By the end of October 1971, the DSSC at Wellington was emptying out fast. The current course was cut short by a few weeks and all the student officers were posted out. The Directing Staff of the Army Wing were astir with sudden attachments to units or Head Quarter formations for many of the officers. In contrast, no one from the Air Wing was disturbed. No, that would be a wrong word to choose. I was expecting a stork to arrive and my dear wife was not in the best of health; I was plenty worried. What I meant was that no one from the Air Wing was called away for any ‘War Like’ activity even though the country was expecting a war to breakout any day. Ever since the beginning of the year (1971) the political environment in India was exciting. In neighbouring Pakistan a general election was held in the closing days of the last year and it resulted in a strange outcome. The absolute majority of seats went to the Awami League, but these seats were all from just one province – East Pakistan. In the other Wing (West Pakistan), the seats were divided between the other political parties; the PPP (which got 80 seats) and nine other parties none of which got more than 9 seats. The Awami League did not manage to grab a single seat in the Western Wing. No government could be formed and a civil war broke out by March 1971. In India too, the political environment was highly overcast. In 1969, the Prime Minister had decided to nationalize major banks. This caused a split in the party ranks of the Indian National Congress. The English news papers went fully against the government. This fight between the politicians carried on for the whole of 1970. Then, as if to silence her detractors, the PM ordered re-election and came back to power with a massive majority of 352 out of 518.
When civil was broke out in Pakistan, India faced a new problem. Thousands of refugees started coming into India from Eastern Pakistan. By October 1971, the number of refugees had reached ten million! Relations with Pakistan were bad and that was understandable. In the middle of 1971, tension also rose on the Chinese border. All things considered, we were certainly expecting a war to break out.
I, as I said earlier, had other thing to worry about too. Ultimately, on 29 October our new baby arrived. There was joy and excitement and there was pressure of home administration. All the four other children decided fall ill together. The house became a hospital, and I am not using that expression as a turn of the phrase. The OC of the MH found it easier to nominate a nurse for full time duties in the Sen house-hold than to admit one infant plus four other kids plus the mother into the hospital itself. I do not know how four weeks passed. On 29th November 1971 there was no rush to get to the office. The college was in between courses and the Directing Staff were left to their own devices. I was about to finish my breakfast when the door bell rang. The messenger carried a signal addressed to the DSSC Air Wing. The message was short. It was about Operation Cactus-Lily. I had not heard about that code but it sounded quite ominous. It directed me and Polly Mehra to report to HQ Western Air command and Eastern Air Command respectively ‘Immediately’.
I walked down to the College and visited the ‘Q’ Staff. A few telephone calls revealed that there were no seats available on the flight ex Coimbatore that evening. Polly settled for a CBE-BLR-CCU routing to Shillong for the next day. I found BLR-DEL sector fully booked for the next two days. A seat was however available on the MAS-DEL sector on the evening flight on 30th. I picked that one up. Having done all these I walked back home. As I entered through the front door Leena called out from upstairs … ‘so what was the signal all about?’
Realisation dawned on me slowly. How hard must it be for a girl to be married to a Fauji? Here was Leena sitting upstairs cradling a one month old baby and looking after four other kids all of whom were in bed with some ailments or the other, and here I was – fixing up travel plans to go off to a shooting war in about the next couple of hours! She did not yet know. I had not told her. I walked up slowly and told her that I would be leaving for Delhi as soon as we have had lunch. She looked up at me and asked – it is war isn’t it? I could only nod in ascent.
We had our lunch. My little bag was set. OM Kunhiraman and Babi Dey came over to assure me that Leena will have all the support she needs from the Air Wing of the DSSC. A car arrived and took me down to Mettupalyam. The Nilgiri Express brought me to Madras. A car from Tambaram took me home to the Anchorage, the abode of my Chitti(Aunt), Mrs Rukmini Rajagopal. Breakfast, a little gossip, lunch and an hour of rest floated over the hidden tears of Chitti. She had lost her brother and then her son J Vijayaraghavan to Air Force air crashes. Now I, her own emotional replacement for her lost son, was going off to an impending war. No amount of my assurance that I was unlikely to be used for active flying because of my seniority and lack of flying practice could calm her down, but of course I had to go. I was in Palam before dinner and was in Subroto Park early in the morning on the first of December 1971.
It was a strange kind of feeling for me there in the office of Operations 1A at HQ Western Air Command. It was my old office. Many of the clerical staff coming in and putting in or taking out file on the table were from my time in the office. Squadron Leader V Mathur was now the Ops IB instead of Brother Bhargava. My chair was still occupied by (now) Group Captain Man Singh, the chair having been upgraded yet again. At the adjoining door, the chair of Air I was now being filled by my old-time boss Timki Brar as an Air Commodore. There was an air of hustle and bustle in the air. Every one was busy. Groupie Man was moving in and out of the office room unable stop for a moment and say hello. After a few futile attempts I ultimately corralled Groupie Man in his chair. Where are you sending me? Groupie Man looked back at me with a frown. He was a straight forward man who did not like to indulge in imprecise words. I do not know, he said. His irritation was visible. It was obvious that he was trying to avoid discussion on the subject. I did not much care for his reluctance to talk. ‘Manji, you sent for me and I came running. Now please tell me where I am to go.’ Groupie Man relented a little. ‘We had planned to send you to Pathankot when the balloon goes up, to work with Baba Katre there.’ I was overjoyed. Fighting a war with Baba Katre would be dream come true for any fighter pilot of my seniority. When do I go? Groupie man held his hand up. All that has changed, he said. The C in C visited Pathankot day before yesterday. He was very disappointed. He removed the base commander and the chief operations officer from their posts on the post. Baba Katre was positioned there straight away. Since you were not here at that moment, we sent Dolly Yadav as his COO in your place. I was really disappointed, but such things happen in life. Now what? Groupie Man’s irritation had disappeared. There are many things to be done. Just relax for a while; you will get to do some thing worthwhile. The busy man was out of his chair once again and he rushed out to douse some other fire somewhere else.
I sat around in my old office and got bored. After the lunch break, I decided to drop in and pay my respects to Boss Timki. He had certainly put on some fat in the intervening years since we had last met, but he had not changed in his manners at all. As I walked in to his office, he got out of his chair, walked around his table and greeted me effusively. At the same moment however, his red telephone jingled and he had to pick it up. I was half tempted to leave as I was really not authorised to eavesdrop on a conversation on the red phone, but I just hung on. The conversation was one-sided consisting mostly of ‘Yes Sir’s from Timki’s side. He put the phone down, led me to the sofa and sat down. Motioning to the red phone he said ‘that was the Vice Chief’’. Then he smiled a little and said that it was about the 23rd time that he was telling me to expect some thing any moment now in the last two days!
I was amazed with the ease with which Boss Timki let me fill him up with my previous two decades or so that had passed since I had last served under him. In 1953 I was a mere Flying Officer in the squadron he was commanding, in 1971 he was an Air Commodore and I was a Wing Commander, Directing Staff at the Staff College. After a chat of mere fifteen minutes it seemed that we had never been away from each other at all.
Back at the office of Ops 1A the afternoon wore on. At about four O’ Clock Groupie Man came back to his office from one of his quick dash outside as the phone rang. It was a call from Group Captain Chandu Gole who was commanding Air Force Station Halwara. He wanted a replacement for his COO immediately. He had Wing Commander JC Sabherwal as his COO, but Sabhi had to eject from a Su 7 a few days ago and had suffered spinal injuries in the process. The doctors had just told Chandu that Sabhi was not likely to return to work in a hurry; hence the request for a replacement. Groupie Man looked at me. ‘I can send Tiku Sen to you. Is that OK?’ Chandu must have said OK. Groupie Man put the phone down and said ‘It is Halwara for you.’
Instantly I was on my feet. I will take a bus to-night, I said. Groupie Man motioned me to sit down. The roads of Panjab are filled with military traffic. Do not add to my problems. I will airlift you tomorrow.
Next morning I came to work with my bag packed and by my side, but it seemed that there was no airlift to be had. By about midday I suggested that I could take the Comn Squadron Harvard my self. Some youngster could bring it back. No one else was ready to fly the Harvard . The idea was dropped. At long last I could tie up with a 41 Squadron Otter going back to Adampur, ETD 1400 hrs. I got on to that aircraft and landed at Halwara with sunlight fading on the horizon. It was 02 December 1971 and I was there at an active air station ready for war.