Exactly 18 years ago Kargil War captured the collective consciousness of our Nation. Initially what appeared to be mischief across a few posts along the Line of Control (LoC) by the Pakistan Army unfolded to be a well orchestrated invasion of almost all the posts along the LoC in the mountainous areas of Kargil. With the enemy at a very advantageous position over the mountain tops, Indian Army asked for help from the Air Force to uproot the invaders.
I was posted to a Fighter Squadron well known as the Golden Arrows in Bathinda manning the Operational Readiness Platform with another young fighter pilot.
Majority of my Squadron members and fighter jets were swiftly moved to Srinagar but I was retained at Bathinda to perform the duty of an adjutant taking care of personnel of the Squadron totalling to 400 men and also to man the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) with other young fighter pilots.
But the wait ended soon and on 26 May 1999, I received a call from my commanding officer, Wing Commander Birender Singh Dhanoa (the present Air Chief) to fly a MiG21 to Srinagar from Bathinda the next day.
I thought this is the opportunity I was waiting for to join up with the Squadron and my seniors in Srinagar. Like how every soldier wells up all his courage to face the enemy one day, every fighter pilot is trained every day to hone his skills to fight and terminate his enemy in the air or achieve direct hits on ground targets. That seems to be the sole purpose for the men in uniform.
The Commanding Officer’s call was followed by a call from the Flight Commander, Late Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja. He asked me to meet his wife Mrs.Alka Ahuja and carry a parcel for him with no apparent details about the parcel.
Later that evening as I was packing my bag remembered what the Commanding Officer had told us to carry, over and above our personal belongings. Before the Squadron moved to Srinagar, Wing Commander Dhanoa instructed all pilots proceeding to Srinagar to carry the full ceremonial uniforms including the peak cap. As a young fighter pilot I asked what would be the need to carry ceremonial uniform when we won’t have time to perform drill or parade in war zone. We were told “we would need it to bid farewell to some of us who would not return back from the war“.
While packing my compact bag I was wondering what the parcel could be like as space was a major constraint in a fighter plane like the MiG-21. Infact as pilots ferrying planes all the space we had was about 15 to 20 litres of volume available in the gun compartment of the aeroplane where bullets are stored.
The environment in every fighter Squadron is like that in an Indian family. The interpersonal relationships are beautiful and no movie or book has been able to successfully portray this. Mrs.Alka Ahuja called all of us bachelors who were left behind to come home for dinner that evening while I collect the parcel. Ankur is Ahujas’ only son who was probably 8 year old. After a sumptuous meal when we were about to thank Alka ma’am and bid good night, she gave me a white envelope with 5600 rupee,s all in 100 rupee denomination.
The next day I landed in Srinagar and was received by Ahuja Sir in a blast pen where the plane was parked. He drove me in a Willys jeep to the Squadron complex where Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa’s Squadron called the Wolfpack and our Squadron, the Golden Arrows were co-located to operate for the Kargil War. On the way, I handed over the envelope. Initially he asked me to keep it but as an afterthought, took it saying that he would go to the Indian Airlines counter in the civil airport terminal to buy air tickets for his wife and son as soon as he returns from his mission.
The first waves of strikes were planned in the next few hours. There was an unexplainable activity surrounding the Flight complex. The pilots proceeding on missions were in briefing rooms and the others were going about helping them like any other day in a regular fighter Squadron. I asked Ahuja Sir as to when would he induct me into the operations. He told me that he would plan me for a sector reconnaissance flight after he returns from his mission. It is mandatory to fly a sector recce to familiarise oneself with the important landmarks and airfields around Srinagar before getting inducted.
Flight Lieutenant Nachiketa was part of a 4 aircraft formation called the Hyena formation and they left the flight complex for their strike mission. Ahuja Sir and Gautham were proceeding to the same target area after a gap. Their formation was called the Hercules formation comprising of 2 aircraft.
On an operational mission like this, pilots carry makarov pistol with 6 rounds loaded in the magazine. They also carry a civil map of the target area along with some local currency. All these items are stowed in the pockets of the G-suit. Over and above these I saw Ahuja Sir keeping the envelope with cash in his G-suit pocket. I saluted them good bye. Soon after I reached the Flight complex got to know that Hyena 4, Nachiketa had ejected from his MiG-27 aircraft after engine failure. By this time Hercules formation was on their way to the same target area. Ahuja Sir with his hawk eyes could locate Nachiketa’s parachute and decided to give directions to the search and rescue helicopter that took off from Srinagar. He and his No.2 remained in a pattern for almost one hour. Unfortunately helicopters take a longer time at slower speeds. Hercules 2 reported Bingo fuel, meaning that he now has just enough fuel to return back to Srinagar. Ahuja Sir asked his number 2 to return while he himself remained there to keep Nachiketa in sight. As the wait was patient and extended one, it gave enough time for the shoulder firing Surface to Air Missiles to track Ahuja Sir’s MiG-21. Before the helicopter reached Nachiketa the Stinger SAM reached Ahuja Sir’s aircraft hitting his engine. He had to eject out. Now Airforce had 2 ejections on day one of the operation.
Political compulsions did not let us cross the LoC during the Kargil War hence it would forever remain a matter conjecture as what would have been the result had Airforce been given more elbow space during the Kargil war. No nation in this world perhaps would consistently be as magnanimous as ours in dealing with an evil neighbour.
As per Geneva convention, pilots captured during war have to be protected like POWs, Pakistan never followed any rules or principles both in war or in peace. Political pressure and diplomatic effort were in full swing to retrieve both Nachiketa and Ahuja Sir.
Back in Bathinda, the news was given to Alka ma’am about the ejections and that both pilots are missing. I was confident that Ahuja Sir would return because he was the winner of the coveted Dagger during the one month long Jungle and Snow Survival training.
Operations had been halted in the aftermath of both the ejections. Two days later, Commanding Officer Tony Dhanoa asked me to go in an helicopter to the Army cantonment in Srinagar city to identify a dead body arriving from Kargil. I was told that I should bring the body if it were Ahuja Sir’s after getting a post-mortem done in the Army hospital. On the way I was sure that it won’t be Ahuja Sir’s. I believed that he would return soon and tell us stories of his survival and escape.
I received the coffin and went to Army Base Hospital. In the post-mortem room when the coffin was opened, I had to accept that it was Ahuja Sir though someone who had met Ahuja Sir only a couple of times when he was alive wouldn’t have been able to recognise him now in this state. The way his body was swollen it appeared like he died soon after his ejection which was about three days ago. As he was being removed from the box, I discovered that there were no badges on his overall. His g-suit was also removed. He was wearing only the overall. The overall pockets were inspected. Envelope emerged from the chest pocket. As soon as I saw it, I told the doctor that the envelope should have 5600 rupees. The doctor asked me to check. I counted the cash for the first time and they totalled to 5600 rupees. My tears couldn’t be contained now. Mind started racing as to how will I be able to return this money to Ma’am and what should I tell her. When the overall was removed it was evident that there were no undergarments. It clearly emerged that Ahuja Sir was brutally murdered. The very thought of visualising how it could have happened sent cold current through my spine.
Doctors initial observation was two gun shot wounds from close range. One in the right rib cage and another near right temple that exited from left ear area. I was asked to leave the room at this stage and arrange a new coffin box.
I was shocked to see the pace of production of coffins in the workshop. I started feeling the scale of the war that was unfolding. As the need for Ahuja Sir’s coffin wasn’t an internal (Army) demand the manager asked me to pay for the coffin. I wasn’t carrying my wallet but was rescued by Ahuja Sir’s cash. With a heavy heart I parted with 1300 rupees as I knew I will quietly replace it and not tell Ma’am about the coffin purchase and the cash replacement.
A ceremonial parade was organised where the entire Air Force Station Srinagar paid homage to Sqn. Ldr. Ajay Ahuja. Dhanoa Sir told me that I should take the body to Bathinda and perform the last rites there. He asked me to stay there and wind up all the administrative paperwork personally. He told me that rest of the ladies will take care of Alka Ma’am.
During the funeral in Bathinda, Ankur was running around. He was caught to light fire to his Dad’s Chita. I knew that day that I would have to stand by Ankur at least till he grows up to become an adult. It was a silent promise I made to Ahuja Sir before his mortal remains were consigned to flame.
As Param Veer Chakra awardee Late Capt Manoj Kumar Pandey said ‘Maut ki dulhan ka bhi swayamvar hota hain, who khoobsurat se khoobsurat jawan lejati hain’ the Kargil war claimed one of our very best, Ahuja Sir!. He was awarded the Vir Chakra posthumously.
What makes likes of Ahuja Sir lay down their lives for others? Not money! Not awards! They are fuelled by self motivation and propelled by duty or one’s Dharma. He will always be remembered and his life will continue to inspire future generations.
Sri CH Bal Reddy ji is retired Wing Commander. He is also an Associate of Samvit Kendra
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