Independence Day 2021: A 23-year-old young boy joins the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1962, oblivious of what was to come nine years later -- 1971 India-Pakistan war. When Pakistan dropped Napalm bombs on the Indian Air Force airstrip in Gujarat's Bhuj on the night of December 8, 1971, it was Squadron leader Vijay Karnik who showed courage and spontaneity to rally together 300 women to rebuild the runway again.
This Independence Day, India TV spoke with Vijay Karnik, who travelled back in time to narrate what went into the arduous task of repairing a bombed airstrip.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
1. 1971 happens to be a crucial year. Bangladesh Liberation War broke out between India and Pakistan. You were posted as the Base Commander of Bhuj Air Force base then in Gujarat. The Bhuj runway was destroyed by Pakistan in intense bombing, and you were faced with a really tough task. How did things work in your favour?
3rd (December) onwards, every night we were getting bombings over there (Bhuj). And, we were not sustaining severe damage, it was very slight. Sometimes they (Pakistan) missed the complete target and instead dropped the bombs outside the perimeter of the airfield also. Our operations were not hindered at all. 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th...everyday bombing was going on. Whatever little damage we suffered...it was quickly repaired by our contractors, labourers and our military engineers. And, we were attacking Karachi day and night. Half the Karachi was burning. Their airfields were burning, their naval dockyard was burning. They (Pakistan) had suffered immense damage. And to top it up, on 5th and 6th, we shot down two of their aircraft over Bhuj. They, on the other hand, had their own plans for the Kutch area to isolate, and capture Kutch. Because in the 1965 (Indo-Pak) war also, their tanks had come across the Rann of Kutch... before the war. So they were quite familiar. They (Pakistan) had all the plans to destroy this particular Bhuj airfield. They planned a concentrated attack on the night of 8th (December), 9th in Bhuj. And it was successful...they destroyed our runway and rendered it non-operational. And the same day I was supposed to get a Sukhoi squadron from Punjab area.
2. Being so young in age and experience back then, what all went through your mind when the war was at its peak but the airfield damaged? Was there a fear of failing too?
I was the youngest base commander in 1971 war...with nine years into service. All other base commanders were 18-20 years into service...much higher ranks, they were group captains and Wing commanders. I was a squadron leader. And there was immense responsibility. We had some helicopters and aircraft also under operation at our base at Bhuj.
3. The contribution of 300 women in repairing the airfield is well-known, as also depicted in the newly-released Hindi movie 'Bhuj'. How did you convince them to get a huge runway back in form?
When all of this was happening, bombing was going on the entire night, the whole Bhuj town was shaking with bomb blasts. There was huge panic. Everybody from the village started evacuating and running away with whatever vehicle they got, or, on foot.
In the morning, we surveyed the runway, it was damaged in 8 places. We said...let’s call our contractors and labourers, but then we came to know that they had run away. Nobody was daring to come near the airfield, leave apart entering the airfield. Then there was no pioneer company available...they were working elsewhere. But it was very crucial because Pakistan Army was closing in on...and it was imperative to get the Bhuj airfield operational again. Then I thought of Madhapur, a village close to Bhuj, people there were from well-to-do families, they had a social custom of doing the construction job. All the ladies were educated, girls were studying in schools and colleges. I approached them and somehow they got convinced and they dared to come...initially 30 came, followed by 100 and then the whole village came. With great courage, they entered the runway and started repairing when the war was going on, infact when the war was at its peak.
We told them how to take shelter during the bomb raid, there were some bushes to hide underneath. We told them what is the air raid warning signal, what is an all-clear signal. They were daring to adhere to the instructions. They made the runway at a very fast rate. And our base was again operational!
As early as possible, I just wanted to get the runway repaired and put the airfield from non-operational status to operational status. Because it’s a big setback for an airforce base becoming non-operational in a war. It’s not a done thing.
As this was happening, Indira Gandhi heard this particular story. On 24th December, she came to Bhuj. Bhuj is the only airbase she visited after the war. She didn’t visit any airbase except Bhuj. Then she addressed us, the airforce staff...thanked us and said you’ve done a great job and saved Kutch from going into the hands of Pakistan.
Then there was a function in the Circuit House where all these women were there. And they met Indira Gandhi, talked to her and told her about their experiences, spent almost 3-4 hours with Indira Gandhi. In the evening, there was a rally, Indira Gandhi was addressing the rally and she said we have won the war, great job done by the armed forces. She also said that earlier we had one Jhansi ki Rani and now 300 Jhansi ki Rani who actually took part in the construction process.
4. The movie 'Bhuj' has hit the screens. The directors, producers and actors of the movie studied your role and spoke with you too. How well do you think it portrays your real-life events?
Director Abhishek Dudhaiya knew it all. He had been hearing the stories of the war from his grandmother, who was a part of these 300 women who helped rebuild the Bhuj runway. He also spoke with 50-60 of these women who were still alive. They've done good work.