

Had the student of Indian Institute of Planning and Management, New Delhi, made a deliberate hoax terror call, she would have faced a two-year jail term instead of 10. This charge -- criminal intimidation by anonymous communication – too has been slapped on her.

Mehak hadn’t thought of disrupting the flight. Scared, she had only turned to her father, who had always accompanied her on flights before.

“Everything is fine but a terrorist attack can take place! But don’t tell police about it,” her message had said.

Mohinder Ahuja of Bangur Avenue, who had just seen off his daughter, called the airport and the airline. The IndiGo flight was back by 9.15 pm, 90 minutes after it had taken off.

At the isolation bay, with the plane ringed by security men, “she was taken around the flight twice but couldn’t identify the youths”, a CISF official said.

The aircraft left for Delhi again around 1 am but without Mehak, who was arrested at 3 am following an FIR by the airline. “During interrogation, she was weeping and kept saying she sent the SMS out of panic,” an officer said.

This morning, a magistrate remanded her to judicial custody at Dum Dum Central Jail.

Twenty of Mehak’s fellow passengers cancelled their journey, an airport official said. “They would have missed their connecting flights.” IndiGo is believed to have lost Rs 3.5 lakh.

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