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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 5, January 21 & January 28, 2023

Valour and Distress in India-Pakistan Wars | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 21 January 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



1971, 1999 War Stories

by Air Commodore Nitin Sathe


Pages: 223; Price: Rs 525

Air Commodore Jawahar Lal Bhargava survived Pakistani custody in the 1971 war because — believe it or not — he had a cricket coach who had helped him once play for the Ranji Trophy.

Bhargava was flying an Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter jet over Pakistan when it got hit by ground fire and he ejected using a parachute. He was captured after hitting the land.

Dalle nu maar goli” (Shoot the bloody pimp), an infuriated Pakistani Ranger barked when he told them that he was a downed Indian pilot, not a spy. Fortunately, their leader saved him from getting killed.

More luck was in store when he met in captivity a Pakistan Army officer who was happy to learn that Bhargava was from Patiala in Punjab. He said he too was from Patiala and demanded to know if the Indian knew Baba Ram Kishan, a cricket coach. Bhargava not only knew him but he too had been coached by him.

The Pakistanis interrogating him immediately turned courteous. Of course, Bhargava had to spend nearly one year in various Pakistani prisons before he returned to India on December 1, 1972.

Unlike Bhargava, fellow Indian pilot Pradeep Apte was summarily killed by Pakistanis when he too used a parachute and landed in enemy territory after being hit by ground fire.

Bizarre things do happen in wars. The book in question is a collection of some fine stories of retired soldiers and IAF pilots who took part in the 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh and the 1999 conflict over Kargil.

The author’s father, Colonel B.K. Sathe, was part of India’s covert effort to help the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan even before the war officially erupted in December 1971.

The father kept his secrets with himself but he had grown a beard, learnt a smattering of Bengali language and had become comfortable wearing a lungi — besides learning how to live off the land in the absence of any ration supply. He was part of an artillery unit that was inducted into the hills of East Pakistan months before the conflict began.

Another army officer, Brigadier M.V. Gharpure, led a unit that smashed its way almost 40 km into West Pakistan on the Munabao-Khokropar axis. At a wayside railway station, the officer and his men discovered stacks of Bank of Pakistan cheque books and also a large number of condoms! When one Indian soldier became delirious and insisted that he be sent back home, he was buried under the sand with his head sticking out till he calmed down.

Immediately after Pakistan declared war on December 3, two Bengali former Pakistan Air Force pilots, Sultan Ahmed and Badrul Alam, took off from a small airstrip in Tripura in a helicopter and a transport aircraft and bombed a fuel dump on Dacca’s suburbs. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s recorded speech that night was aired on All India Radio when New Delhi was conveyed about this first air strike in East Pakistan.

Air Commodore A.D. Karandikar recalls that doctors treating the war wounded in Calcutta not only worked day and night but made no discrimination between Indian soldiers and Pakistani prisoners of war. Priority treatment was linked to the grievousness of the injuries.

The kindness was not universal, though. Air Commodore Ram Mohan Sridharan reported his men seeing a large number of Mukti Bahini fighters shot in their heads with their hands tied behind their backs. “The Pakistanis (retreating in East Pakistan) were not very kind our soldiers too,” he said. “Similar treatment was meted out to some of our guys.”

Colonel Gautam Khot recalled the horrors on the Kargil front in 1999 when Indian soldiers had to fight both the Pakistani intruders — regular soldiers and irregulars — as well as an inclement weather. Indian troops in the snow peaks once urgently radioed for water. Khot ferried water by helicopter. “I was aware that they would have eaten snow to keep their parched throats lubricated, further aggravating their hunger for water.”

Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar says there were occasions when IAF pilots almost brought down fellow IAF planes because they could not be identified with naked eyes and were on a different radio frequency and so did not respond to emergency calls for identification while in the air.

Indian pilots taking off to bomb mountain peaks controlled by Pakistanis routinely carried Pakistani currency and wore pathani suit just in case they got shot down. Although a limited conflict, it took the Indian armed forces two bloody months to take back all the peaks along the Kargil front. Many of the IAF aircraft which played a stellar role in that fighting now lie in museums, replaced by modern and sophisticated jets.

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