You need a raging fire in your belly... And a strong conviction... A belief in yourself and inner strength that you can do the impossible... And only then can you epitomise what true legends are about. One such legend is Dilip Parulkar... A man who fought all odds and planned and executed the boldest escape from a POW Camp in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 1972 (August) when he was a young Flight Lieutenant and lives to tell his tale. This also being a feat which is unheard of after World War II and in the present day scenario.
Dilip Parulkar hailed from an ordinary family. He was keen to join the Indian Air Force, and after his parents reluctantly acquiesced, joined the NDA in Jan’1959. He became a commissioned Air Force officer in 1963 (83 Course) as a Fighter Pilot, and participated in the 1965 India- Pakistan war when he was part of the 7 Sqn as well as the 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh as part of the 26 Sqn. He received the Vayu Sena Medal as a Flying Officer in 1966 when he was serving with 20 Sqn. He was also the recipient of the Vishist Seva Medal in 1983. He retired as a Group Captain in 1987.
During the 1965 war, when they went in for an air raid over Pakistan (his maiden flight) he was No.4 in the formation they were flying in, as luck would have it his plane was hit by AA Gun bursts fire and one of the bullets ruptured his arm near the shoulder. Had his head been on the head rest it would have been a different story. In spite of the injury he flew back to Halwara Air Base, even though his formation leader had advised him to eject. On landing he just about managed to bring the plane to a halt. Later on, when the aircraft was inspected it was discovered that the parachute cord had been damaged and had he ejected, he would have hit the ground at 400 miles per hour and that would have been fatal. He was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal by Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh. Thanks to the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Parulkar earned the much-needed confidence after he was wounded on his first sortie.
One fine morning in Jan or Feb’ 1968, around 10 AM a lone Hunter was seen flying over Purandhar Fort, near Pune where his close friend cum course mate was posted in the NCC Academy. For the next 15 -20 minutes the display of aerobatic manoeuvres done left everyone spell bound. That was Dilip himself and he had the whole garrison looking sky wards and admiring the thrilling display. During war times he is remembered as telling his commanding officer Wing Commander M S Bawa in 1969 that he would escape if he were ever captured.
In 1970 while posted at Adhampur and flying Sukhoi’s, one April/May week end, Dilip had planned to visit Shimla to meet his course mate, but there had been no news of Dilip turning up till about 8 PM, when suddenly a trunk call was received from Jalandhar. Dilip in his usual hilarious way on the phone stated, “The suitcase I had packed has got me to the MH, my engine flamed out while I was coming into to land.”
On December 10, 1971, anti-aircraft guns shot down the Su-7 piloted by Flight Lieutenant Dilip Parulkar close to Zafarwal. He ejected. In fact, he boasts a rare record of three ejections. Every ejection is a renewed life he says. But that December he descended into trouble... This time he was not that lucky and was shot down, captured and handed over to the Pakistani army by villagers. The savage punches on his head by them caused amnesia; besides the thrashing, he cannot recall the happenings few days before and after the concussion, even today.
Soon after capture, the Pakis tried hard to make him give the layout of Adhampur Air Base and its air defences. After much cajoling and temptation Dilip agreed to draw the layout. After he had given the drawing, the next day he was given a thorough bashing because he had in fact given the layout of Santa Cruz, Mumbai. His recollection rolls from the solitary confinement and daily interrogation in the PAF Provost & Security Flight (PSF) in Rawalpindi - a camp for IAF prisoners of war. On the morning of December 25, Squadron Leader Usman Hamid, the camp commandant, invited the POWs over for celebrating Christmas. The informal atmosphere gave Parulkar and his 11 co-POWs (Wing Commander B A Coelho, Squadron Leaders A V Kamat and D S Jafa, Flight Lieutenants Tejwant Singh, A V Pethia, M S Grewal, Harish Sinhji and J L Bhargava, Flying Officers Hufrid Mulla Feroze, V S Chati and K C Kuruvilla) to huddle and size up the situation.
Then on, while they had to sleep in their cells, they were free to mingle and spent time together from breakfast to dinner. Awaiting repatriation, they resorted to books, periodicals, cards, chess, seven tiles, volleyball, gossip, even flying kites to kill time. The Red Cross cranked up, its agents appeared monthly to deliver mail and cartons of goodies sent from India. To comply with the ‘Third Geneva Convention’, the POWs were paid the equivalent of Swiss Francs as per their rank each month and Dilip’s worked out to about 57 Swiss Francs as allowance.
Meanwhile the air was rife with rumours of repatriation but the limbo lasted long. The already stressed living in captivity was further vitiated by ennui and monotony. One ambition monopolised Parulkar’s being – to break out and decamp. Actually, he had broached the idea in end-January, and added that the Geneva Convention expected a POW to escape and resume duties, for good measure, but everybody laughed out of court and dismissed it as bravado. He hard sold his pet scheme again and the slack atmosphere in the camp simply whetted his appetite. Not the kind to retrace, he co-opted Grewal, and his spirited campaign bore fruit ultimately. The consensus was only the duo of Parulkar and Grewal, the fittest two, should endeavour. If caught, the firing squad would be in business.
Parulkar was inspired by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who masterminded the flight of allied air force servicemen, which became the theme for the famous flick ‘The Great Escape’. Having studied the features of the area, he concluded that unlike the German camp Stalag Luft III, there was no need to dig a tunnel to flee. A barbwire fence separated their cell and the compound of the adjacent PAF recruiting office and petrol pump, and the paved path between the two led to the gate where a corporal was stationed on duty. One just needed to dodge the sentries, vault the wall, and alight on the Mall Road stretch of the legendary Grand Trunk Road. They collectively ruled out the return through Lahore theatre as the front was mined, and would have to wriggle past two armies shooting at each other. It was better to head north, hit the hills, trudge 100-odd kilometres in the easterly direction to touch down somewhere between Uri and Poonch, a less hazardous war zone in their reading. The hardest hurdle of this route was crossing the river Jhelum.
Itching to escape, Dilip was joined by his friends Malvinder Singh Grewal and Harish Sinhji. Making a compass to find direction, saving their salary in the prison, writing letters carefully, and finding routes when some of their wounded POWs went to hospital for treatment was part of the meticulous plan and preparation was underway for many weeks.
Equipped with the appropriate survival gear and provisions - haversack, compass, clothing, footwear, rations, water and cash they had set forth only to be caught just short of the Afghan border. Interestingly the POW camp was not aware of their escape being a Sunday morning, till the word came from Pak Air HQ. The three heroes were turned over to the Rawalpindi camp, where the camp commandant, after a summary trial, sentenced them to 30 days’ solitary confinement. Few days later, they too were transferred to Lyallpur, where the verdict was commuted. End-November, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then premier of Pakistan, addressed the POWs and declared their repatriation. It is believed that Bhutto had given orders to shoot them and state that this occurred while they were escaping from the prison camp. However, the then Pak Air Chief ensured that sense prevailed upon Mr. Z A Bhutto saying that this would have ramifications later when the truth came out. The returnees were bestowed a hero’s welcome at the Wagah border on December 1, 1972. A grand reception awaited the IAF officers at the air force unit in Amritsar. They were flown down to Delhi in the evening where they were toasted and reunited with their kith and kin. Of course, they were grilled by their own authorities as well to ensure that all loose ends were tied up!
Faith Johnston’s book Four Miles to Freedom speaks of this tale of three Indian fighter pilots who tried to escape from a prison in Rawalpindi during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. This war had changed the political geography of the subcontinent by creation of a new nation -Bangladesh – as well as dealt a body blow to the two-nation theory that led to the birth of Pakistan over six decades ago. The three escapees were however never feted for their daring attempt 44 years ago. The book is also the moving, sometimes amusing, account of 12 fighter pilots from different ranks and backgrounds coping with deprivation, forced intimacy, and the pervasive uncertainty of a year in captivity, and coming together to support Parulkar’s daring escape plan. It is not only a story of a great escape by Indian POWs. It is also equally the story of Pakistani authorities, jailors and their families and how they treated these Indian POWs well after intense interrogation during the initial days.
Johnston is a former teacher. She worked in Chandigarh for two years and now lives in Winnipeg, Canada, and in Pune. Married to Air Commodore Manbir Singh, she also wrote the biography of one of Canada’s first women Parliamentarians: A Great Restlessness.
The Gp Capt has been living a charmed life as far as the Air Force goes and is an institution by himself. Everything he does is out of the world. He has also had all the luck with him having survived four flying accidents while in service. If he had not quit the AF prematurely nothing would have stopped him becoming an Air Marshal say his comrades, which anyway now is history. He has been interviewed by Shekhar Gupta in ‘Walk The Talk’ and by Barkha Dutt in ‘We The ‘People’ and many other newspapers and magazines. The retired Air Force officer has also contributed towards forest conservation and agriculture after retirement and has settled down in Pune, and has since been a man of many parts, juggling the diverse hats of builder, promoter, proprietor and planter.
Group Captain Parulkar, was the Battalion Commander (Batty) of No 3 Battalion in NDA when I was a cadet. As cadets the Batty was God, only seen when you were marched up to him for some serious misdemeanour. I was one fortunate one to be marched up to him and had the fortune of hearing him giving me my share of punishment with a twinkle in his eyes. I next met him, when I myself was a Batty in NDA, around the time of the Diamond Jubilee of the NDA. Group Captain Parulkar was one of the most active alumni of the Pune Chapter, who was always ready to speak and motivate cadets. I remember him speaking to the cadets during one session in No 4 Battalion and was mesmerised. A great gentleman, maverick or otherwise, just the man to be a role model. God Bless him with a long and healthy life.