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The Great Escape

“We fight deep inside enemy territory, and one bullet can cripple an aircraft. If I ever become a prisoner of war, I will escape.”

In 1971, a ferocious War ravaged the east and west coasts of India. When East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, made a demand for an independent nation, it led to fires of conflict and rage between West and East Pakistan. India decided to support East Pakistan in its demand and sent her Forces to War against Pakistan. Thus began the costly and important Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The war was fought on different fronts, with the tri-services engaging rapidly in enemy territory across the mountains. The role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in this war is often understated. The IAF was responsible for manning aircrafts and jets right into the enemy’s den for combat and neutralization operations. While most of these aerial operations were successful, some brave pilots of the Indian Air Force found themselves caught and captured in the enemy’s den; that is, around 12 pilots of the IAF were taken as Prisoners of War (POWs) by Pakistan during the course of the War. This is the story of 3 of those 12 IAF pilots, who dared to do the impossible.

These pilots were shot down in different Pakistani villages at different points in time. The minute an IAF plane landed in enemy territory, Pakistani locals made sure to thrash the Indian pilot to make up for the misery that their own country had landed them in. Post this, Pakistani officials took the pilots to a PAF Provost and Security Flight (PSF) in Rawalpindi; a camp for Indian POWs. Here, the pilots were initially kept in solitary confinement and interrogated ruthlessly, to find out crucial intel about the planning of the Indian Forces. But our pilots kept their lips shut. After the initial formalities, the 12 POWs were allowed to mingle and interact during the day, a great source of relief for them in their trying times. That was the time when Group Captain Dilip Parulkar dared to try out the impossible; an escape operation from a Pakistani POW camp back to Indian territory.

Pakistani surrender in the 1971 Indo-Pak war

Group Captain Parulkar was a spirited, young IAF officer from the National Defence Academy. His commanding officer, M S Bawa, remembers him as the soldier who told him he would definitely escape if he was ever made a Prisoner of War. Now, Bawa knew Parulkar was going to do just that; he hoped he wouldn’t get himself killed doing so. From the minute he walked into the PSF camp, Parulkar could only think of finding a way to get out. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, he knew he couldn’t do it alone and he very well knew that, if caught, he could lose his life. But the tenacious Parulkar was determined to attempt this operation.

Group Captain Dilip Parulkar

Initially, only Parulkar was deemed crazy enough to attempt something so barbaric. When he narrated his plans to his inmates, most of them thought he was being plain silly and some others accused him of trying to be a hero and ultimately getting all Indian prisoners in trouble. All these pilots had seen how hostile the environment was in Pakistan, and they were almost certain that an escape attempt meant death. Although Grewal and Sinhji also disagreed initially, the experience of solitary confinement and no promise of returning home in the near future made them hop on board with Dilip Parulkar.

His work started with getting an idea of the area they were lodged in. Pilots are trained to have a great sense of direction and presence; something that helps them immensely in the skies. Parulkar had been lucky in this aspect. The Camp Commandant, Usman Hamid, was a slightly more friendly man than the others across the border. One day, when he was casually conversing with the POWs about Europe, Parulkar sensed the opportunity and told him that he was planning a trip to Munich after he was repatriated to India. As he spent long and boring days in prison now, with little to do, he requested Hamid for a school atlas that he could use to plan his trip and while some time. His actual motive, however, was to gauge which international border closest to the camp was safest and easiest for him to escape. Usman Hamid, unaware of Parulkar’s plans tossed him a harmless school atlas.

Now, the trio - Parulkar, Grewal, and Sinhji- had to find a way to be closest to the escape route. In the Rawalpindi camp, Cell no 5 was an isolated, small cell that lay very close to the barbwire fence. It was this fence that needed to be crossed to leave the premises of the camp. For this, Grewal devised a harmless plan. All three of them were fond of staying up later than the others playing bridge, chess or cards. Some nights, they just stayed up talking before the prison staff commanded them to go to their cells. Grewal requested that as late owls, it will be easier for them and more comfortable for the others if these three lodged together. All the IAF pilots had been well-behaved and cooperative ever since their capture. There was no reason for doubt or suspicion of any form and Grewal’s request seemed like a legitimate and valid one. The prison staff Officer Rizvi agreed to let them shift. The first part of their plan was accomplished.

Flt Lt MS Grewal

The second thing they now had to worry about was a way to get out of Cell 5. It was obvious that coming out of the cell and attempting to escape via the courtyard was futile; there were guards lodged everywhere. They had to find a way to break the fragile walls of the cell, without raising any suspicion. They chose a corner of the back wall and decided to cut a hole just enough for a broad-shouldered man to slip through. They used forks, knives, scissors, and chipping tools to painstakingly uncover the cement and mortar of the wall of Cell 5. Every night, Parulkar and Grewal took turns from 10 PM (which was when the lights went out in the camp) to 1:30 AM to silently work on the wall, while Sinhji kept guard at the door for any guard movement. The next morning, they replaced the loose bricks into the hole and hoped against hope that none of the cleaners spotted it while doing their chores. This was how they set the foundation for their plan.

Next, they moved on to building survival kits for the journey. Naturally, they had to do with the items at their disposal without turning any eyeballs. This was the time when the IAF officers showed how they could create gold out of dust when needed. A torn volleyball net was turned into a carrier bag for small items. A strip of fabric from a washroom curtain was made into a knapsack for the three. One of the other POWs, who was the only one who was allowed to keep his G-suit, lent its air tube as a water carrier to the three prisoners. Apart from this, they used their monthly allowance of about Rs. 57 (which was mandatory according to the Geneva Convention) to save up for transport and purchase dry edibles like snacks and dry fruits for the journey. In her book, ‘Four Miles to Freedom’, which is about this daring escape operation, author Faith Johnston mentions that all the guards in the Rawalpindi prison were enlisted cadets while all the POWs were respected officers. So, inherently, there was a certain deference between the two and the guards let the POWs proceed with their regular activities without much intrusion and oversight.

Flt Lt Harish Sinhji

Finally, the day of escape dawned on them. They deliberately chose the midnight of August 13 as the following day, August 14, was Pakistan’s Independence Day. There was a mood of relaxation and celebration in the camp and there was, thankfully, an air of lesser vigil. The three pilots, armed with their materials and a strong sense of hope in their hearts, set off. A fellow prisoner, Flying Officer Kuruvilla, was given the task of calling the guard away exactly at midnight to take him to the bathroom. In this window, Parulkar, Grewal, and Sinhji were to stand as close to the hole they had dug and, one by one, they were to dash across the courtyard, climb the small fenced wire and be on their way on what was called the Mall Road. All went smoothly at this juncture and the three prisoners were out, while a fellow prisoner back at the camp arranged dummies on their bed so that their absence would not be noticed until breakfast the next morning.

Faith Johnston’s book ‘Four Miles to Freedom’ captures the daring escape story of the trio

What happened in the next 8 hours or so looked like a scene straight from the movies. The trio’s plan went on perfectly. The plan was to move towards the farther Afghanistan border because attempting to reach the already volatile India-Pakistan border would be downright foolish. After leaving Rawalpindi, they crossed the areas of Wah, Attock, Milan Essa, Nowshera and reached close to Peshawar, a prime Pakistani location. Their last stop, before they could reach safe territory was a small town called Landi Kotal, at the summit of the Khyber Pass. It was here that they asked a few locals for directions to get to Landi Kotal. It seemed like a harmless question as they posed and dressed like tourists in the area. Unfortunately, what they did not know while in prison was that the Landi Kotal area they were looking for was shut permanently in 1932. Three alien men asking questions about a station that had shut almost 5 decades earlier naturally raised the suspicions of the locals and the Armed personnel nearby. Our pilots’ game was up.

They were taken to the local police station and a threatening interrogation was undertaken about their identity. After ascertaining that they were Indian POWs from the 1971 War, Pakistani authorities were forced to return them to the Rawalpindi camp they had escaped from. This was a huge source of relief for the captured prisoners because the camp treated them according to the Geneva Convention and Red Cross regulations, but the same could not be expected from local Pakistani police. When they returned to the camp, they were subjected to a stringent 30-day solitary confinement for their escapade attempt. However, their misery was to end soon as bilateral talks on the repatriation of prisoners took pace and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared in late November 1972 that the Indian POWs were going to be sent home. As stated, these pilots reached home safely on December 1, 1972, to an eagerly awaiting motherland.

It is said that when taken as a prisoner of war, it is the duty of every soldier to try and escape. However, more often than not, this is not done for the sole reason that capture could result in putting their very lives at peril. But these three brave pilots did not let the circumstances of their hostile capture deter them in their pursuit of freedom. Their training in the Indian Air Force, their resolve to return to their motherland, their tact, intelligence, and presence of mind that made them such good soldiers - all of this contributed to an almost successful and historic escape attempt.

The three courageous IAF officers

Although they didn’t make it back home then, the escape they planned and executed stands as a grim reminder to Pakistan of what Indian soldiers are capable of. Circumstances make or break men but when you’re a soldier in the Indian Armed Forces, your resolve supersedes your circumstances and guarantees victory. That winter in 1972, Dilip Parulkar, Manvinder Singh Grewal, and Harish Sinhji did the impossible and, for that, history will always remember them as what they were; brave officers of the Indian Air Force who took flight without fear.




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