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Reminiscing those days in December 71

🕐 2023-12-31 13:16:10

Reminiscing those days in December 71

By July 1971, India the neighbour was saddled with six and a half million refugees fleeing from this pogrom. Over five million of them were in the Indian State of West Bengal. It contained over 400 out of nearly 600 camps in India.


Air Commodore Prashant Dikshit (Retd)

An alumni of the National Defence College in New Delhi with an MA in Defence Science from Allahabad University, India. Mr. Dikshit is a life member of the United Services Institution, New Delhi, an armed-forces think tank and he is also a member of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, India.


As I write these lines, I anticipate the thrill of standing on the soil of Bangla-desh whilst it celebrates its liberation and victory day in its capital Dhaka on 16th December 2023. In a small manner, I was also a part of India’s national endeavours for liberating Bangladesh from the cruel Pakistani regime.

On the night of 25th March 1971, The Pakistan Army launched a relentless crackdown on citizens of East Pakistan, their own country. Thousands of people were shot, bombed and burned to death in Dacca alone. That is Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh now.

By July 1971, India the neighbour was saddled with six and a half million refugees fleeing from this pogrom. Over five million of them were in the Indian State of West Bengal. It contained over 400 out of nearly 600 camps in India. In the dark annals of human cruelty, the killings in East Pakistan perhaps rated bloodier than Bosnia and in the same accounts in the same gruesome league as Rwanda.

India could not ignore this slaughter any more.  For purely humanitarian reasons it had to intervene.  India was facing a trauma in its extreme. It was necessary to rescue itself from the clutches of a severe emotional and economic burden engulfing its people. A military campaign was the only plausible solution for this excruciating human problem, facing the Indian Government.

Recorded history reveals that India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had then held a meeting with the Army Chief General Sam Manekshaw (Later Field Marshal) and then military planners drew their plans.

We now know of the emergence of “Mukti Bahini”, the India-supported freedom fighters of Bangladesh perhaps in April 1971 a prelude to the military action to follow on 4th December 1971. But not before Pakistan launched preemptive aerial strikes on Indian bases in west India on 3rd December 1971 and Pakistan declared war on India. A war which lasted till 16th December 1971 when about 93000 troops of the Pakistan Army laid down their arms and surrendered to Indian Forces. Bangladesh thus came into being.

The 1971 war had arrived at my door with a challenge. I was a young Flight Lieutenant in the Indian Air Force and a member of 106 Squadron of the service. We were specialists trained to fly the Canberra Reconnaissance Aircraft meant to take pictures of strategic targets of the adversary. And we were busy in that role from April onwards, it is believed. 

On 4th December 1971, we were relaxing in the officers’ mess when in the late evening we were asked to come to the Squadron. We all assembled in the office of the Flight Commander Squadron Leader Charanjit Singh. When our Commanding Officer Wing Commander Ramesh Benegal broke the news that the Bomber Force was looking for one set of crews for a bombing mission to Sargodha, an important Pakistan Air Force base in West Pakistan. And he wanted volunteers. All of us, including I, had raised our right hand although it had been more than three years, let alone flying the bomber, I had not even taken a peek inside the bomber. In routine circumstances, it would have been through a period of weeks of refresher orientation but here only 20 minutes before the mission launch were available.

Benegal had promptly nominated Flight Lieutenant Mohinder Sandhu as the pilot and I as the navigator. We were to drop 8,000 pounds of bombs over the Sargodha air base in West Pakistan in a midnight raid, which we did accurately and precisely. But a very serious emergency erupted after that as the bomber doors would not close. Over enemy territory, it placed severe limits on the speed of the aircraft whilst pushing fuel consumption to very dangerous limits.  For nearly 15 minutes we struggled and, in the course of which, we had to descend into the barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The other choice was to remain high and get shot down by fighters. We climbed eventually the friendly territory to nearly 45,000 feet to save fuel and get benefits from westerly winds. But we lost one engine on the landing run due to no fuel.

The Squadron’s focus however remained on East Pakistan. Several missions were undertaken. Let me narrate a few.  For our photo mission on December 8, when we reached the launching airfield in Guwahati, there was hardly any time to refuel. It was critical to reach our first target at Cox’s Bazaar at two pm to coincide with the actions of the Indian Navy. Therefore, we had to fly at the topmost speed which the aircraft could safely withstand to maintain time. The aircraft guzzles fuel in those flying conditions. We were to enter East Pakistan at Aizawl, Mizoram, India from the east to align with our photo run. As we were pulling up for the run, there was potent anti-aircraft fire. We then dived again to the ground quite unmindful of the ground fire and proceeded to Chittagong harbor and airfield where a similar photo run had to be executed. Short of the airfield, we climbed through thick smoke billowing from Fuel Storage tanks which were perhaps struck earlier by Group Captain Shamshul Alam in a single-engine Otter Aircraft. He pioneered the creation of the Bangladesh Air Force with the support of the Indian Air Force. Within minutes of fuel left, we had landed.

Similarly, the photo mission on December 13, 1971, was truly adventurous. A fire in the battery compartment had to be rectified. Got airborne just to be in time to avail of adequate sunlight whilst we photographed the Dhaka complex.  There was great pressure and we were required to proceed directly to Delhi. It was already twilight in Dhaka and full darkness as we closed into Delhi. But, most seriously, our actual speed reduced to 1/3rd compared to what it was during the onward journey to Dacca.  It was one of the most noteworthy experiences of westerly headwinds, which are known to have recorded speeds of over 300 km/hour in this terrain-induced wind funnel south of the Himalayas. As a result, we arrived at Palam well beyond the planned flight plan and were declared a hostile aircraft in our own country. But we survived to tell this story. I now learn that these pictures were most useful for the attack on Dhaka which led to the surrender of Pakistan’s Army.

Benegal received the Mahavir Chakra and Charanjit a Vir Chakra for gallantry. Shamshul Alam was bestowed with Bir Uttam by the Bangladesh Government. We cherish their memories.

The author is an IAF Veteran and was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal for gallantry during the 1971 War.