Air Marshal (retd) KC Cariappa, the son of India’s first Army Chief, Field Marshal KM Cariappa, was a 27-year-old squadron leader during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, when the Pakistani forces shot down the Hunter aircraft that he was flying and he was taken as a prisoner of war. “It was September 22.
I did not know that mine was the last sortie until I got back home. I do remember that it was at 9:04 that I landed on the ground. We were returning home and we were being fired at by ground weapons, we returned the fire and in that process the aircraft I was flying got shot down.
I ejected from the aircraft, I landed on my bottom and I was momentarily paralysed, as I could not move. People wearing khaki uniform surrounded me and I thought that I was surrounded by Indians but at that time the artillery opened up and started attacking us.
It was at that moment that we realised that we were prisoners. I was hurt, my spine got injured and I was in great deal of pain,” recounted Cariappa in an interview during his visit to Dehradun on Friday as the chief guest at the annual Military History Seminar organised by Welham Boys’ School. “I was taken to a hospital and then eventually to Lahore.
From Lahore, I was taken to Rawalpindi and from there to the main prisoner of war camp at Dargai in the northwest frontier. I stayed there for four months during which I spent a lot of time in solitary confinement,” he narrated.
On what scared him while he was taken prisoner, the veteran remarked, “The worst thing that can happen to a person is the fear of the unknown. That was also my greatest fear when I was taken as a prisoner of war as I did not know how I was going to be treated by those who had captured me. When you’re fighting a war, you do not know whether your loved ones back home know that you are alive.
And this to you is a threat. That is also what the Pakistanis used to scare me to get information from me. They used to tell me, ‘Nobody back home knows whether you are alive or not. You better give us answers to the questions that we are asking.’
According to the Geneva Convention, as a prisoner of war we are supposed to disclose only three pieces of information-name, number and rank. But that does not work, they really try to get whatever information they can out of you and as a young flight lieutenant there was very little information that I could actually give. We were a total of about 57, out of this there were around 12 Sikh army officers who were kept in a separate compound and this was typical Pakistani way of trying to encourage Khalistan at that time.” Recalling those four months that he spent as a prisoner of war, Cariappa stated, “It was a difficult time but my confidence returned when I was with the other six Indian Air Force officers who had been taken as prisoners of war and then later for all of us when we received our first Red Cross parcels in the first week of December 1965 because we understood that it had been acknowledged that we were alive and were being kept as prisoners of war.
Our source of information while we were prisoners of war was a local sweeper who belonged to a minority community of Pakistan.
One day he told us that he had heard rumours that we were going back to India and that the next day a tailor would come to the prison to give us new clothes.
And on the morning of 22nd we were told that we were being moved out of the prison, that we would leave at 4 o’clock in the morning.
It was only after returning to India that I got to know that Ayub Khan had made a special gesture to my father offering to repatriate me back to India to which my father had said, ‘they’re all my sons please look after all of them in exactly the same way.’ And these famous words of Army chief Field Marshal Cariappa became the theme of this year’s military history seminar as ethics and leadership.”
The opening segment had Air Marshal (retd) Cariappa; the school chairman Darshan Singh, former air chief Air Chief Marshal (retd) AY Tipnis and Colonel Vivek Sharma, the present commandant of RIMC as panelists with author Shiv Kunal Verma as the moderator. As stated by Welham Boys’ principal, Gunmeet Bindra, “Each edition of the Military History Seminar gives an opportunity to set higher benchmarks by delving in topics of acute concern, celebrating real life heroes and promoting informed citizenry.”