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Wings Of Pride

By Rahul Seth

Description: We recognize the 8th of October as the Indian Air-force Day. On this day we celebrate the proud individuals who man our skies and form an essential element of lethal assault and defense to assuage the nation’s national security and sovereignty.  On this day, we recognize their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of every other such member of the armed forces or individual who, in the history of the nation, have indulged in similar contributions to the nation. On this day, we don’t celebrate just these individuals, but the idea that and moreover, the ideal of patriotism that drives them.  LTGTR speaks with retired Group Captain Tejwant Singh, who joined the Indian Air-force on 9th March 1963 and served in both the wars of 1965 and 1971. During the War of 1971, his Mig-21 Aircraft was shot down over Pasrur airfield in Pakistan and he was taken POW (Prisoner Of War). Later, post repatriation, he was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for his gallantry in flying back to base a valuable and damaged Mig-21 aircraft in April 1973 when a vulture hit him unexpectedly. Despite serious injuries to his body and face and with just half the available vision he displayed determination, a high degree of flying skill and bravery in tackling a very serious situation at great personal risk. We visited him at his Gurgaon home, where he now writes avidly, his first book, ‘The Bold, Brave and Fearless’ having recently been launched in Canada; He actively blogs as well, titled ‘Don’t Mistake me for a Muslim’.

Q. Sir, why is your Blog titled as such?

A. Post 9/11 America was in a state of fear. Trust in people became a problem and everyone looked at people with brown skin with eyes of suspicion.  Turbans became synonymous with Muslims on account of the Taliban Pathan turbans and eventually to suit their own safety and convenience some Sikhs stopped wearing them, however those who were devoted still kept them on. A regular American citizen’s General knowledge is extremely poor even though they are extremely liberal and welcoming in comparison to the USSR who were distant and confronting, post 9/11 America changed radically to resemble the coldness I experienced in the USSR and they mistake us Sikhs for Muslims. My blog is to tell them the difference since most of them refuse to consider the world beyond their nose.

Q. Sir, How Did you come to join the Air-Force?

A. I come from a family of warriors. For nearly the past 300 years my ancestors have been defending this nation. My Father and his father before him were also in the Army. The Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, established the Khalsa to combat the Tyranny of the Mughals. At the time of Aurangzeb’s rule, Non-Muslims weren’t even allowed to wear a sword, ride an elephant or a horse. I chose to join the Air-force as a diversion from the Army. I have no male descendants but my younger brother’s sons, however, are in Merchant Navy and Hotel management, respectively. The desire to join the Armed Forces seems to be diluting.

Q. Sir, How was the experience of your First Flight?

A. The first flight is known as the Solo flight. In my times we used to have piston-engines trainer aircraft with the Instructor sitting in the rear seat. I took off and looked back at the Instructor’s seat and saw it empty and for the first time I felt absolutely in control. Taking off is the easy, it’s the landing that one needs to worry about. Landing takes the greatest amount of control. In a layman’s explanation, one would need to control the float: speed and height has to gradually decrease; as the lift component decreases the drag increases. Landing is like a controlled crash. When you are in the cockpit, it isn’t like you are strapped into the plane, but more like the plane being strapped onto you. It is a great sense of responsibility, to have to bring the plane back safely.


Q. Sir, How was your experience as a POW?

A. In the 1971 war, when we took flight it was like our defining moment. It was as if we had been trained for just this day. We had planned an aerial strike deep in enemy territory. We had planned to take the shortest areal route, from Amritsar to the target. The Pakistanis had pre-empted this and had placed their Anti-Aircraft guns in Sugarcane Fields and villages all along our route starting from Lahore. It was an amazing sensation watching an AA gun fire at you. It isn’t like a bullet, but more like a ball of flame, coming straight for you. The shell that gets you isn’t the one that you can see coming straight at you. Those will miss you because you would gone past at the speeds modern fighter aircraft fly. The ones that get you are the ones that explode in front and above you. On shard of shrapnel is enough to damage a vital part of the engine. We took heavy AA firing.

My plane was shot down as well. I had been wounded and couldn’t walk due to an injury to the spine. I was captured and given first aid and then put on a stretcher and into an ambulance. I was taken to the Gujranwala Jail, put in a cell and locked up. The mattress was filthy as expected. Later in the night, at midnight, my cell door was opened, I was blindfolded, cuffed and loaded into the jeep and then we drove all night long up to the morning. I could peek through the corner of the blindfold. Because my watch had been taken away, I had no idea of time. But when the sun came out, I could feel its warmth on my right side. I could assess directions by the heat of the sun: when the sun was on my right, I knew we were travelling north. And when my left became warm we were travelling south. This kind of realization comes when one is under captivity and one’s senses become acute. It’s all a matter of survival. They thought I didn’t know where I was and were poking fun at me. But I immediately surprised them by stating where we were, based on my assessment of the Punjabi dialect spoken by the local people. The jeep ride continued until I was taken to Rawalpindi.

I wasn’t tortured at any point. They did question me a lot, but moments after I had been captured ‘Jangbandi’ or a Truce had been declared and the war had ended. I actually made an immediate bond with a Major Khokher, a medical officer, who was sitting by me while I lay in the ambulance on account of my spinal fracture. He gave me tea and peeled a Kinu to fed me.

Q Sir, What do you think of corruption in the Defence Ministry and deaths of Air Force pilots due to plane crashes on account of purchase of cheap parts?

I believe there is a systemic problem in the institution that we have established in our nation, ergo the Ministry of Defense which is essentially run by politicians and bureaucrats, who aren’t members of the armed forces. Here one must compare with the United Kingdom model wherein the armed forces and the people running it are merged into one body which makes infrastructure and development easier since their need is better understood. When you have bureaucrats only running the show, they have a different perception of military matters and a different frame of mind compared to how men in uniform see the same issues.

Post Kargil, there was lot of hype about changes required in procedures but nothing substantial has happened. Moreover the Defence Budget is heavily burdened with 80% of it going to towards pay and pension leaving very little for modernisation. On the other hand if we have a system where all Central Services personal first serve in the Armed Forces for a period of 5 years and then change over to other professions, then we can gradually have less number of ex-servicemen to be given pension. Those who change over to other Central Services like IAS, IPS etc can remain on reserve for 5 years during which they could be called back into Uniform as a trained and available National Force. And during this 5 years reserve period they should report every year for 1 month re-training to keep their operational skills tuned. ‘Exigency makes a man’. Such militarily trained individuals or civilians would always be ready to serve the Nation. This scheme can be incorporated if we change our mind-set. I had sent a letter to the Prime Minister with this recommendation but received no reply. With times we have to change our attitude and make the best of what we have. A prime example of a dynamic attitude is the way the Punjabi community settled down after independence. They had abandoned their properties in Pakistan and most had come with nothing but clothes on their back. They were given properties abandoned by people who went across to Pakistan. They did not beg for government funds and assistance. Punjabis immediately capitalized on the opportunities available to them and made the best use of it converting everything into profitable ventures. Their attitude and resilience surprised the rest of the Indians who were not affected by the partition. I was very young and heard other boys of non-Punjabi origion comment about this in my school.

            As far as corruption in the defense ministry is concerned, I have no personal information on any specific incident. But delay in procurement of important equipment invariably invited rumors that unless the Contract is big, the 2% margin will remain small. Therefore, if the Contract is delayed and its cost increases with time, the cut would be bigger. How far this is true is anybody’s guess. Moreover, they don’t understand the needs in the right perspective. For example, the Indian Air-Force needed Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT) for better transition from a less complicated training aircraft on to advanced and complicated front-line fighters. Since there was a sudden jump to Mig-21s, we lost many young pilots due to lack of training on a proper AJT. The file for the AJT was buried with the Ministry for almost 20 years ago before the procurement was finally sanctioned. How can you bury something so important for 20 years? Take another case of Drop Tanks that are attached to fighter aircraft and are sometimes jettisoned or dropped to make the aircraft lighter during extreme operational conditions like a in a dog-fight during war. It is called WWR or War Waste Reserve. When we asked WWR for a particular fighter, they asked “Why do you need it?” When the need was explained they said, “In 1956 we purchased drop tanks as WWR for Hunter aircraft. A lot of them must be left over. Besides the Hunter aircraft has been phased out of service. Why can we use those for this new fighter aircraft” When it was explained that each component of a modern aircraft is specifically designed and aerodynamically specific and cannot be interchanged like in a bullock cart, they commented, “You are trying to pull the wool over my eyes.”

Q. Sir, Are you for complete disarmament, if it ever was a possibility?

Complete disarmament is a utopia and is therefore not a possibility. Having an army or protective forces isn’t a dire necessity. Besides we have always been a defensive nation and never an offensive one. The only time any non-Muslim has ever actually conducted a military offensive beyond the borders of India was when Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab marched into eastern Afghanistan along with the Nihangs of Akali Phula Singh. Because Akali Phula Singh had neutralized two strong-holds of Pathans in Punjab, he had managed to strike fear in their hearts. He led the army into Afghanistan even defeated a force of Ghazies who are supposed to be the Commandoes of Islamic armies. The result was that the army led by Akali Phula Singh occupied Peshawar, the Pathan’s biggest stronghold, without a fight in 1818. The fear of selfless fighters was such that the Afghan Governor of Peshawar ran away into the Khyber Pass and the population vacated the city. However, as per the Maryada of the Sikhs, those who were left behind were not molested. The only warring clans who had the warrior spirit in India are the Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats and the Marathas. The Sikhs have always had the spirit of sacrifice. Even when Guru Tegh Bahadur was brought before Aurangzeb in chains, not once did he flinch or show fear, only pride and valor. It isn’t easy to die for somebody else or to put your neck on the line for someone else. The question is one of ‘I’ versus. ‘Tyaag’. For the Sikhs Tyaag’ always comes first and therefore Langhars are where we feed everyone as equals without boasting or claiming credit. When Nadir Shah invaded India and stole the peacock throne and was taking it back to Persia, it was the brave and selfless skirmishes of the Khalsa at his encampments en-route the return that saved the 25,000 women that he wanted to take back as slaves and to add to his harem. This is the Spirit of Tyaag that is enshrined in the ideal of the armed forces also. It is Tyaag that should be the Global Dharma.

We see from this inspiring conversation with retired Group Captain Tejwant Singh that there are inadequacies in the setup as it stands, in how we deal with our reciprocal responsibilities to these brave men who risk their lives for us on the warfront. We owe to them the respect that they have more them earned. We owe to them some semblance of security, resembling the kind they render us. We owe to them not to have them neglected. Let us recognize that on this Indian Air-Force day, and maybe do these men and women more of a kindness and concern then just a Calendar Day.

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Rahul Seth
I addictively enjoy debating, one of the side-effects of Law School and a generally verbose lifestyle. I indulge in moot courts, writing, playacting and direction, MUN’s occasionally; I sometimes strum a cacophony on my guitar and regularly treat the neighbors to the melody of my voice, sometimes to their liking.


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