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Issue No.: 571 | January 2015
 

DEATH WASN’T PAINFUL: STORIES OF INDIAN FIGHTER PILOTS FROM THE 1971 WAR

Direndra S. Jafa
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The core of the book is the author’s own personal experience during the 1971 war and as a PoW for a year after.

DEATH WASN’T PAINFUL: STORIES OF INDIAN FIGHTER PILOTS FROM THE 1971 WAR by Dhirendra S. Jafa ● Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2014. ● Marketing at sagepub.in ● pp 247 ● Rs.445

Reviewed by K. S. Nair ( await his reply re his background)
This book is in fact a re-release of Dhirendra Jafa’s earlier publication in the 1990s Three Countries, One People. Nevertheless, it remains a valuable contribution to India’s small but growing body of military memoirs.

Wing Commander Dhirendra Singh Jafa, Vr.C.VM, to give his rank and decorations alongside his full name, was until the age of 35 a high-performing Indian Air Force officer. He underwent Staff College training overseas, and was one of the top performers in the services’ annual Staff College Entrance Exam. He served as an ADC to the Chief of Air Staff, again a post usually reserved for young officers clearly marked for advancement. He chose, as great-hearted soldiers often do, to request transfer from ceremonial duties in Lutyens’ Delhi, to operational duties on the front line, when war seemed imminent. Shot down by ground fire over one of the most fiercely-contested battlefields of the Western Front during the 1971 war, he ejected from his flaming Su-7 ground attack fighter, and suffered spinal injuries. This was painfully common among Indian pilots who ejected in the 1971 war – they flew so low that they never had the time to brace for ejection, and their parachutes barely opened before they hit the ground. He was captured by the Pakistanis and spent a year as a Prisoner of War (PoW) before being repatriated to India. His wartime injuries compelled him to retire prematurely, with two decorations and his modest pre-Third Pay Commission pension to support him – plus the peace of mind of a soldier who had done his duty.

The core of the book is the author’s own personal experience during the 1971 war and as a PoW for a year after. As a Squadron Leader at that time, he would have been one of the three or four most senior pilots in the squadron he joined. He groomed younger officers, in the air and equally, importantly, on the ground, for their upcoming test of fire. He flew Close Air Support, one of the most demanding of Air Force roles, making repeated passes over heavily-defended airspace to meet the demands of jawans on the ground. As a PoW, he continued to act as a mentor and advisor in his PoW camp, particularly to the three younger Indian pilots who made a determined, if unsuccessful, attempt to escape. In the manner of some Indian military memoirists, he tells his story in the third person, with sometimes incomplete names or composite characters, probably to avoid official disapproval.

The exchange of war stories by the dozen-odd Indian pilots in the PoW camp is also used to re-tell some unrelated IAF stories. The additional stories include, poignantly, that of the late Wing Commander AJS Sandhu, a brilliant natural combat pilot and recipient of the Vir Chakra in 1965, who was killed in a crash just before the 1971 war. 

The adventures of the three Indian pilots who managed to escape from the camp, only to be recaptured four miles from the Pak-Indian border were ably recounted in a 2013 book Four Miles to Freedom by Canadian author Faith Johnstone, who is married to IAF veteran Air Commodore Manbir Singh VrC VM. When that book came out, it was publicised through a number of prime-time television interviews with the two surviving escapees, now honourably retired - Group Captain Dilip Parulkar and Wing Commander M. S. Grewal. When Wg. Cdr. Jafa’s original book came out there was little or no coverage by the electronic media; is it too late to ask for some now?

Wg. Cdr. Jafa’s book showcases the camaraderie among the IAF personnel in enemy captivity; and recounts in detail conversations among them, and between them and their captors. Some of those conversations were hostile, some remarkably friendly, many were straightforward and professional. (Both books note that the Indians were surer of soldierly treatment when in the custody of Pakistani armed forces personnel, than when in the hands of Pakistani civilians). The content of some of those conversations is remarkably civilized. They may annoy ultra-nationalists, as insufficiently demonstrative of an India uber alles point of view or insufficiently antagonistic to the Pakistani. (In fact at least one review of the original Three Countries, One People criticises it for "mushy pre-Partition nostalgia).

Wg. Cdr. Jafa will lose no sleep over such comments. As one who is entitled to wear the simple orange-and-dark blue ribbon of the Vir Chakra, he has proven his nationalist credentials to a level transcendentally beyond those who demonstrate their nationalism on a book review or Op Ed page.  

PoW stories such as The Great Escape, The One That Got Away, and the US Presidential candidate John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers, have always contributed to the pride, and the culture of adherence to high codes of conduct which influence the behaviour of military personnel at their best. Wg. Cdr. Jafa’s book remains one of the few distinctively Indian examples of that genre. For that reason alone, and for its gentle, occasionally humorous depiction of the PoW existence, it deserves to be widely read and better known.
 
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CONFRONTING THE STATE

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ALTAMONT ROAD AND OTHER TRUE STORIES

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DEATH WASN’T PAINFUL: STORIES OF INDIAN FIGHTER PILOTS FROM THE 1971 WAR

Direndra S. Jafa
 

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