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'My father was a patriot. He died for our country'

Last updated on: July 25, 2009 

The saga of Ga

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On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Vijay Divas, M P Anil Kumar profiles the saga of Flight Lieutenant Muhilan Subramaniam's wife Bina.

January 1986. I was told to head to Siachen as the forward air controller to follow the fighters operating over the glacier.  As I was about to catch an AN-32 flight to Leh from my base Pathankot, my deputy flight commander took me aside and launched into a monologue on the need to acclimatise well at high altitudes like Leh, Thoise and Siachen. I could not figure out why he was wasting his breath on acclimatisation to a red-blooded, supremely fit 21-year-old. In one ear and out the other, I dismissed his counsel.

That evening, Flight Lieutenant Kharb enquired whether I would like to join him in his ritual of climbing a hill just southwest of the officers' mess at Leh airbase.  "Righto," I replied and trailed him. As we reached the Spituk Gompa (monastery) situated halfway up the hill, I was panting and soon severe breathlessness forced me on to my haunches first, and then my bum. Leh is at an altitude of 11,500 feet, and the rarefied air (dearth of oxygen) had laid me low. As I recouped, two words kept resounding: high altitude and acclimatisation! This rude, practical lesson in high-altitude sickness humbled my brashness, and taught me the hard way to respect the elements, and wise counsel. Above 10,000 feet, the human body needs to get accustomed to lower oxygen content, and the higher you go, the longer the body takes to adapt.

In the air force, one's nickname counts, and is a statement in itself. Especially for an aviator. Nicknames come in various sizes, but generally everybody prefers disyllabic or trisyllabic ones. The taxonomy of nicknames is vast, and I shall touch on few categories only.

First example, professional nicknames: aeronautical engineers could be called Spanner or Rivet. Then there are generic nicknames like Murph for Murthy, Kitcha for Krishnaswamy. Mehta is Kid or Pappu. Another category is concise nicknames: names are condensed to form nicknames, like Dyke for Dayakar, Randy for Randhawa or Ranade, Sandy for Sandeep or Sandhu, and I swear the just cited ones have nothing to do with the nature of the individual. At times, such concision can turn nutty, like Baldev Singh, a Sikh officer, being nicknamed Baldy!

Circumstantial nickname is another category. Sunil Dwivedi, a strapping fighter pilot, once slipped and alighted on his posterior, and the aircrew room reverberated with the high-decibel thud produced by his hard landing.  Thenceforth, he is known by the onomatopoeic nickname 'Thud'!

Here's another circumstantial nickname. Self, Ajay Ahuja (six months junior to me) and nine more pilot officers were undergoing ab initio MiG flying training in the same squadron at Tezpur in 1985. Ajay's topic for one-hour lecture was the afterburner system of the MiG-21 FL engine. His exposition of Ga-164, a component of the jet nozzle system, was so unique that it compelled us to go gaga over Ga-164 and nickname him Ga-164, 'Ga' for short!

Ga, a pugnacious little dynamo, with an infectious joie de vivre, jovial, blessed with a puckish sense of humour, laughed the loudest, more so if the wisecrack or banter happened to be his baby.

On May 27, 1999, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, leading a combat mission over Kargil, heard the radio call Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa made before ejecting, and knowing full well about the existence of enemy surface-to air missiles, he descended to locate the spot where Nachiketa had parachuted down. Unfortunately, he had to pay the price for his courage as his MiG-21 fighter was struck by a shoulder-fired Stinger missile. He ejected.

It was not Ajay's day; he was captured by the intruders. The autopsy revealed that he was tortured brutally and then shot in cold blood. Only rotten, scurvy barbarians treat their captive with such savagery. It gives you an idea the kind of beasts, worse than cannibals, we were up against. Having known Ajay, I am sure he would have fought tooth and nail before he was done to death. Though those brutes silenced him, his signature laughter still resonates in my ears. Miss you, Ga.


Image: Indian Air Force personnel receive the body of Sqdn Leader Ajay Ahuja in Srinagar on May 30, 1999. (Inset) Ajay Ahuja
Photographs: Reuters
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War heroes never die, their valour lives on to inspire generations

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Today we commemorate the decennary of Kargil victory.  The Kargil war fought a decade back to evict well-entrenched Pakistani infiltrators from the Drass-Kargil-Batalik sectors, with its craggy pinnacles rising to 18,000 feet, seems to have become a distant memory for most Indians.

Since it was a logistic nightmare to man the snowbound, inhospitable Kargil outposts in winter, both the Indian and Pakistan armies had a rare understanding to pull troops back during the harsh winter.

The Pakistan army launched Operation Badr in February 1999, with soldiers from its elite Special Service Group, four battalions of Northern Light Infantry and two battalions of Sind regiment, and armed-to-the-teeth Afghan mercenaries (to feign an upheaval at 16,000 feet?), furtively occupying the posts vacated by the Indian army. They built sangars (breastwork with stones and boulders) to fortify their dugouts overlooking the Srinagar-Leh National Highway -- the main artery feeding supplies and munitions to the troops deployed over Ladakh, particularly Siachen. Through this perfidy, Pakistan aimed to choke the supplies to Ladakh by shelling and disrupting the convoys plying on the highway.

Kaiser Tufail -- retired PAF air commodore revealed recently that General Musharraf ploy was to walk in to Siachen, in October, to mop up the dead bodies of hundreds of Indians left hungry, out in the cold.

The General underestimated the spunk of Indian armed forces. With air support from the IAF, troops led by gallant young officers, the Indian army recaptured the spurs, ridges and peaks, one by one. While following the news of recapture, my mind boggled: how did our soldiers, against all odds -- ill-equipped, ill-kitted, braving blustery winds, scaling uphill at night without night-vision aids and ducking cannonade -- reoccupy the heights after fierce gunfight? That they accomplished this unacclimatised simply took my breath away. I cannot but wonder whether anything comes close to this gutsy retake in the history of high altitude mountain warfare. Barring Point 5353, the Pakistanis, with their tails between their legs, exfiltrated by July 26, 1999.

Kargil happened because the agencies charged with intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance failed to smell what was cooking on the other side of the Line of Control despite Skardu and its precincts turning into a beehive of military activity. Jolted, the Indian army has increased the number of boots on the ground (almost fivefold) and augmented the surveillance capabilities through unmanned aerial vehicles, battlefield surveillance radars, electro-optical devices, night vision devices, Technical Intelligence gathering, etc.

The Kargil Review Committee was authorised to suggest actions to sharpen vigilance and strengthen security. In pursuance of the KRC report, a Group of Ministers set up four task forces -- intelligence, defence, internal security & border management -- to recommend ways to solidify the national security apparatus. As usual, the government has implemented the soft proposals and the hard ones have been consigned to the deep-freeze!

The task force on intelligence headed by Girish Saxena had advocated sweeping restructuring of the Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing, and the creation of Defence Intelligence Agency. The DIA is practically dead to the world; the revamp of IB and RAW, and the integration of a multitude of intelligence arms were shelved.  Three cheers!

The laxity and somnolence of the very same governmental agencies enabled ten terrorists to carry out a seaborne invasion of Mumbai on November 26, 2008, and wreak mayhem. We have obviously learned little from our Kargil chagrin. Will we learn, ever?

We reclaimed Kargil at great cost; 1896 casualties (533 dead and 1363 injured/maimed). This is apparently a mere statistic to our present government; media reports indicate that the Centre is unenthusiastic about paying homage to the Kargil heroes today -- Vijay Divas -- on petty political grounds. In my book, this disregard tantamounts to slighting the fallen soldiers and their families, but then what else can we expect from our churlish, small-minded politicians. Soldiers are venerated during war and tolerated during peace. How true.

As for the Kargil martyrs, the lives of their kith and kin were dashed to pieces for ever. The nation cannot repay the debt we owe to them, but the least we can do is to salute these valiant men for their personal sacrifice to preserve our territorial integrity.

Image: Former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee meets Kargil widows in New Delhi in July 2001
Photographs: Kamal Kishore/Reuters
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Bina Muhilan: A profile in fortitude

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The white shroud and wailing women, both incomprehensible to her then, are all she remembers of her mother.  Bina was just seven when the Grim Reaper took her mother away to the other world, too young to grasp the enormity of the untimely death, too young to cope with the great loss.

The next frame she remembers is that of another woman partaking of a meal with her father, leaving her to contemplate in solitude about this unfamiliar lady. Her father had remarried, she learned later. In time, her new mother gave birth to a girl and a boy, thus raising the brood to five (including her two elder brothers). She doted on her cuddly half-blood sister and brother, and could not take her eyes off them.

Before long, the stepmother's proverbial prejudice in favour of her own blood surfaced. Little Bina was forced into doing domestic chores. Inevitably, her studies and psyche took the knock of discrimination. Unbeknownst to her, the passive humiliation and desolate childhood gradually transformed the little girl into a hardy, impetuous and rebellious lass. To compound matters, she was flunked out for failing in the ninth. But a change of school, a burst of determined studying, she sailed through matriculation.

Misfortune struck her again, in the form of hearing impairment.

While doing commerce graduation, her feistiness led her into a fiery exchange with a lecturer. This incident had an upside. Her classmate Syjan Joy who calmed her down then, later restrained her outspokenness, and became her best friend and philosopher. And through him, she befriended good-natured Muhilan, and their budding rapport later flowered into romance.

Meanwhile, her father's business crumbled, forcing the family to sell their home and move into a hovel in another part of Belgaum. Since there wasn't enough room for seven, her stepmother forced Bina and her second brother out of their new dwelling. They moved into a shanty. To eke out, the typewriting and shorthand she fortuitously learned in junior college came handy. While her indolent brother shirked onus and twiddled his thumbs, her meagre earning through toil and moil helped them to keep the wolf from the door.

On June 19, 1996, her union with Muhilan, both 24, was solemnised in an austere ceremony.

A science graduate, Muhilan, bitten by the flying bug, had left Belgaum and joined the Air Force Academy in Secunderabad. On December 8, 1993, he earned the IAF wings (the flying badge) and was commissioned as a helicopter pilot.

Muhil, as he was fondly called in the air force, took his bride -- leaving the torment behind, looking ahead to a rosy future -- to Mohanbari (in the northeast), where his unit officers and wives gave them a typical air force welcome.  The 'refined' air force mores were a culture shock for Bina. Her 'unsophisticated' nature and mince-no-words manner of speaking were misunderstood, and it often invited murmurs of disapprobation! Quick on the uptake, she adapted.

Few months later, she was in the family way, and almost simultaneously she began to get a taste of being a military wife: Muhil was scarcely at home, perpetually on TD (initialism for temporary duty, meaning outstation stints) to fly sorties in aid of state governments during natural calamities, evacuating casualties and suchlike.

Muhil was transferred to 152 Helicopter Unit based at Sarsawa (near Saharanpur, UP) almost immediately after childbirth. For Bina, it was more of the same; they hardly stayed together as the demands of service in the form of TD regularly kept him hopping around Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. To beat the loneliness, to blow away the gloom, she started to read the works of Swami Vivekananda.

Kargil erupted in mid-May, and a detachment of Muhil's unit moved to Srinagar. On May 28, a formation of four Mi-17 helicopters was tasked to demolish a heavily defended area on Point 5140 (Tololing) with air-to-ground rockets. Muhil and his co-pilot Squadron Leader Rajiv Pundir flew the third chopper in the formation. During the strike, a Stinger missile hit Muhil's Mi-17 and downed it. (Mi-17s are normally fitted with Counter Measures Dispensing System -- chaff and flare to deceive the missile; it just so happened that the one Muhil flew did not have CMDS on board.)  Crash.  The crew of four perished.

The world crashed on Bina, turning her life upside down. Reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Home they brought her warrior dead, she was too dazed and traumatised to react. It was only when she heard her baby bawling while being tonsured that she burst out into wails of grief.

Due to oversight, Muhil had not nominated Bina for insurance benefits; so his mother received the package. She received compensations from the central pool as well as the government of Tamil Nadu as Muhil's parents hailed from Devakotai in the state. And a flat too, but in Chennai.

The poignant funeral rites and goodbyes over, Bina returned to Belgaum to begin life anew. Although she had not handled even thousand rupees ever, she knew the few lakhs she received as solatium would form the foundation to rebuild her life. She bought a flat. Though the nasty treatment meted out to her hurt, she never harboured ill-will towards her stepmother; therefore, she bought another flat nearby for her stepmother and stepsiblings. Large-hearted that she is, of her own volition, she funded the education of her half-sister and half-brother. Though she feared her generosity might be misconstrued, the give-and-take was ultimately taken in the right spirit. The family rallied round.

In the meantime, the central government announced a petrol pump or gas agency for Kargil war widows. What she thought was her due gave her a taste of rigmarole and the great Indian red tape. Since provision of land was her end of the bargain, she approached the army and IAF which have considerable presence in Belgaum. Instead of doing their utmost for the Kargil war widow, they imperiously cited clauses from the holy rulebook why it could not be done. Nobody turned a hair to find a way to assist her. Not to be left behind, the callous civilian bureaucracy made her run from every pillar to every post, her mewling son balanced on one arm and burgeoning bumf on the other.  For one-and-a-half years.

As she resigned to her helplessness vis-a-vis the stultifying State machinery, the mainstream media raised a rumpus over the unfeeling manner in which the Kargil war widows were being booted around by boorish governmental agencies. Made to run for cover, the lazy officials swung into action. She was offered an HPCL petrol pump, 12 km from her residence, where a four-wheeler pulled in once every half-an-hour! She accepted the offer nevertheless.

Like a godsend, Syjan reappeared on her horizon, and helped her to get started. On being duped repeatedly by the labour contractor, she realised running the petrol pump was a steep learning curve. It took her one year to learn the tricks of the trade, and another four years to break even.

In the interim, her sister Laxmi took care of her son like a mother while she slogged at the petrol station. Overcome by remorse, her mother expressed regrets. Soon her son and his nanima (grandmother) hit it off and became inseparable.

While she established her livelihood, the inner impulse to seek solace in spirituality, to make peace with herself, led her to Vipassana. Unsatisfied, she turned to Happy Thoughts.  Soon guru Tejparkhiji became her sheet anchor, his words her polestar, thus resuming the spiritual journey she began with the works of Swami Vivekananda. To put life in perspective, her guruji contrasted good with evil, hardship with ease, penury with affluence, and lo, the riddles of life fell into place. Stoical and philosophical, she has admirably reconciled to life having its share of Sloughs of Despond, and has endured the rough ride without losing her head or heart.

Now she regularly reads the billets-doux Muhilan and she exchanged during their courtship, therethrough reliving the romantic spell, but with a wistful ache.

Finally, on to the original polestar of her life. All along, she had been very determined to groom her son consistent with a value system she believed in, always reminding him the code of honour his father lived by. No wonder then that he, barely four years, introduced himself on his first day in kindergarten as, "I am Dhruv Muhilan, son of Flight Lieutenant Muhilan Subramaniam and Bina Muhilan. My father was a patriot.  He died for our country."

M P Anil Kumar, a former fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force, is a frequent and distinguished contributor to rediff.com


Image: A photograph issued by IAF of Flight Lieutenant Muhilan Subramaniam who was shot down by Pakistani intruders on May 29, 1999
Photographs: IAF photograph
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