Intro: There is no blooming agreement on Kashmir, just a vague assurance that there won’t be violence there and matters would be sorted out through talks! Talk, Talk, Talk! All that we ever achieve, at ever-greater cost, is talk!….Fight every few years all over, fight every day in some areas. Beat them back, then give back all that is taken.
Dhirendra S. Jafa, Death wasn’t Painful: Stories of Indian Fighter Pilots from the 1971 War, Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, Pp 247, Rs 445.00
Here is a book which would have been better titled as ‘When the Country Calls’ because it tells the tale of those gallants who survive out of those who go the extra mile, who take greater risks to fight for the country a battle from which some return while some get lost to enemy guns and out of those who are shot in enemy terrain, some survive and some don’t. Here is a tale of heroism of 12 Indian fighter pilots, who, during the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh, were taken prisoners of war and tortured for months in Pakistani prison at Rawalpindi, before returning to India.
East Pakistan’s disenchantment with the West Pakistani leaders led the former to resort to violence and the latter to order a military crackdown. The consequent mass exodus of Bengali refugees into India and the subsequent financial drain on the exchequer prompted India to come to Bangladesh’s assistance. To punish India, West Pakistan launched an all-out attack on India who retaliated by taking military action. The Indian Air Force launched a formation of four Sukhoi-7 fighters led by Dhirendra S. Jafa towards the big cannons north of Lahore. The Pakistanis aimed their anti-aircraft weapons and attacked the Indian aircraft. Jafa’s plane was hit but he managed to bail out of the burning aircraft to land in enemy territory. He was taken prisoner and kept in a cell of a building where his other compatriots like Dilip, Vikram, Bhargava, Harry, Tejwant, Coelho, Mulla-Feroze, Rizvi, Kamat, Chati, Garry and the youngest of the lot, Kuruvilla were lodged. In the prison, life was very lonely with long evenings and night filled with nightmarish solitude, making each of the prisoners ponder over the pros and cons of war and try to find humour in their situation, as seen especially when the Pakistani Air Force doctor Abbas made anti-India jokes and innuendoes. He talked of India having plenty of eunuchs and to which Jafa’s tart reply was, “I’ve heard there used to be lots of them in my country, but they are not to be seen any more. The older people say that there were lots of them up to 1947 and then suddenly they all disappeared.”
They had the capacity to laugh at themselves when discussing the Partition. Kuruvilla said, “They themselves asked for the Partition, for separation from the mother country, expecting to be better off” but “none of this happened. On the other hand, everything seems to be falling apart.” Dilip was not far behind when he added, “We haven’t done too well ourselves but it seems that we have done better than them. Anyway, even Bangladesh was of their own creation. Only if they knew how hopelessly incapable are we of creating problems for them,” to which Jafa remarked, “Or… solving our own.”
What pathos lies in Jafa’s words when he says, “Partition may have been carved by a division of hearts, but the divided parts ached with memories and longings.”
Fear lurked in them at their plight as became apparent when Jaggu, one of the youngest pilots in the Squadron, knocked on Jafa’s door to admit, “Sir, I…I…I am scared,” and the latter telling him very gently, “To tell the truth, Jaggu, so am I…” and agreeing to take him as his wingman the next day on a sortie to help build his confidence on the road to self-dependence. Fear they had, but their inspiration was no less as seen when Kala Sandhu is told by father, “Get a Vir Chakra. I want to walk in the village with my head up. And, my son, even if you attain martyrdom, I shall still be able to walk in the village with pride,” and subsequently when Kala Sandhu died a martyr’s death, the old father with “eyes a bit moist, legs a bit wobbly, hand shaking a bit over the cane, but the head held high” caught the bus to attend to the last rites of his son with the entire village walking behind him.
Alternating between anger and despondency on one side and the need to keep up a brave front in enemy country on the other, the Indian prisoners awaited the news of the meeting between Bhutto and Indira Gandhi at Simla to find that nothing concrete emerged except for India giving back the 5,000 square kilometres taken during the war. Apart from the others, what Dilip said pierced like an arrow into the heart, “What the hell!
Manju Gupta (The reviewer is former editor of NBT)