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Sentinels of the sky

Sqn Ldr Pundir's widow, Sharmila receiving the "Vayu Sena" medal from Air Chief A.Y Tipnis.

It was an emotional time at the Airforce stadium in Subroto Park, New Delhi on November 27, 1999. This was where the Indian Airforce paid homage to the 'Sentinels of the Indian Skies', Airforce men who had died in action since Independence. Flying in Canberras, Hunters, Mysteres, Gnats, Vampires, MiGs and other warplanes, 132 personnel of the IAF were killed in six major conflicts since 1947. Born in the spirit of Kargil, the IAF's new attempt to honour and pay tribute to the sacrifice of its men in all wars, battles and operations India has carried out after Independence, was a landmark.

In 1947-48, 31 Airforce men were killed in conflict and in the war where the IAF was involved in 1962 against China, there was only one casualty, that of Sqn Ldr V.K. Sehgal. The 1965 war against Pakistan saw 40 IAF men die, while in the 1971 Bangladesh Operations, 49 men laid down their lives. Six were killed in Operation Meghdoot and five lost their lives in the Kargil conflict this year. Eighty one of them were officers and the others airmen.

After a major global exercise that involved searching for the relatives of these war heroes, the IAF managed to track down 71 families. They were from various parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, US, Canada and Israel. 92 families of the war heroes responded to an appeal made through registered letters sent to the last known address, and through newspaper advertisement. But in 21 cases, it was found that the relatives were too distantly connected.

Emotions ran high and tears rolled down the cheeks as the families of the martyrs as sixty of them were presented with the "Emblem of Honour" and a scroll of citation. The widows and children or parents, brothers and sisters of these gallant men were also given Rs 1 lakh each by Air Chief Marshal A.Y Tipnis as a token recognition of the sacrifices made for the country. There were tears shed, pride expressed, memories rekindled and the odd moment of haunting silence. Historical fact and sentimental past mingled easily, as old parents, young widows and little children walked up the stage.

For the past two days, the families of the war heroes had been staying together at the IAF Senior Citizen's Home in Tughlakabad, the first people to occupy the home. A special two-day medical camp was also organised for the families.

The Chief of Air Staff, who presented memento's to the martyrs' families, said the function was to recognise the value of the sacrifice and to contribute to the welfare of these families. "The overwhelming response generated during the Kargil conflict made us think about the martyrs of earlier armed conflicts, we decided to honour them", the Air Chief said. "The funds to be spent on honouring the martyrs have been donated by the IAF personnel. Each member of the IAF had donated a day's salary for the Kargil victims and the amount that had remained unspent had been used for the purpose", he added.

As the widow of Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, the only Param Vir Chakra awardee of the IAF, climbed up the dais with tears rolling down her cheeks to receive the honour, all the serving and retired personnel in the auditorium were moved. Mrs Manjit Kaur said that she was overwhelmed by the gesture. "I am proud and honoured by the deeds of Fg Offr Sekhon," she said in a voice choked with emotion.

For the aged wife of Flying Officer Balwant Singh, who laid down his life on March 16, 1948, climbing up the dais was a herculean task, but she somehow made it, her pride perhaps driving her on. She stood on the dais, a stark contrast to the picture of the young officer, who would have been a septuagenarian today, projected on the background as the Air Chief saluted her and presented her a memento, a scroll of honour and a cheque for Rs. one lakh.

For the wife of Squadron Leader D.P. Chatterjee, who scrambled in his Hunter jet from the Halwara air base in Punjab on September 20, 1965, memories of 34 years ago came rushing back and she broke down on the stage.

Brigadier Ajit Apte, who lost his kid brother, Flt Lt P.V. Apte, on December 4, 1971, was full of pride as he described how his brother won the Vir Chakra after he inflicted extensive damage on army convoys and goods trains during a raid on the Dharnao railway station in Pakistan. Flt Lt Apte's Hf-24 "Marut" was hit and came down near the border as he was trying to make it back to the Uttarlai air base. He was shot in the back by the Pakistanis after he ejected himself out of the plane. Calling himself as ``more lucky'' than his brother, Brig. Apte, an artillery officer who fought the same war in the eastern sector, recalled how he was among the first to see the present Pakistan Air Chief Pervez Mehdi Quereshi as a prisoner of war after his aircraft was shot down near his gun position.

Among the families of the martyrs attending this ceremony was the family of Flt Lt L.M. Sasson, who was killed while flying a Canberra on December 4, 1971. His wife, Sybia, and his two children came all the way from Jerusalem, Israel.

The relatives of Flt Lt A.R. Da' Costa killed in action on December 4, 1971, in a Hunter, came all the way from Mississauga in Canada. The family of Lance Corporal Madan Prakash who was killed on December 31, 1947 also came.

The families of Squadron Leaders Ajay Ahuja and Rajiv Pundir and Sergeant Ravi, whose were killed in the Kargil conflict in 1999, were also honoured. Mrs Alka Ahuja, the wife of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja, said she had been given ample support by the Airforce and was slowly coming to terms with life.

Families of prisoners of war(POWs) were also among the honoured. If the government was hoping this ceremony would put the lid on a 29-year-long controversy over the whereabouts of 54 men missing in action, it was wasting its time. "I don't believe for a moment that he is dead," said Sushila, mother of Flt Lt Sudhir Tyagi who went missing in the 1971 war.

For Flt Lt Sudhesh Kumar Chibber's sister Sudarshan, each ring of the doorbell holds the promise of his return. "We showed Sudhesh's picture to Roop Lal and he recognised him and said they had been in the same jail for some time," says Sudarshan. "He is alive. Why doesn't anyone listen?"

Ms Meenu Jain, daughter of Sqn Ldr M.K. Jain, Vir Chakra, who was declared POW, refused to believe that her father was no more. "Neither the Pakistan nor the Indian government had provided us any proof that my father is dead. How can I believe that?," she said.

Mrs Poonam Goswami, wife of Flt Lt S.K. Goswami was in tears as she voiced her anguish "the Chief says reconcile. It is so simple to say that, but for the families it is very hard to overcome this dilemma," she said.

Several senior Airforce personnel said the trauma experienced by families of the POWs was very difficult to handle. "Nobody knows whether the men were dead or alive, and one cannot lose the hope of they being alive. The POWs have been declared dead on technical grounds, as otherwise their families would be deprived of many benefits", senior officers said.

Besides the Air Chief, former Air Chiefs and other top IAF officials also attended the ceremony. Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh who commanded the IAF during the 1965 war with Pakistan said "we are all emotionally touched on this occasion." "Such functions are good for the families of martyrs, the IAF and defence forces, as it rekindles memories of the sacrifices made by these brave men and strengthens the bonds among men and officers in armed forces," he said.

An exhibition of war photographs and portraits of these martyrs were also inaugurated on the occasion at the Airforce Auditorium, Delhi Cantonment. Air Chief Marshal Tipnis, the seven C-in-Cs and the vice-chief also layed wreaths at the war memorial.

Mr Mohammed Hassim, father of Naseer Ahmad who sacrificed his life in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, breaks down at the Airforce War Memorial in New Delhi while paying homage.

On June 12, 2000, in a solemn ceremony befitting the occasion, held at the Southern Air Command , the Indian Airforce honoured four of its martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice for the motherland during the Indo-Pakistan conflict in 1965.

In an atmosphere charged with emotion and national pride, Air Marshal Darshan Singh Basra, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Air Command, presented a scroll of honour, emblem of honour and a cheque for Rs. 1 lakh each to the next of kin of the war heroes.

Mr. Geevarghese Koshy, elder brother of the martyr, Corporal Mathai K.G. of Pathanapuram, 85-year-old Mrs. Mariamma Daniel, mother of Leading Aircraftsman Iype Daniel of Mavelikara, 84-year-old Mrs. Elizabeth Paul, mother of Aircraftsman Sunderdas Paul of Kochi, and Mr. Shahul Hameed, brother of Aircraftsman II Jamaludeen M.K. of Karunagappally, received the scroll, emblem and cheque.

Corporal Konayil Geevarghese Mathai was on duty at Adampur Airfield, which was a premier base of the IAF, on September 13, 1965. The airfield came under heavy attack from enemy aircraft, but with utter disregard to his personal safety, Corporal Mathai continued to perform his duties and laid down his life in the process.

Leading Aircraftsman Iype Daniel and Aircraftsman Jamaludeen, who were on duty at the Adampur airfield, were martyred in similar circumstances on September 13. On September 8, Aircraftsman K. Sunderdas Paul was martyred at Pathankot airfield.

On June 20, 2000, the Indian Airforce honoured 12 of its martyrs who had laid their lives in various operations since independence, at a solemn function held at the Headquarters of Western Air Command in New Delhi. The highlight of the function was the presentation of the "Emblem of Honour", a citation and an amount of Rs.1 Lakh each to the next of kin of the IAF martyrs by Air Officer Commanding in Chief, Air Marshal S Krishnaswamy. The contribution was made by serving Airforce personnel as well as many well-wishers.

Earlier, Air Marshal Krishnaswamy along with the Principal Staff Officers of Western Air Command paid homage to the martyrs at the Airforce War Memorial at Palam at a wreath laying ceremony. Next of kin of the martyrs, their family members and a number of Airforce personnel and their families paid floral tributes.

Airforce officials saluting at the Airforce War Memorial

"There were some difficulties in tracking down the families of some personnel killed many years ago. We were unable to trace the relatives of these 12 personnel till now. All the IAF personnel are part of a family, and there is a certain bondage with this family. That is one of the core values of the IAF", Air Marshal Krishnaswamy said. "The concept behind this felicitation was to recall the contribution of our gallant airmen and to extend a token of appreciation and remembrance to the next of kin and their family members. The occasion also serves to inspire the current generation of airmen that has followed in the traditional footsteps. The commitment was towards protecting our independence and sovereignty and help to maintain the peace and integrity of our country. This is the most noble cause indeed" he added.

Amid the solemnity of an early morning Airforce ceremony, images of the past flashed through Ms Suman Dandass' mind as she recalled the days when such functions were part of her life as the wife of an Airforce officer. Ms Dandass, who alternated between hope and despair for five years before learning that her husband, Flt Lt Tanmaya Dandass, had became a victim of Pakistani air defence during an attack into enemy territory in 1971, said she had no regrets about having married a serviceman. And while she was happy to be part of the ceremony to honor the dead personnel, she said "It has come after a long period. They should have kept in touch with us for all these years".

Flt Lt Satish Bhardwaj

Not all felt the same, Mr A.K. Bhardwaj, whose brother Flt Lt Satish Bhardwaj died in the 1965 war, praised the gesture despite the delay. "The money does not matter to me as I am well off financially, but I felt very proud today.''

"All the people who died in earlier wars were just statistics. The Kargil war and the media attention have changed all that. I'm very happy that this ceremony was held," said Ms Ramola Rawlley, the widow of Squadron Leader Ajit Kumar Rawlley, who was killed in a dogfight with Pakistani fighters in 1965 in the Tarn Taran sector of the Indo-Pakistan border. Sqn Leader Rawlley had incidently taught Air Marshal Krishnaswamy flying. Ms Rawlley said she had made a mistake by opposing her son's plans to join the IAF in his father's footsteps. "I resorted to emotional blackmail to stop him, but I think now I was wrong. Since we all have to die anyway, I think it's better to die fighting for the country," she said.

S.S. Brar, whose 22-year-old brother, Flying Officer J.S. Brar, was killed when his aircraft was shot down while he was returning from a raid inside Pakistani territory in the 1965 war, said, "This ceremony is a good thing but it could have come sooner. Everything(that is being done to honor armed forces personnel) has happened after last year's Kargil war."

Others who were honored at the ceremony were LAC S. Singh(who was killed in 1947), AC Rajinder Singh, LAC P.C. Vaish(all killed in 1965), Flt Lt Harvinder Singh, Flt Lt Jayant Rishi, Flt Lt Khraiti Lal Bajaj, AC Pratap Singh Sharma and Squadron Leader Gopal Krishan Arora(all killed in 1971).

Tributes were also paid to all those airmen who laid down their lives in the defence of the nation in various operations starting from 1945 till "Operation Meghdoot'' in Siachen and even the recent "Operation Safed Sagar'' at Kargil.

War Widows Martyrs@Amar Jawan