Even before the upcoming Gujarat Assembly election had heated up, the Congress conducted a poll on Twitter under its #KnowYourLegacy series.
It asked the name of former chief minister of Gujarat who is considered as the ‘Architect of Panchayati Raj’ in India. Among the four options were the names of Anandiben Patel, Keshubhai Patel, Balwantrai Mehta and Narendra Modi.
Majority of the respondents voted for Balwantrai Mehta. They were correct. Mehta was the second chief minister of Gujarat and he is considered a pioneer in panchayati raj institutions in the country.
However, one would wonder how many of the respondents even knew that Mehta was also the only sitting chief minister who was killed by an enemy country.
He died when the chopper he was flying in on September 19, 1965 was shot by a Pakistan Air Force pilot near the Indo-Pak border in the Rann of Kutch.
Mehta died along with seven others who were travelling in the Beechcraft chopper. They included his wife Sarojben, three members of his staff, one journalist and two crew members.
The ghastly incident took place at the height of the Indo-Pakistan war. Forty-six years after the incident the pilot of the Pakistani fighter aircraft wrote a letter to the daughter of the chief pilot of the Beechcraft and apologised to her. The daughter too replied to her father’s killer and forgave him.
On the fateful day, Mehta flew to the Kutch border after stopping at Mithapur, 400 km away from Ahmedabad. Minutes after taking off from Mithapur, his aircraft was intercepted by a Pakistani fighter pilot Qais Hussain.
According to reports, Hussain, then just 25 years of age, entered into the Indian airspace at 20,000 ft. It descended to 3,000 ft at which the Indian chopper was flying.
While waiting for permission from Pakistani ground-control interception, Hussain first hovered around Beechcraft.
Perhaps on spotting the Pakistani aircraft, Beechcraft started waggling its wings, in an indication to have mercy and spare it. The Indian chopper was flown by chief pilot of the Gujarat government Jehangir M Engineer, who was a former Indian Air Force pilot, and his co-pilot.
However, Hussain fired two salvos in the air on getting nod from his superiors. Both the salvos hit the chopper near Suthali village, about 100 km from Mithapur.The Beechcraft exploded in the air and turned into a ball of fire before falling on the ground. The All India Radio announced the tragic incident in its 7 pm news bulletin.
In the first week of August 2011, Hussain sent an email to Engineer’s daughter Farida Singh. Explaining the account of the fateful day, he apologised to her.
He wrote:”Dear Mrs Singh,
“I am glad that by now we know about each other and it is no surprise that I am writing to you, thanks to Naushad Patel and Jagan Pillarisetti.”The incident happened 46 years back but it is as fresh in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. The aircraft flown by your father had drifted off course by many a miles and in his search for the destination, he had been going up and down in the border area of Rann of Katchh for quite some time and it made our Radar Controllers uncomfortable. I happened to be strapped up in my aircraft along with another pilot (my Leader) in his, on two minutes take-off alert. We were scrambled but I had to take off alone, and with the help from my radar controller, intercepted your father’s aircraft which was considered to be on a recce mission to open a new war front. I caught sight of him at 3000′ and made a pass so close that I could read his markings and the number of the aircraft. Your father spotted my presence immediately and he started climbing and waggling his wings seeking mercy.
“Instead of firing at him at first sight, I relayed to my controller that I had intercepted an eight seat transport aircraft (guessing by the four side windows) and wanted further instructions to deal with it. At the same time, I was hoping that I would be called back without firing a shot. There was a lapse of 3 to 4 long minutes before I was given clear orders to shoot the aircraft.
“After the shooting, I had a sense of achievement and satisfaction that I had completed my mission and destroyed any recce data that might have been collected to open a new war front. I landed back at Mauripur, Karachi with my fuel tanks bone dry and was greeted by my seniors and other squadron colleagues. Later that evening, All India Radio announced the names of the occupants who had lost their lives in that aircraft.
“The reason that I have been trying to get in touch with you since recently is an article by Air Cdre Kaiser Tufail in April 2011, in which he researched the whole incident and came out with his story by interviewing me, the radar controller (a Flying Officer) and his supervisor (a Wing Commander) who took the decision to order the shoot. I have also read numerous versions that appeared in the Indian media at the time, said to be eyewitness accounts from peasants of Mithapur which are unfortunately based on hearsay. Even the findings of an Enquiry Committee constituted by the Indian Government are nowhere near to what actually happened. I was alone at the site of incident while my Leader who took off finally about 6 to 7 minutes after me (due to change of aircraft and a new pilot), was perched at the border at 20,000′ acting as a relay station between me and the controller at Badin. I had lost contact somewhere while descending to 3,000′ and had we not had this aircraft at 20,000′ at the border, I would not have found your father’s aircraft and he would not have lost his life along with all the others. Nonetheless, the unfortunate part in all this is that I had to execute the orders of my controller.
“Mrs Singh, I have chosen to go into this detail to tell you that it all happened in the line of duty and it was not governed by the concept that ‘everything is fair in love and war’, the way it has been portrayed by the Indian media due to lack of information. I did not play foul and went by the rules of business but the unfortunate loss of precious lives, no matter how it happens, hurts each human and I am no exception. I feel sorry for you, your family and the other seven families who lost their dearest ones. I feel greatly grieved that you lost your brother Noshir recently. If an opportunity ever arises that I could meet you face to face to condole the death of your father 46 years back I would grab it with both hands. I would highly appreciate if you please convey my feelings to the other members of your family, who were equally hurt by the untimely departure of Jungoo to the next world.”I hope and pray that you and your family stay well
“My best regards”
More than six years ago, Engineer’s daughter Farida wrote an emotional reply to Hussain. Instead of holding him responsible for the death of her father, the then chief minister, his wife and others, she blamed it on circumstances.
“From: Farida Singh10 August 2011 09:49Subject: Re: CondolenceTo: Qais Hussain”
“Dear Mr. Hussain,
“Firstly, thank you for your condolences on the passing away of my brother Noshir.
“I am somewhat overwhelmed at receiving this letter, even though I was expecting it as Jagan Pillarisetti had been in touch with me recently on this.
“It took courage for you to write this. And for me, too, (I say this humbly) it takes the same to write back . But my father was Courage and Grace at their finest and I now speak on behalf of him, my extraordinary, gracious mother (who survived my father by just 16 years), my late brother Noshir and my elder sister in Canada who is unfortunately legally blind.
“Yes, this was the one incident which defined our lives henceforth. But in all the struggles that followed, we never, not for one moment, bore bitterness or hatred for the person who actually pulled the trigger and caused my father’s death. The fact that this all happened in the confusion of a tragic war was never lost to us. We are all pawns in this terrible game of War and Peace.
“A little more about my father. An ace pilot if ever there as one. A WWII veteran fighter pilot, a great leader of men, a willing team player, strong in body and spirit. This would have been just the view of an adoring daughter, had it not been reflected by all those fortunate enough to know him. Most of all was the generosity of spirit, and his intuitive understanding of the pain of others. Hence it is now easy for me to reach out my hand to receive your message. This incident is indeed a prime example of what damage strife and mindless battles can drive even good men to do.
“Thank you again for your gesture. I know it was not an easy thing for you to do.
“In closing, I would like to say that I have no idea as to how your email has made the front page in some prominent dailies here. (Jagan knows how publicity-shy I generally am). A friend told me about it and I then re-checked my inbox and opened your mail this morning, 4 days after you sent it.
“However, I am glad that it is now public as it can do nothing but heal wounds, not just on a personal scale but in a much wider arena. And most of all, my father would have liked that it goes towards bringing a spark of forgiveness between our two peoples, who after all were one.