Four miles to freedom: That is how close Wing Commander M.S. Grewal and Group Captain Dilip Parulkar came to freedom after an incredibly audacious escape from a Pakistani PoW camp.
Their story goes back 46 years. Twelve Indian Air Force pilots, lodged in a Pakistani prisoner of war camp near Rawalpindi in 1971, hatched a great “conspiracy”. A conspiracy of escape. And three of them did escape, only to be caught four miles from the Afghanistan border. Canadian journalist Faith Johnston, an Air Force wife herself, put together their story in a book called Four Miles to Freedom. Group Captain Dilip Parulkar and Wing Commander M.S. Grewal were the ringleaders and escapees of that group — the ‘bad boys’.
I met Parulkar and Grewal to record a detailed interview for my ‘Walk The Talk’ show on NDTV. It is perhaps the best thing you will read on the 46th anniversary of the war in which they fought. Do read on:
Shekhar Gupta: Dilip sir, so you were shot in 1965 and also 1971. A real tough cookie!
Gp Capt Dilip Parulkar: That’s right. But I make a distinction — in ’65, I was shot up, and in ’71, I was shot down (laughs).
SG: In ‘65, you were flying a Hunter, took a bullet in your shoulder, and decided not to eject.
Parulkar: I disobeyed orders, so to say, and landed the Hunter back in Halwara.
“If I’d ejected, I’d have hit the ground at 400 miles an hour”
SG: Later it was found that the bullet had cut your parachute chord.
Parulkar: Had I ejected, I would have hit the ground at about 400 miles an hour.
SG: So you’ve lived a charmed life. And then what happened in ‘71, you were flying a Sukhoi?
Parulkar: The aeroplane did not give me any chance. When I got the bullets in my plane, it went out of control. It is my great fortune that it pitched upwards, because we do all our fighting at about 100 metres or so. Had it pitched downwards, there would have been no time.
SG: And it’s a big plane.
Parulkar: Yes, and I had no choice but to eject. Our target was just east of Lahore. It was a radar station, we had to knock it out, which we did during this raid. But I was left behind by the formation.
“I ejected & landed without injuries, but got beaten up by villagers”
SG: And Gary Sir— every Grewal in the IAF is Gary— you were flying a Sukhoi as well.
Wing Commander M.S. Grewal: I was with 32 Squadron, operating out of Amritsar… I was flying with Air Marshal (V.K.) Bhatia, and (Flight Lieutenant) V.V. Tambay… And we were running towards an airfield at Shorkot Road— it’s named after their pilot called Rafiqui.
SG: The Pakistani fighter pilot Sarfaraz Ahmad Rafiqui, who was shot down in ‘65 at Halwara?
Grewal: Yes. This was my second mission of the day. I was in the process of pitching up to get into a dive when I lost control because my hydraulics got hit. The Sukhoi seat, K-30, is marvellous.
SG: The ejection seat.
Grewal: It worked absolutely flawlessly and I landed on the ground, no injuries, but was thereafter beaten up by villagers.
SG: Dilip sir, that was your experience as well.
Grewal: Villagers don’t spare you. They hit you, kick you, take away your items. They were looking for my revolver, my watch. But fortunately, I was very close to an airfield. The (Pakistani) air force people came, they rescued me from the villagers. They handcuffed me, blindfolded me, marched me to the airfield and there I was interrogated by, I think, the base commander. Within 10-15 minutes, I was put in a jeep and overnight driven to Rawalpindi, which was a long distance. It was a cold night, and we had this thin overall.
SG: That’s an insult, a fighter pilot being driven in a jeep!
Parulkar: I was put in a sedan.
SG: Even worse!
“A Pakistani guard massaged my shoulders”
Grewal: Talking about how good or bad they are… My shoulders were paining, and one of the soldiers in the jeep who was my guard massaged my shoulders. And they held a cup of tea for me to drink. Early morning, I was dumped in a cell in Rawalpindi. This cell was absolutely unbelievable, it was so filthy. Had I been there another day, I probably would have given up. But next morning, I was taken to a press conference. Practically, all the leading newspapers were there.
SG: You were almost the first PoW. On 3rd December was the PAF (Pakistani Air Force) attack, and the IAF responded on 4th morning.
Grewal: On 3rd evening, in Amritsar, three Pakistani Mirages bombed our runway… Air Marshal Bhatia and I were the only two pilots there. Next morning, our squadron flew in from Ambala, and thereafter we operated on the 4th. One mission on the 4th, and on 4th evening, I was shot down. After the press conference.. I said now they won’t kill me, the world knows I’m alive.
SG: Dilip sir, when you came down, who received you?
Parulkar: Almost the same thing (as Grewal). One minute you’re bombing them, and the next minute they find you coming down in a parachute. So your welcome is assured (laughing)… They started thrashing me, there were a lot of cries, ‘kill him’ and all that. Luckily, there was a policeman there who had some authority. He said ‘No, no, this fellow is much more useful to us alive than dead’. ‘He is going to be a fund of information for us’.
“They wanted sketch of Adampur airfield, I drew Mumbai’s Santacruz airport”
SG: Were you that fund of information? I believe you drew the wrong map and were caught.
Parulkar: They wanted a sketch of the Adampur airfield.
SG: The airfield near Jalandhar, one of our major forward air bases.
Parulkar: The PAF was very keen to know the defences of Adampur so that they could bomb it, and I was not the person who was going to give it to them. So when they insisted on a sketch, I drew a sketch of the Santacruz airport.
SG: Trust a Punekar to draw a sketch of Santacruz airport and set the bombers on Bombay!
Parulkar: They told me to draw all the gun positions and the ground-to-air missile positions. So I just drew blobs and crosses all over that airfield. This interrogator took that sketch and disappeared for about 10-15 minutes. When he came back, he was more livid… ‘You are fooling with us! We’ll slaughter you. Isn’t Adampur on the Hoshiarpur-Jalandhar main road?’ he said. I said, ‘Of course it is.’ He said, ‘Give me that map.’ He punished me like a child, ‘Go face the corner’ and said ‘No food for you tonight’. While leaving, he told the armed guard, ‘If he moves, shoot him’. Thoughts like — something I had read somewhere — that you don’t hear the bullet which hits you, were going through my head when I stood facing a corner. After a few minutes of standing like that, my legs got tired. So I tried to squat down. The armed guard loaded the rifle. So I sprang up again, and stood wondering what was going to happen. After a few more minutes, that same guard said, ‘Sa’ab aapki taangein dard kar rahi hongi na (Sir, your legs must be hurting, no)?’ I said yes. ‘Aisa kijiye sa’ab, baith jaiye. Koi aayega to main khansoonga, uth jaana (Sit down then. When someone comes, I will cough. Stand up then)’.
SG: Just as there is honour among thieves, there is honour and chivalry among soldiers.
Parulkar: There were many, many examples of it.
Grewal: This gentleman, he made me stand in a corner. It must have been past midnight, and the guard wanted a smoke. In the Army, with the cap on and in uniform, you don’t smoke. So he wanted to smoke and he asked me, ‘Sa’ab main beedi pi loon? Aap bhi baith jao (‘Sir, may I smoke? You too sit down)’. So you sit down on your haunches, take a break, and he smokes his beedi.
After he finishes smoking, he says ‘Aap khade ho jao (You get up now)’.
Parulkar: Because, to that jawan, we were still officers.
SG: And you find that camaraderie.
Grewal: Same language, same people.
“The torture was not physical but psychological”
SG: So, when you were taken to the PoW camp, did you think you would be tortured? Treated badly?
Grewal: The first impression of a camp is that you will be tortured there. That’s expected. How much it is and how good or bad they are, comes with time. It wasn’t that bad.
SG: Oh, that’s interesting.
Grewal: No. See, there was no physical beating, or making you bend down or physically abuse you or something. It was just questioning, standing in a corner. In the morning, the interrogator would come at, like, 8 o’clock and ask, ‘Gary, would you like to have a cup of tea?’. ‘Yes sir, I would love to have it.’ That cup of tea would never come. Psychological torture.
SG: And then keep questioning you again and again, same question, in the hope that you will trip, give a wrong answer.
Parulkar: The typical interrogation techniques… The good cop used to try to get under your skin and say, ‘That fellow is a terrible chap, be very careful. He doesn’t take prisoners. You tell me whatever you like, I’ll keep it to myself’.
SG: But it was not unsavoury, or disrespectful?
Grewal: Not at all. They kept asking about the Adampur airfield… They wanted to know (about) a safe corridor so that they could go in and bombard.
SG: But this is the thing about the Indian and Pakistani armed forces. There is a certain degree of camaraderie and fellow feeling.
Parulkar: Well, two of my course mates trained in the US on Sabres. This was immediately after the ’62 operations.
SG: When the Americans offered Sabres to us…
Parulkar: That time, China was enemy No. 1… They ran to our help and many of my friends and colleagues went to the States to train on Sabres. They had a common training academy. So Pakistanis, Yemenis, Algerians, our IAF pilots, all youngsters in their early 20s, and the base was not far from Las Vegas, the Edwards Air Force base.
SG: They would go and gamble?
Parulkar: That’s right. And they used to share cars, go together, party together. They were buddies, they were youngsters.
“Getting shot with your own revolver is injury on insult”
SG: Flight Lieutenant Vikram Pethia, one of those captured by the Pakistanis, faced rough treatment.
Grewal: Pethia was a little weak physically also and got beaten up very badly. They put cigarette butts on him. Plus, when you end up with civilians, how much beating you take, who does what to you, for how long, there is no control.
Parulkar: It’s my great fortune that in the force of (my ejection), a gun I had put in the lowest pocket of the overall, tore the pocket and fell out. It was not found by the people, otherwise… Getting shot with your own revolver is injury on insult.
SG: When did you think of escaping and why? You knew there was going to be an exchange…
Parulkar: If you’re asking me personally, I had told my commanding officer in 1969 that if I become a prisoner of war — a fighter pilot has the highest chance of becoming a PoW because we are the only guys fighting deep into enemy territory — I told him, ‘Sir, there’s always a chance of us getting shot in Pakistan. I assure you if I become a prisoner of war, I am going to escape’
SG: And Gary sir, you?
Grewal: Part of our duty is to escape, so it was a part of my duty. It is the first duty of a PoW to escape. It is Dilip who started this thing, about April, May, that ‘Gary, let’s try and get out’. I said, ‘What’s the hurry? Why take a chance?’. This went on two-three times. To add to that, our exuberance was because of us being bachelors. We had no one to cry over us…
Parulkar: All the three who escaped were not married (Harish Sinhji being the third). From the second day of my capture, this bug was in my mind, ‘Escape, escape, escape’. So when we started meeting, it was almost like requesting Gary whether he’ll come along with me.
Grewal: Harish Sinhji, he was one person who was of no help to us during the digging. But he was so persistent ke jaana hai (that he has to go). He was much younger.
Grewal: Of course, he always boasted of his ancestry, being Jhala Rajput, and he said, ‘You must take me’. So we had him in that group. But I told him we may have to wade or swim across a river. He didn’t even know how to swim.
Grewal: So we finally ended up, three of us in one room, and of course (V.S.) Chati (a fellow IAF PoW) helped us out.
SG: He was covering up for you?
Parulkar: And that was very effective. He held out till almost 11 o’clock.
Garewal: Had we gone across the border, probably they wouldn’t have known till the evening that people are gone from the camp. It was a holiday, 14 August, everybody was fast asleep.
SG: None of your seniors, Wing Commander B.A. Coelho, Sq Ldr D.S. Jafa, tried to dissuade you? Nobody ordered you not to do it?
Garewal: No, nobody can order us not to do our duty.
“We were not even part of the (diplomatic) negotiations”
SG: But didn’t they say that exchange was going to take place? The Simla Agreement would happen?
Parulkar: We had had enough false alarms like that… everytime something diplomatic took place… By that time, things had relaxed, we had a radio to listen to, we had newspapers coming to us. Every week there was something. This news used to come out in Pakistan because they wanted their 95,000 prisoners back… After a few times, Gary lost heart and said, ‘Yaar Dilip, enough. We have waited enough’.
Grewal: We had already started work on the wall. We had started removing the bricks.
Parulkar: (Indira Gandhi’s special envoy) D.P. Dhar was to come, and we thought he would take us back in his aeroplane. Those were our hopes (laughs)… And it’s a shame that nobody thought of us at all. We were not even part of the negotiations.
SG: Tell us about the Sukhois a little bit. It is a very large plane to be used for ground attack, carried a lot of ordnance.
Grewal: For that era it did.
SG: We lost 18 Sukhois in that war. It formed the bulk of our losses.
Grewal: Maximum Sukhois yes, but don’t forget that the maximum number of missions were also done by Sukhois.
SG: So the criticism that the aircraft was bad or too vulnerable…
Grewal: No, not at all. But it could be a little too big for that role.
SG: Although it could escape at supersonic speed.
Grewal: Yes… Any other airplane with that kind of tail would have crashed or gone out of control. This thing kept flying. And with a lot of other cases like that: bullets through the engine, through the fuselage… There are a few shortcomings, but otherwise you can’t blame it, it did its job.
SG: That’s why I think more Indian pilots were able to eject than Pakistan pilots.
Parulkar: Definitely, they had miserable ejection seats.
(In the second part of this conversation: how the escape was made, how it failed four miles before freedom, and some stories of soldierly chivalry even from a furious enemy)