The Escape Story
Twelve of our pilots had to eject in West Pakistan during the war. Two of them were repatriated earlier than the others because of ill-health and injuries. Three tried to escape from the POW camp in Rawalpindi on 12 August 1972. They made an excellent attempt but unfortunately were detected just about three miles short of the Afghan border.
Flt Lt Harish Sinhji, of No. 29 Squadron was one of them. On the afternoon of 5 December, 1971 he was flying from Sirsa towards Suleimanke. Flt Lt Dawar was number one, he was number two. Short of Suleimanke, they turned north across the Sutlej and climbed down looking for opportunity targets as they had been directed by the Signals Unit. Dawar started a left turn, facing west and Harish followed. Harish heard, and felt, an explosion. His aircraft lurched and went on to its back. There was a tremendous tearing sound. The controls jammed. He pressed the rudder manually with all his might, the aircraft levelled out but then went into a shallow dive. He was about 800 m above the ground over Haveli, with heavy ack-ack. So he tried to delay ejection and saw his leader, already fairly far away, going southwards, a speck in the sky. Harish called out over the radio, “Dawar, I am ejecting.” No answer. The radio was dead.
Harish probably blacked out for a while. When he regained consciousness, he felt he was dreaming— a “dream of a golden coloured cotton field — fields of cotton glowing in the afternoon sun”. Perhaps it was a movie? Why was he feeling terrible? Oh no! He was jerked back into full consciousness; This was war and he was in Pakistan. Above him his parachute billowed and down below— he saw a big column of dust and smoke— that was his aircraft. As he came closer to the ground he saw two trees in the field looming larger and larger. Desperately he tugged the cords to manipulate his parachute away from them. He missed the trees but not the chute. The big orange and white piece of silk hung on one tree, very conspicious, and he landed. His left leg started hurting but the pain was not unbearable and his back seemed unhurt.
He could see no one. The first thing he wanted to do was tear up the call-sign card. Of course, the moment anyone was missing, the call-sign was automatically changed but in that semi-dazed state that was his reflex. What he actually tore up was his mother’s letter. Next he thought of tearing up his identity card, but for some reason or other he did not.
He was wondering whether to hide in the field till it was dark and then try to make for the border when, within minutes, he heard and then saw in the distance thirty or forty people coming. In the fields, the crops stood tall and he ran into a track through the crop. Suddenly he realised that he still had his mask and helmet on which made it very awkard. While still running he took them off and threw them away. After a while, when he was exhausted, with perspiration streaming down, his throat and mouth parched and dry, he dived into the crops and hoped and prayed that he would not be found. It was a vain hope—a man was standing right there whom Harish had not noticed. The man shouted and soon the crowd caught up. Harish saw a man swinging an axe and coming at him and resigned himself to his fate. Some others stopped the man with the axe but there was no dearth of beating, kicking and abusing. And they kept shouting: “Where is the other pilot?” Ultimately they had to accept that there was no other pilot. Then suddenly the frenzy stopped. They grabbed him, tied his hands and blind-folded him. Stalling for time, he asked for some water to drink. . .
He heard a vehicle drive up, a jeep, and a voice asked in English, “A Flight Lieutenant ?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“Your friend has been caught and shot.”
Of course he had no one with him. He turned the tables on his questioner and asked, “What is your name?”
“Jimmy,” was the answer.
Harish was made to sit on the floor of the jeep which then jolted along on a kutcha track for about half-an-hour. Then the jeep stopped. Someone attended to his injured leg and a kindly Lt Col gave him a a cigarette. Then still with his hands tied behind him and blindfolded, he was put in a truck. There he was asked his name, rank, service number and date of birth. Harish mentioned the Geneva Convention but was told to shut up. “What squadron are you from?” Some one demanded. Answer — “Delta squadron”.
Then the truck started on a long drive and it was getting dark and cold. When it stopped they brought in two other prisoners, Subedar Nur Mohammad and Sepoy Ali Akbar, both from some tank unit. The Pakistanis were surprised to know that Indian Muslims, they called them Kafirs, joined the Army willingly, they had thought that the Indian Muslims were made to join the army at gun-point! One might ask what loyalty a country can expect to have from men on the battlefield if they are put there at gun-point? In fact, Nur Mohammad was awarded the Vir Chakra when he was still a POW. Then another POW was brought into the truck, Captain Malhotra or Mehrotra. A Pakistani Army Captain took command of the truck and they started off again. It may have been 7 or 8 p.m. They drove till 2 a.m. or so and it got bitterly cold. The guard was
kind enough to share his blanket with Harish whose hands were now tied in front.
When they arrived at their destination, their eyes were uncovered. The place was possibly Montgomery Central Jail. Here the prisoners were told to deposit their valuables, including watches, which of course they never saw again. They were locked up in cells with mud floors, given a blanket each and a pitcher of water but no cup or glass to drink from. They lay down in the darkness, in solitary confinement, lonely, cold, insecure.
In the morning Harish asked for a chair to sit on and a glass to drink water from, but neither was provided. For breakfast a man came around with a sack of chanas (gram or chick-peas). Harish put some in his pocket. Then some photohraphs were taken.
At around 10 a.m. an Air Force officer, a Wing Commander, came to interrogate him. Two chairs were brought and tea and some biscuits. The bits and pieces of paper that Harish had thrown away—his mother’s letter and an old bill of the Tea Club at Hindon along with the names of several officers—were produced. He was asked, “There were two Mig squadrons there—29 and 49. Which one are you from ?”. Harish did not speak. He was threatened with the third degree and let off for the time being.
At mid-day it started again.
“Come on. Which squadron are you from ?” Harish hesitated. They used a cycle tyre like a whip on him.
“How many squadrons are there in the IAF ?”
And so it went on.
Lunch was dry chapatis and dry chanas. Then another long drive until sunset, again handcuffed and blind-folded. At the destination, one sharp slap on the back. But that was the last of the rough handling.
The prisoner was thrown into a room, a portion of which was like a cage.
“Have you eaten anything ?” somebody asked.
“What would you like to eat?”.
“Anything but beef.”
Some tomato sandwiches were brought in. Harish’s hands were freed and a blanket was provided. He wrapped himself in it and lay down to sleep.
Morning of the 7th. Another vehicle. Another long ride. The Army POWs were sent to Lyallpur and the Air Force ones to Rawalpindi. En route, another POW was put on the vehicle. That was Flt Lt Aditya Vikram Pethia, moaning and groaning, in a daze. Drove the whole day and arrived at Pindi. Lodged in Cell No 3 in the Provo and Security Flight. There were offices and more cells. For the night, the cement floor was the bed but with a mattress and a couple of blankets. Given a mug of water to drink. The ceiling of the room was high. There were no windows but there were ventilators and two doors. One door had bars, the other was of wood with a hole covered with a piece of cardboard.
In the morning a smartly dressed Corporal, Rizvi, delivered essentials. such as tooth brush and paste. Breakfast was daal, one paratha and tea. They soon learnt to eat the paratha slowly so that the pleasure would last them for a while. For three weeks, until Christmas it was solitary confinement. Meals were vegetarian with tandoori rotis.
The interrogation was not him even when caught bluffing. Their intelligence was very good. They knew the number of Harish’s squadron, the name of his CO and other officers and the fact that Sirsa had No. 12 FBSU (Forward Base Support Unit). They asked him to draw diagrams. of the bases at Sirsa and Hindon. He drew the runway correctly but the rest of it wrong. Two weeks later they said they had lost the paper, so could he draw it again? Again he drew it wrong. Three or four days later they showed him a correct drawing.
The Pakistanis seemed worried about the missiles and the radar units. At times they ill-treated Sqn Ldr Jafa, who had hurt his spine and was in plaster, for this information. They interrogated him right through the night, not letting him sleep, not letting him sit, making him miss a meal. They tried to be sweet to the Sikh POWs: “For the next round, friends, Pakistan and Khalistan will be together against India” was the propaganda, but the Sikh officers of the IAF did not fall for it. Once two Wing Commanders, Hakimullah Durani and Nosey Khan, from a Mirage squadron came to enquire about the performance of the Mig 21s, their speed and the altitude they can go to. To begin with, the PAF officers were very reserved and cautious when speaking to the Indian POWs but after some months, they relaxed a little. They said then that during the war, they felt bad about not being allowed to go out and fight.
Apparently Yahya Khan’s decision was that the PAF aircraft should not be exposed to any damage till IAF aircraft were reduced in strength by attrition, possibly by ack-ack. One PAF officer once sent the POWs a meat dish cooked at home. After the Simla talks with Bhutto, the POWs were given a TV set and the allowance for their rations was doubled.
Over to Harish.
Escape Attempt from Rawalpindi POW Camp
Wg Cdr Harish Sinhji
Sometime in the last week of August, 1972, in an obscure corner of Pakistan Times, was an insignificant news item. It said that three Indian POWs escaped from Rawalpindi camp but were promptly recaptured at Noashera. However, the facts were different. The POWs had almost reached the Khyber pass and their recapture was not the result of an efficient search attempt,
but merely an accident. We were 12 IAF pilots who were taken as POWs in the 1971 conflict: Wg Cdr B.A. Coelho, Sqn Ldr D.S. Jafa, Sqn Ldr Kamat, Flt Lt Tejwant Singh, Flt Lt Bhargava, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar, Flt Lt M.S. Grewal, Flt Lt Aditya Vikram Pethia, Fg Offr Chati, Fg Offr K.C. Kuruvilla, Fg Offr H.N.D. Mulla Feroze and myself, a Flight Lieutenant in 1971. Of these two were returned to India on the sick and wounded list, i.e., Mulla Feroze in February 72 and Vikram in July 72. And then we were ten.
Each POW was kept in solitary confinement till Christmas Day when we met each other and felt good. Thereafter, every day for a short spell we would be allowed to meet in a Cell—Cell No.4 if I remember right. This was the largest of all, it was an ordinary room converted into a cell by installing bars on the windows and door. The POW camp was in fact the Provost & Security Flight, Rawalpindi, commanded by Sqn Ldr Usman Hamid. Usman was a very decent bloke and we got to like him quite a bit.
In those days there was talk of repatriation every now and then. Mostly it started with the PAF police corporals. One of them would whisper that talks are going on and repatriation would take place within a fortnight, and our hopes would rise. The fortnight would pass and hopes would crash—only to cling to the next such rumour. This tide-like activity of our hopes carried on throughout December 71, January, February and March 72. I think it was then that D.P. Dhar came to Muree for talks. When we found that we did not feature in those talks. We resigned ourselves to wait developments that would lead to our repatriation whenever it was destined. At this time the thought of escape was nowhere in our minds—save one.
From around the middle of January 72, we were allowed to spend some hours every day in the open in a walled area about 25 m by 40 m. Here we basked in the winter sun, played ‘seven tiles’ or gossipped. Once, before the end of January, while we were squatting in this courtyard, Flt Lt Dilip Parulkar whispered that there was some hope of escape as he had discovered that a bar in his cell (No.4) was a bit loose.
At that time, filled with the complete confidence of being repatriated within a few days, we found Dilip’s statement nothing more than a crude attempt at impressing us that he had at least thought of escape. We thought that by saying this he would, after repatriation, blow it into a heroic yarn and so win a lot of admirers. No one took him seriously, we merely felt a bit disgusted. What we did not know, however, was that Dilip had expressed, years ago, a wish to become a POW. This so that he would get a chance to escape…he had said that it bothered him that none of the escape stories he had read concerned Indian heroes!
Thereafter, we often heard Dilip talk of his windows till one day, during a routine check, it was discovered and repaired. Dilip, meanwhile, set about getting hold of a map. For this he got the Camp Commandant, Sqn Ldr Usman, to talk about his trips and experiences abroad. He mentioned that after repatriation he, too, was planning a trip. Would Usman help him plan the route? Could he get hold of an atlas…perheps a school atlas? He kept hounding Usman till one day Usman slipped him an atlas and said he would sit with him later and plan the ‘holiday’
At this stage, Providence made the first of its numerous appearances. Usman was posted out as ADC to the Chief of Air Staff—and in the excitement he left his atlas behind. The new Commandant was Sqn Ldr Wahid-ud-din, a tall ‘I’ specialist, originally of flying cadre but grounded some time ago. The Red Cross visits had commenced at the end of January, 72 and, by and by, we were able to get some sunshine for a few hours a day, some old books, and a volleyball and net. We even got a transistor radio around the end of February.
As the months passed, the guards— and locals relaxed and started taking things for granted. Security measures deteriorated. And Dilip capitalised on each opportunity. The first thing he did was to recruit Grewal. Garry was an old friend of Dilip’s and more important, he was also astoundingly strong. To get Garry into Dilip’s cell did not prove much of a problem mainly because of the neat way in which Jafa and Dilip handled the guards. They literally had them feeding out of their hands. Since Cell No. 4 was large enough for more, and had a fireplace, Chati, too, moved in. His reasons were medical, for he could warm his wounded arm there every night. Since Chati was now in the same cell, he, too, was in on the escape.
Plans were based on a study of the Indo-Pak map. They planned to get out at night, walk westwards past a railway-road crossing about 8 to 10 km away, then head north and hit the hills. Thereafter they would be able to hide in the hills during daylight hours and walk by night. An east-north-easterly direction would be good and the Jhelum river would have to be crossed. From there, up the hills again to cross the border somewhere between Uri and Poonch. It involved walking in the hills for about 100 km. A compass, some clothing, food and water were essential. And a haversack would be a great help. The PAF jailers used to give us our pay in cash instead of coupons as did the Army jailers. So we collected a bit of money, particularly from the non-smokers. Incidently, the pay as authorised by the Geneva Convention was about Rs. 60 at that time. Later, due to the Pak Rupee being devalued, it went up.