The year was 1971. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India. In neighbouring Pakistan, democracy was dead and buried and the Army ruled the roost. Gen Yahya Khan ruled Pakistan with an iron hand. In the recently held elections Mujib – ur – Rehman’s political party had made major gains but was ignored. There was discontent among the Bengalis both in East & West Pakistan. Gen Yahya ordered a major crackdown in East Pak & the Paki Army swung into action in , perhaps, one of the deadliest attacks in recent years against the civil population of East Pakistan. Thousands were arrested, never to be heard of again. Property was looted. The Hindu elites of East Pak were killed without trial in towns & villages. Their women killed or raped. They were even gathered & supplied to forward troops for their vicarious pleasure. Millions fled to India to escape this holocaust.
|Air Chief Marshal P.V.Naik (Retd.)
The Indian Govt was in an impossible situation. A constant stream of refugees poured in across the border in Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Bengal. Relief camps were set up but were overflowing. The burden on the economy was back breaking. The PM appealed to foreign powers for help but everyone gave only lip service. There was no help or aid coming from outside. India had just fought a war in 1965 & the Armed forces modernization & replenishment was not complete. News poured in daily of new atrocities from East Pakistan which ignited passions in our Bengal because of their common ethnic & cultural heritage. The Nation was being bled by the burden of Bangla refugees & everyone knew that war clouds were hovering over our skies. The only question was – when?
The ‘Charitranayak’ of this story, yours truly, was commissioned as a fighter pilot into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1969. I was posted to my first Squadron in 1970 at Tezpur in Assam. I was 21 years old & Pilot Officer was my rank. It was, perhaps, the best rank in IAF. All the privileges & no responsibility. Even if you made a mistake, people said,’arre hota hai. Pilot Offr hai.’Really, it was such a beautiful rank. I am very sad that it is no more. Now guys are commissioned as Flying Offrs directly. I also happened to be the first Pilot Offr to be posted to a squadron flying MIG-21 aircraft. Previously only senior pilots were posted in. So our Commanding Offr(CO) had given orders that I was to be given max flying. It suited me eminently. But getting to fly a MIG was not easy. First you had to know each & every part of the aircraft(ac). Then you had to know all the procedures. How to refuel. How to charge air. How to do a tyre change. How to charge oxygen. How to check instruments & radio(R/T). The most important was how to keep your ac clean. I well remember the hours & hours I have spent with soap, water & a mop cleaning up ac. I was not to be seen in the crew room. I was always to be in the repair hangar with the men & learn how they serviced the ac. I cursed & cursed. But nobody listens to a Pilot Offr. It was only later that I realized how important this grounding was because it helped me not only to know the MIG inside out but to know my men as well.
After the ground work was the studying. You had to know all details of ac systems & all Procedures & Emergencies by heart. Pass marks were 90% and in Emergencies 100%.Only then you started flying. After doing single ac flying you learnt close formation, tactical formations, Tactical flying both at height & low level. Then you learnt how to fire weapons. Guns, rockets, bombs, missiles. Then you learnt combat. First 2 ac, then 4 ac & then multiple ac. Then you learnt Night flying. Only then were you fit for war. Flying was the most enjoyable experience but time was short & I completed all tasks except Night flying & was cleared as Ops (Day). In mid 71 our squadron moved to operate from a Base in Bengal.
By now the clouds of war were getting thicker. Our country & the Armed Forces were getting ready for war. This involved reactivating a lot of assets which were not used for a long time due to peace. I remember I went to set up our Operational Readiness Room (ORR). As we opened the locked door, a huge flood came out with chairs & other furniture floating out. It took a lot of genuine hard work to get up to the mark, but we achieved it in record time & started practice flying for war. Now it was October 1971.The Base also started looking warlike. There were patrolling guards & challenges & you had to know the Password. Weapons were issued. Critical areas were protected by sandbags. We dug trenches for defence. The ac were pushed into protective Blast Pens to prevent damage from enemy attack. We started learning about the enemy, his strengths, weaknesses, tactics. We built models of the targets we were likely to attack & practiced our attack procedures. It was back breaking but it was fun also. I remember in our crew room our Ground Liaison Offr(GLO) had made a sand model of enemy area where he briefed us daily on where the enemy was & where the Forward Line Own Troops(FLOT) or Bomb Line was. The Bomb Line told us that beyond that line we could drop our bombs anywhere without endangering own troops. In the evening before pack up the GLO used to set his model for the briefing next morning. What some of our chaps used to do was in the night go & shift the Bomb Line beyond Jessore which was one of our major objectives. Next morning when the GLO started his briefing, he was astonished to see the bomb line beyond Jessore. He was sure our Army had carried out a surprise attack and captured Jessore. He was hurt that he was not kept in the picture. So ranting & raving he was about to raise his HQ when we told him the joke. Thereafter he was doubly careful about the bomb line. After Oct 1971 we started manning our Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) with live missiles & guns.
Now came the worst part. Waiting. We waited & waited. Got fed up of practicing. Got used to Paki currency. We were scrambled time & again on spurious targets. The fog of war was taking its toll. On 22 Nov 71 everyone got a morale booster when three pilots from our sister squadron shot down 3 Sabre jets of Pakistan Air Force(PAF).This happened in our sector. Now we were champing at the bit to go to war. I remember catching a small cold on 1st December. So I stayed off flying. On 3rd evening I was sitting in the library sipping a brandy & hot water & my Flight Commander walked in. He saw me & said” chalo, Pradeep, We’re flying our 1st war mission tomorrow at dawn” I told him ‘Sir, I have heard this joke many times.’ He told me it was not a joke, that PAF had attacked some of our Bases in the West & war was on. Since we were preparing for such a long time, I was not too excited. Had my dinner & I think I slept quite well that night. I was 22 years old.
Ours was the first sortie of the sqn for the day. So wake up was at 0330. Reached the sqn by 0430. There was intense activity all over. All ac were being made ready for war. I remember it was quite cold even in Bengal. I reported to the Flt Cdr. We used to call him Stona. Since we had practiced for the same sortie many times the briefing did not take long. I rechecked our maps since it is terrible if you land up in the ac with wrong maps. Our target was a Paki airfield at Ishurdi, 100 km North of Jessore. The Int offr confirmed that there was likely to be anti ac guns called Flak or Ack Ack. Presence of 2 to 4 Sabre ac could not be ruled out. We strapped on our revolvers, collected money belts of Paki currency. Got contact details & passwords of ‘friendlies’ in the area, had a bite to eat & walked to our ac. Pilots are taught that before a mission your tanks must be full & your bladders empty. This may sound silly but it is a vital action. It was still quite dark and the dawn was just about breaking. Our ac were ready with32 rockets each along with 200 rounds of front guns. The airmen were as excited, each one wishing us ‘happy hunting’ & ‘unki bajaake aao’ messages. Start up, taxi out were normal & we were airborne at 0530. There I was on my first war mission.
Ishurdi was East, North East of our Base. So as we flew the light improved. A lovely morning to go to war, I remember thinking. Blue skies with light clouds & unlimited visibility. After 15 minutes we entered enemy airspace. On Stona’s call I put on all my armament switches& now we maintained complete R/T silence to prevent enemy interception. As we approached Ishurdi the visibility dropped a bit. There was moist haze. A few low clouds were beginning to form I hoped like hell they did not cover the target. Then Stona called ‘Pulling up now.’We pulled up steeply for a rocket attack. There was the airfield lying right in front of us exactly as we had practiced so many times. My target was a suspected bomb storage area. I acquired the target in the dive, put my sights on it, remembered Stona’s caution not to fire out of range & pressed trigger. The rockets fired , I saw them landing on target and I had to pull up to get clear of target. When I turned round to join up with Stona I could see a very satisfactory pillar of smoke & fire over both our targets. We joined up. Stona realized we still had some rockets left. Now Ishurdi was a big Rly Jn. As we overflew we saw lot of trains & people, probably soldiers. So we attacked the Rly yard. Lot of fire & smoke with soldiers running helter skelter. The return was an anti climax. I was feeling so thouroughly satisfied at having got my target. As I switched off in the Blast Pen, the airmen were very keen to know what happened. So I gave them a gist of what had happened. They were very keen because we were the first pair to return. By the time we reached the crew room the rumours had preceded us. And what rumours they were! It was as if single handed we had destroyed an entire airfield then attacked & destroyed an entire ammo train full of soldiers. Stona was quite happy & he told me not to get complacent we had a long time to go.
People have asked me if I was scared, tense, unwilling to go. When you are young you do not think much. Fear has no place in your heart. Perhaps excitement is a better word. Then once you are in the ac there is no time to think. You have enough on your hands flying. Every new thing is an adventure. There is no hatred or animosity towards the enemy. He is just someone to be destroyed. You know that he would do the same to you, given the chance. Hence there is no guilt. It is just a job to be done. Training & practice make your job much easier. It is only when you are older & more mature, when you have seen the suffering of the war torn regions & the agony of affected people that you realize war is bad. But make me 22 years old & I shall be ready to go to war again.