ON 3 December 1971, a few hours before Pakistan started the war with India, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Boeing 720B was operating Flight PK-712 bound from London to Karachi via Paris, Rome and Cairo . With passengers and crewmembers on board, the flight arrived at Paris Orly Airport. Five passengers from Paris boarded the flight. Of these, one passenger was Jean Kay, a 28-year-old French soldier who had earlier fought in Biafra and Yemen.
After all the passengers were seated and the flight readied to take off, Jean Kay discreetly slipped into the cockpit with a pistol in hand and ordered the pilots to cut the engine power. He threatened to shoot the pilots if they did not cooperate with him. Pointing to his briefcase with two wires sticking out of it, he said that he would also blow the aircraft to pieces, with all passengers on board. The pilots cut the engine power. Flight PK-712 was hijacked at Paris Orly Airport and the time was ticking.
Jean Kay got an interpreter among the passengers to translate his French into English. He then announced that all passengers less the Pakistanis would be allowed to leave the aircraft at Beirut in Lebanon.
Thereafter, he would take the plane to India. The passengers were understandably scared, especially the Pakistanis who were terrified. This could be the last day of their lives. At such moments, one tends to examine the possibilities. Who was this French hijacker? Was he a psychopath or was he mentally deranged? Would he shoot them or would he blow up the plane? To their surprise however, Jean Kay remained calm and courteous. What happened next surprised not only the crew and passengers on board, but the authorities at the airport itself.
The French authorities were positioned in the control tower and Jean Kay made his demands known to them. He asked for the fuel tanks to be filled to the top. Then he demanded that 20 tons of medical supplies and relief materials be loaded on the aircraft and flown to India for refugees displaced due to mass genocide and atrocities in East Pakistan. Having witnessed the horrors of war and conflict from close quarters, the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in East Pakistan had moved him deeply. During his postings as a soldier in Lebanon, Yemen, Biafra and Angola, he developed a strong sense of empathy with the hapless refugees and now he wanted to help the refugees from East Pakistan who had streamed into India. Jean Kay was neither mentally deranged nor was he a psychopath. He was simply on a humanitarian mission.
When he became aware of the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army on the people of East Pakistan and the subsequent flight of millions of poor Bengalis into neighbouring India, Jean Kay could not sit idly. He studied in depth the refugee problem and became aware of the lack of medicines and food supplies in the camps. Through newspaper articles, he came to know of the large number of people, especially children dying in the camps. He decided to do something on his own for the helpless poor, who were pouring in large numbers every day across the borders into India.
Jan Kay’s demands for the relief material and the flight’s diversion were non-negotiable. To prove the seriousness of his intentions, Jean Kay threatened the people in the tower that any adventure made by law enforcing agencies would result in the destruction of the aircraft cause loss of human lives. The bomb in his briefcase was ticking. After long negotiations, the French authorities agreed to cooperate with Jean Kay. They informed him that the French Red Cross and Ordre de Malte, a charitable organisation would arrange to deliver the medicines to the aircraft on the condition that no passengers were to be harmed. By 5:15 pm, a truckload of medicines arrived at the airport. Another truck full of medicines approached the aircraft, but the driver, warehouse men, mechanics and Red Cross workers were in reality, specially trained commandoes in disguise. While loading the relief material in the cargo hold, they requested and obtained permission from Jean Kay to disembark eight passengers and one child. He also allowed the stewardesses to serve meals to passengers in the aircraft.
The commandoes disguised as workers deliberately slowed the process of loading medicines to gain time. They then informed Jean Kay that storing penicillin and other sensitive medicines in the cargo hold would damage the medicines and requested if the same could be loaded on to the passenger section. After obtaining Jean Kay’s approval, they entered the rear section of the aircraft’s passenger cabin. The commandoes did a remarkably professional job and Jean Kay did not suspect that anything was amiss. He then started receiving the boxes of medicine.
In an instant, four commandoes pounced on Jean Kay. He could not use his pistol because it was only a toy. He was able to bluff everyone with a toy pistol. There was no explosive in the briefcase also. However, no injury was caused and he was soon overpowered. The passengers were released; the bomb threat was a hoax. The briefcase had nothing but two wires jutting out.
Jean Kay was arrested and taken to the Orly police station for interrogation. The police also questioned the passengers on their ordeal. They told the police that Jean Kay never pointed the pistol at them, nor was his behaviour abusive. Soon after completion of checking of the aircraft, the PIA flight with all passengers on board left for Karachi.
Jean Kay was an adventurous young man who got much of his inspiration for serving humanity by reading books of Andre Malraux. After being taken into the police custody he was produced before the court and Andre Malraux, a former minister of and human rights activist stood in the court as a friend of the accused. However, despite Andre Malraux’s help, Jean Kay received a five-year imprisonment sentence. Meanwhile, the French authorities and the Red Cross honoured their promise to deliver 20 tons of medicines and relief material to the refugees. They were immediately delivered to the refugee camps in India having been flown there by a Malta Airlines flight. The French Red Cross and the Order of Knights Hospitaliers of Malta assisted in the process. The hijacking failed, but the aim behind the hijacking was achieved in full measure.
Thank you Jean Kay. We salute you for your love for the suffering humanity.
This piece is taken from Liberation: Bangladesh: 1971 edited by major general Dhruv C Katoch and lieutenant colonel Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, Bir Pratik who received Swadhinata Padak, published by Bloomsbury Publishing India Pvt Ltd in 2015.