Looking for Sri Dharma Vira


It was a long week end.  The monsoon had arrived over the Punjab. The weather was atrocious.   It had been raining incessantly for most of the past seven days.    Flying had stopped.   Most of us were in a holiday mood.  But alas I was the Duty Officer for the week.   Most of the telephone lines were down because of the heavy rain.   I was therefore not even comfortable staying home and consuming tea/pakoda, some thing that my dear wife Leena was good at supplying.    By about ten in the morning, I went to the Station HQ and settled in.   I was the senior flight commander of 23 Squadron (the Panthers) and I was then preparing for my staff college entrance examination.   Such a morning was ideal for immersing oneself in books and magazines, and I was ready to do just that. 

Within minutes of my reaching the headquarters the telephone rang.   Some one from the state government at Chandigarh wanted to speak to the station commander.   Group Captain CG Deveshar, the station commander, had however directed that all calls for him be diverted to the Duty Officer for action.   I therefore had to come on line.   The person on the other end was a rather worried man.     We all knew that the incessant rain over the previous few days had caused the Yamuna to swell.  The river transiting through the National Capital was also troubling for that tiny state. Two days earlier, the Chief Commissioner of Delhi Sri Dharma Vira had gone out for an on the spot survey of the flood situation.   After some time his mobile wireless link had failed.  His last known position was that he had gone north along the river into the Punjab State area trying to assess the flood situation.   The state capital was now anxious about his welfare and whereabouts.

The basic problem was to figure out what could be done by the Air Force Station to help the state government.    Ambala housed two Gnat squadrons and two Hunter squadrons.   Neither of these two types was very good in tackling bad weather.    Though forward visibility from both these types was normally excellent, rain drops falling on the windshield destroyed that advantage completely.    At that moment of time, the whole of Yamuna valley was covered with low clouds.   Flying below the clouds, neither the Gnat nor the Hunter could fly for very long; their turbojet engines guzzled fuel at low level.    They did not fly well at speeds below 250 knots.   At that speed, spotting a single person in an unknown location and circumstance was a tough call.   Neither type of aircraft was equipped with any electronic navigation equipment.    Ambala and all other airfields nearby were without the advantage of ground controlled radars to help the pilot land in adverse weather condition. On the other hand, the state government was desperate for news about the whereabouts of the Chief Commissioner.   It would have been simple to just decline any help to the state government at that moment of time with full operational justification.    Just one fact made me hesitate and not decline the task out right; even though the area was fully covered by low clouds and the weather was uncertain, it was actually not raining.   It was also my gut feeling that it will not rain for the next couple of hours.   I therefore had to admit that perhaps there was a small window of opportunity available.   I consulted with the senior met officer and he agreed with my assessment.    I then consulted with Wing Commander Aubrey Michael, the Chief Operations Officer, and Wing Commander LM Katre, the OC of 7 Squadron.   It was decided that we shall try to mount a sortie of visual reconnaissance to find the missing officer.

Planning for the operation had to be done quickly because the window of opportunity was likely to be small.   The first task was to find a serviceable Hunter 56 fitted with four drop tanks.    Fortunately 7 Squadron had one such aircraft ready.   The unit was asked to prepare the aircraft for an unarmed reconnaissance flight.     The second task was to find a pilot to undertake the job.   The weather condition dictated that the pilot chosen must be rated ‘Master Green’ (MG).    There were not too many MGs available on the station.   Leaving aside the squadron commanders, there were perhaps six or seven.   A quick search revealed that apart from Wg Cdr Katre and me, none of the others were in a position to undertake a mission within minutes.   The choice became simple.    Another officer was sent to relieve me from my duty as the Station Duty Officer and I proceeded to undertake the sortie.

There was yet another task element related to the sortie plan and preparation.   I had to decide how to communicate with the Chief Commissioner if I found him!   The Hunter was not an aircraft where the pilot could open his canopy and just throw a letter down while flying at perhaps 200 knots if he was slow.    The aircraft was well equipped to deliver bombs and rockets or 30mm cannon shots accurately, but it had no facility for an accurate message drop.    We decided to do the only thing we could think of.  A message was written out on a piece of paper and was placed in a plastic bag.   The bag was placed in a large cloth-layered envelope. On one side of the envelope inside it, a number of small stone pebbles were taped in to make one side of the envelope heavy.   The whole envelope was covered with masking tape strips making it somewhat waterproof.   The packet was then placed, heavy side leading, inside the airbrake panel of the aircraft below the fuselage.    It was planned that if I found our man and be sure that it was really him, I would make a slow pass over him and operate the airbrakes.   It was hoped that  the airflow around the extended airbrake will suck out  the envelope, the loaded leading edge will stabilize the path of the falling envelope and hope fully the envelope would land somewhere close to the target and would be picked up and read.     Needless to say that all this was just pious hope.    I had never practiced such a drop.  I had no idea of the distance the free envelope was likely to float after I released it.  Every thing was to be pure guess-work and eye-ball estimation, but we had no better method available to us.

The final impediment to planning the sortie was the total inability of the state governments to indicate approximately at which area he was likely to be or to indicate the type of boat that he was likely to be in.    I just did not know where to start and what to look for.   The fact that I had never met Sri Dharma Vira and did not know how he looked was just an added dimension to the challenge at hand.  However, a task was a task and I was willing to give it a try.

The Yamuna North of Delhi

I decided that I shall start my search abreast of Jagadhri as the northern limit.  Surely the Chief Commissioner would not come more than a hundred miles upstream from the state border?   Following the river south, I could search up to a position due east of Sonepat, which was almost on the Dehli/Punjab border.   This run was a little over a hundred nautical miles.   Adding the distance from Ambala to the river I could undertake one run north south and another south north in about an hour and a quarter, and that would be about the safe limit for me flying at low level in bad weather even with four external drop tanks full.   I had to leave a margin for the message-drop if I found the target and had to provide for a diversion to at least Chandigarh or Halwara if the weather closed down at the home base.

About an hour had passed from the time of request till I got airborne.   The cloud base was low.  Above 250 feet I found myself nipping in and out of patches of cloud and that hampered observation.     I did not want to get too close to the ground as that would divert my attention to the needs of flying the aircraft at the cost of the quality of my searching.   It would also reduce the amount of area that I would see.   I settled at about 200 feet, reached the river and turned south.  The river was really in spate.   It was difficult to discern where the original river banks lay.   I did not know whether the old man would be closer to the east bank or west.  The swollen river at places was many kilometers wide and it was difficult to search along both banks at once.   I tried my best but was not really confident of the search being thorough.   After about half an hour I reached the outskirts of Delhi without spotting the object of my search.

On my way back I concentrated more on the western bank that bordered Punjab.        (I need to remind my readers that in 1964 Haryana had not yet been formed.)    Within a few minutes, close to Sonepat, one boat attracted my attention.    It was an official looking boat painted white.    I decided to take a closer look.    I did a lazy left turn and came back over the boat from west to east.    The boat had a covered cabin.  Two boatmen were visible on the foredeck.    As I approached the boat, one person came out of the cabin.   He was dressed in a pair of shorts and a tee shirt and had a straw hat on his head.    I had only a cursory view of that person as I flew by and needed to come back to have another look.   As I came back for a second look, the person had moved to the centre of the foredeck and was waving at me.    His looks reminded me of another ICS officer that I knew well.    Mr Saibal Gupta was short and dark but stood very tall intellectually as well as by stature.   This gentleman on the boat was also quite short and dark, but something in his body language told me that he was perhaps a tall leader of men.    As I came close to the boat I dropped my message by extending my airbrakes.   For this run I had descended very low, perhaps to less than 50 feet over the river, and the packet did not have to travel far.   I however had no way of knowing where the packet had actually dropped.     I had already slowed down quite a lot and had extended quarter flaps for the flyby.   I did a quick turn around trying to keep the boat in sight.    As I picked up the boat in my sight again, I found that one of the boatmen was in the water picking up the packet which had dropped quite close to the boat.    My job was done.   I flew back to the base.

Baba Katre was waiting for me at the dispersal.    He had met Sri Dharma Vira earlier and was keen to know the result of my trip.   When I described the person I had delivered the message to he was quite happy;   he thought that I had found the right man.

Late that evening Sri Dharma Vira returned to his post and we got a telephonic message of that fact.   A week later, a very sweet letter of appreciation reached the station headquarters.    In retrospect I now feel sad that I had not preserved the letter;  the station commander had given me a copy of it.


19 responses »

  1. Terrific! Extra-ordinary adventure!
    If, however, the floods in ’64 had succeeded in devouring the “jamai” of the DCM house, the political chronicle of West Bengal might just have been a trifle different.
    I had the unenviable chance of meeting the dark, stocky man a few times. And even receiving some prizes from his not so great hands. He was a frequent visitor to our school during his tenure at the Calcutta Raj Bhavan (1967-69).

      • For good reasons, my dear Sarvjit. And I beg of you to believe me that I am not alone in this. I have plenty of company among the millions of this state of West Bengal.
        Adolf Hitler’s long dead too. Death is inevitable for all creatures. However, passage of time, I do not believe, dilutes the severity of a man’s actions. Nor does time right a wrong automatically.
        Having said that, I suppose this is not a forum to get into a debate about the late bureaucrat. I have no qualms with your personal experiences with him that I find you to cherish so fondly. Perhaps that only goes to prove his multifarious personality.

      • I met Sri Dharma Vira with my father at his house in Delhi. My father said he was a very good man.

  2. Hi Tiku,

    Are you sure Mr Dharma Vira was Commissioner and not Lt Governor of Delhi. In 1929 he sat for his ICS examination in London along with my father and was one place below him in seniority. My father and he were friends from school days (Meerut)Our families were very close. I stayed in his house in Delhi more than once. To the best of my memory, after retiring as the Cabinet Secretary, he became the Lt Governor. But I am no longer sure of the year involved. I have no memory of his being Commissioner of Delhi. But in 1964 I was in Egypt for my overlong stay in Cairo. I do recall that after Delhi, he was the Governor of at least three States (West Bengal, Karnataka and Punjab) and any non-Congress Government of his State was dismissed by his recommendation.

    Your achievement was simply remarkable, a near impossible task! But then for you the impossible just took a little longer – two runs!

    • Dear Kapil Sir: The wikipedia says – “From 1963-1964 he was Chief Commissioner of Delhi and then from 1964-1966 Cabinet Secretary and Secretary to Union Council of Ministers and became Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission” . He started his long stint of governorship from Punjab/Hayana in 66-67. His tenure in West Bengal must be remembered because he dismissed both editions of the combined front under Bangla Congress which ushered in the long stint of the left front with a short interregnum in 71. So, I think my memory is serving me right in this instance. As far as my achieving the impossible, we both know that the smoothness of that operation ran on a large dollop of luck!

      With regards.


  3. Dear Sir,
    Another wonderful article from you. Flying a Jet plane 50’AGL and dropping package with full flaps, this is simply amazing.
    Just out of curiosity, why did you not consider small trainers like HT or Cessnas?

    I am hoping that one day you will publish you biography and memoirs and also cover battle of Longewala.

    About Dharam Vira Sahib:
    My father knew him since 1950ies, he used to live on Palam Marg, Vasant Vihar – facing Malai Mandir. Later on he moved to Panchsheel where he passed away at the old age of 96.

    He was indeed the Commissioner of Delhi and later on became LG. My last meeting with him was in 1993. When myself and my dad touched his feet he spoke to me in Punjabi. He forced me to eat Barfi because I was a Jawan Munda.
    Even at that old age he was very alert and sharp. Great Soul!!

    Best Regards

    Sarvjit Singh

  4. your writings touched my heart.
    My father flew vampires, he was a tech pilot.
    around 1984 he managed to remake a flying airworthy vampire in 1 BRD chakeri.

  5. Sir,
    Your stories have scope of leadership learning per excellence. Yours this story has a very simple content with beautiful narration. If I want to sum up this story in one line expression than it will read like this, “It was Sunday, you as a station duty officer received a request from Delhi government to locate their commissioner who was on flood assessment drive in a boat somewhere in the Ganges, which you did with flawless execution.” It was a job asked for which you did. Of course you had an option not to do it. Of course you would not have been crucified if you had side stepped it, which you did not do it. Now the exercise is what inspired you to accept this challenge which may not have much bearing in your carrier graph. I am looking for that extra special which you have. Swagata has tried to give a glimpse of your some attributes of your leadership qualities. What I am trying is to create a bench mark and asses your leadership qualities against that bench mark. I am trying to quantify it. In the score card some attributes have zero marks because they had no bearing in this story. Zero marks do not mean that Sir does not have it. They are not relevant as per as this story is concerned. Before I proceed further , let me try to clear some concepts.
    What is the difference between a manager and a leader? Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing.
    The definition of the character quality of initiative is: Recognizing and doing what needs to be done before one is asked to do it. The opposite of initiative is unresponsiveness. Having initiative doesn’t mean that a person is pushy or obnoxious; it means that a person can see what has to be done and can take the personal responsibility to make things happen. One who possesses the character quality of initiative doesn’t allow circumstance or environment to get in the way and doesn’t make excuses for behavior, or inability to complete a task. One doesn’t allow the roadblocks of life to bring one a full stop, but rather works to come up with a solution to the problem.
    How leaders build Excellence ? . Leaders do not command excellence, they build excellence. Excellence is “being all you can be” within the bounds of doing what is right for your organization.
    Now the bench mark exercise. U.S army has identified 23 traits of characters for their officers.
    I have taken this as a bench mark and carried out the exercise. I have given weightage to each attribute. It is like this.
    U.S. Army 23 Traits of Character
    weightage in % score of this story
    Bearing 2
    Confidence 5 5
    Courage 5 5
    Integrity 10 10
    Decisiveness 7 7
    Justice 5
    Endurance 4
    Tact 4 4
    Initiative 10 10
    Coolness 2 2
    Maturity 2 2
    Improvement 6 6
    Will 2 2
    Assertiveness 2 2
    Candor 2
    Sense of humor 3
    Competence 5 5
    Commitment 5 5
    Creativity 5 5
    Self-discipline 5 5
    Humility 3 3
    Flexibility 4 4
    Empathy/Compassion 2
    Total 100 82
    With 82 % score the differentiation between an ordinary and exceptional leader is crystal clear. If one has these attributes to perfection than his professional competitive advantage will be much superior. Flawless planning and execution becomes part of his life.

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