The situation in Ladakh was tense. The time was early summer of 1962. The Chinese were publishing new maps every other day, pushing forward their claims on our territory. We were not in a position to man the border in strength. Krishna Menon, our new Raksha Mantri, had opted for a ‘Forward Posture’ in the sector.
We were therefore forced to put up small border outposts in the middle of nowhere, in inhospitable terrain, with zero infra-structure and zero communication. These outposts had to be totally maintained by air. Our Air Transport fleet was stretched to the limit. The Packet Squadrons from Agra were already fully committed for the support of troops facing Pakistan. They were operating from Pathankot and Srinagar. The newly inducted troops however were many miles to the east, well beyond Leh, the sleepy little town of Ladakh district. From Daulat Beg Oldi in the north through Chushul near the Pangong Lake to Hanle near Himachal Pradesh border, a huge new front opened up. The average elevation of the area was in excess of ten thousand feet above sea level. Very few supporting airfields were available. The main air base at Leh itself had only a small PSP (Perforated Steel Planking) covered landing strip. The whole operation looked precarious. The initial posturing by the Chinese and its response by the Indian side were all in the Ladakh sector. It was felt that there was a likelihood of open warfare in the Ladakh / Tibet sector. It was also felt that in case a war actually started here, the army could survive and fight only if the air force supported it well and truly.
I was then with the Battle Axes in Ambala. Our operational task included air support of ground operations in the Ladakh sector. Building up personal rapport with our counterparts on the ground was part of our training plan. It was therefore decided that all flight commanders and section leaders designate will visit the forward areas and spend time at the brigade / battalion level in the area of deployment. In due course of time my turn came up for such a visit. There were four or five of us in that group. I was the lone representative from Ambala but there were two or three each from Halwara and Adampur. We gathered at Chandigarh. We were to be airlifted to Leh, but that morning the weather over Rohtang was not favourable. One load was being sent to Srinagar. We were added to the manifest and were dispatched without ceremony. The Valley was cloudy but we managed to get in. We were put up in the transit rooms of the newly built Air Force Officer’s Mess. We were asked to be ready for a flight into Leh early next morning in an IL14 operated by No 42 Squadron.
No. 42 Squadron had been formed quite recently. It was manned mainly by fresh pilot officers, both pilots and navigators. Their experience was small but their enthusiasm was boundless. At the heights they were operating their lifting ability was limited. Each and every flight pushed the aircraft to its operational limits. These boys however never complained. By comparison, the AN12 Units were staffed by more experienced crew. The aircraft were new, powerful, capable, sturdy and far more comfortable. The top brass of the units were however more strict and rule-bound. They took fewer operational risks. In comparison, the bunch of IL14 pilots looked brash foolhardy and carefree.
Immediately after our arrival, the weather over the Valley closed down. No flying of any manner was possible. It was cold and drizzly. Everything was gloomy and dark in the cloud cover. There was a huge amount of movement on the ground. The place was full of Army activities. In the midst of all this, we, the visiting Fighter pilot were without any job. An enforced idleness segregated us from the local crowd. Kanitkar was a flight commander in 42 Squadron. In our group of fighter jocks idling in Srinagar, there were quite a few that were his course mates. As a result, his office became a meeting point every morning on the pretext of finding out the possibilities of a flight into Leh. After three or four days he got quite fed up of the situation. To get us out of his hair for a day, he fixed up with a friend in the Army to load us up in a vehicle and show us the valley to our heart’s content. To make it quite official, an op order was made for a ‘familiarization visit’. There were about seven of us all told. We expected a vehicle that would carry that number. Early next morning, however, only one jeep turned up. Despite squeals of protest, no one was ready to forego the jaunt. We all squeezed in, forced Kanitkar to come along as it was yet another unfliable day, and set off. The sky was overcast with occasional drizzle. Visibility was poor. Our first destination was Gulmarg. The journey was as fine as it could be under the circumstances. The Border Road Organization was just coming into being. Roads were being made, being dug-up, being widened or being patched up all over the place. Yes, for the most part, the roads were bumpy. That however did not deter our driver of the vehicle. He was a strapling lad of about twenty from Mathura enrolled into the ASC. He had a ready smile and his answer to every question started with Haan Saab. The problem with him, we found, was that he had to keep the accelerator depressed almost compulsively. On roads where a speed of thirty kilometers per hour would be good going, this lad would tend to keep fifty. His name was Hari Om Sharma.
The drive to Gulmarg with a small halt at Tanmarg took a little over two hours. It was very early in the morning. Traffic was not heavy. We found a lonely spot near a small stream where we could dismount and stretch our legs. Some one had thoughtfully brought along a sack of beer bottles. The sack was tied to a piece of rope and dropped into the stream. In ten minutes flat the beer chilled to the core. Packed breakfast of paratha and sabji was brought out and gulped. Barring me, the lonely TT, food was washed down by all with large swigs of beer.
Occasional drizzle played spoil-sport and we were forced to begin our return journey. By now traffic had increased and Hari Om found it exhilarating to overtake any vehicle that came in front of him. For a little while we let him have his fun. However, after a little while, voices started springing up from the rear seat – Hari Om, Zaraa Dhirey. Hari Om found it very amusing. He only smiled and carried on in his own way. After anther half an hour or so, Kanitkar stepped in. He asked him to stop the vehicle and gave him a proper dressing down. After all, he had indented for the car and he felt somewhat responsible. His serious rebuke had some effect on Hari Om. He drove sedately and we were on our way back to the city. By now it was closing on to lunch time. Near one of the check posts we found an Army Transit Camp. We stopped and had our lunch. More than us, it was Hari Om who needed the food most as he had left his billet at 0400 to come and pick us up. After lunch, we wondered about how the rest of the day should be spent. It was quite pointless going back to the mess by the middle of the day. We came back to the city and circled the Dal Lake spending some time in front of the Taj hotel and a lot of time walking about in the Shalimar gardens. By now it had become quite dark. Long walks by the lake side and small talks with house boat / shikara owners brought an enjoyable day to an end. It was unanimously decided to repeat the program on the next day if the valley remained closed for flying.
Very early next morning, Hari Om was at our door. ‘Very early’ in this case meant 0400 hrs. We got ready quickly and departed by 0430. Destination for the day was Sheshnag to see the source of Jhelum River. It was a really long drive. Normal tourist buses cover the distance from Srinagar to Pahalgam in about ten hours. Our friend Hari Om reached us to Pahalgam in less than eight hours. A quick lunch and we set off to Sheshnag. The journey did not take too long. The road was bumpy and narrow, but Hari Om was not deterred. When ever we muttered a protest, he would say ‘Saab the steering is in my hand. Why are you afraid?’ We really had no answer to that question, but our anxiety only grew over time.
The actual visit to the source of Jhelum was short. Having seen the road we were keen to get back to the reasonable portion of the road before the sun went down. The return journey up to Pahlgam was uneventful. After a quick cup of tea we headed back to Srinagar. This part of the journey aught to have been rather boring. However, with Hari Om on the wheel, darkness falling, and hundreds of trucks bearing down on us at break neck speed made boredom an unknown concept. For the next nine hours, muted exclamations of ‘Hari Om Be Careful’, ‘Hari Om Please Slow Down’, ‘Hari Om! That was Close!’ etc filled the Jeep. Despite all odds, we reached the outskirts of Srinagar in one piece.
The climax was however yet to come. Just short of Srinagar, as the road surface became good, Hari Om floored the accelerator. It was past one in the morning. Most of us were too sleepy to protest. After a few minutes, a shining black Dodge limousine blocked the road ahead of us. The car was traveling too slowly for Hari Om’s liking. He sat on the horn and attempted to overtake the car. He did not realize that there was a bend on the road just ahead. What he did realize at that moment was that the car he was so rudely and wrongly overtaking belonged to the DIG Kashmir Police! His flag was flying on the bonnet and he was glaring through the window at this idiotic upstart from the Army trying to overtake him. All of a sudden, having realized his mistake, Hari Om froze on the controls. He did not know whether to complete his overtaking sprint or to slow down. The bend of the road came up. In his shaken state Hari Om over-corrected the turn. The Jeep went off the road and hit the hill side and bounced back still running parallel to the car. Kanitkar, who was sitting next to the driver, landed a hard slap on Hari Om’s face. That brought him back to his senses. The Jeep slowed down and let the car go forward. We were all too dazed to make any comment. Fifteen minutes later, when we reached the mess, I walked up to Hari Om and asked him where his father lives. ‘Pitaji Mathura mein rahte hain’, he said. I then asked him to send our regards to him and to thank him profusely for naming him Hari Om. The young fellow was quite confused. ‘Kiyun Saab?’ he queried. I gently explaind it to him then; because he was named Hari Om by his father, seven officers had to chant Hari Om for a thousand times during the day. Perhaps that is why we were all alive at that moment. Slowly comprehension dawned on him. A shy smile spread on his face. He sprang to attention, saluted, shouted Jai Hind Saab, and then he was gone with his Jeep.