Remembering the Indian pilots’ historic prison break from Pakistan in 1971

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During the 1971 war, the Pakistani army had taken 16 Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots as war prisoners and held them captive in a camp near Rawalpindi. Three of them undertook the most dangerous prison break in the history of the IAF. This is their story.

(L-R): Dilip Parulkar, M S Grewal, Harish Sinhji. Image Credit – Rediff

During the war, 16 IAF pilots were taken as Prisoners of War (PoW). One of them, Group Captain Dilip Parulkar, then Flight Lieutenant, decided to make it the adventure of a lifetime, inspiring two more prisoners, Flight Lieutenant M S Grewal and Flying Officer Harish Sinhji, to join him.

Although the war had ended, they were still held PoW. Dilip Parulkar believed that ‘a war is not over until you are back home,’ and started looking for ways to escape. Meanwhile, a Pakistani PoW was gunned down in India and the fear of a retaliatory response was slowly gripping. He and his prison mates dug a hole across the wall and fled. They reached Peshawar in a few hours.

If they had headed back towards India, they would have had to wriggle past two armies shooting at each other. It was better to head north. While inspecting a map in Peshawar, it struck them that the town Torkham on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was only 34 miles away.

They believed, as reported by Rediff, that if they were quick enough to reach Jamrud, they will cross the border and reach Afghanistan uncaught. They had saved their PoW allowance along with their salary in India, and were able to buy enough supplies to sustain them. They took a bus and later a tonga to hit the Jamurd road.

Adventuring through Pakistan’s ‘wild west’, facing hardships and deceiving many, their life was not to become easy. Their map deceived them. The three pilots kept asking for Landi Khana, a railway station that was closed by the British back in 1932. Many around knew that. Had they not raised suspicion, the trio’s plan to breathe in freedom would have been successful.

They were soon caught and brought to the local Tehsildar. “So I told the Tehsildar we are airmen from the Pakistan Air Force station in Lahore, and that I wanted to talk to the ADC or to the chief of air staff. We told him we are on 10 days’ casual leave and we are going up to Landi Khana as tourists, just trekking, sightseeing. He said no, we are going to lock you up,” Dilip Parulkar recalls in an interview with The Indian Express.

The three prisoners, insisting on their disguised identity, continued to push for call to ADC Peshawar. Reluctantly, the Tehsildar agreed. The prisoners called the ADC and complained. Parulkar recalls, “He was aghast. He said, ‘Dilip, Dilip, what are you doing there in Landi Kotal?’. I said ‘Sir, we just took a little casual leave, and that’s how we are here, and look at this…’. He said, ‘Give the phone to the Tehsildar’. I gave him the phone. He very calmly told him, ‘Ye hamare aadmi hain (These are our men)’.”

The ADC, although convinced, did not want to take any risk. The three pilots were held captive until complete identification. Soon, they were identified as IAF pilots. The three brave jawans were caught only five miles from their freedom, and taken back to Peshawar.

Three months later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then premier of Pakistan, addressed the PoWs and declared their repatriation. The returnees received a hero’s welcome at the Wagah border on December 1, 1972. Their prison break story had reached home before them.

The story of Group Captain Dilip Parulkar’s prison break is being developed into a film by Taranjiet Singh Namdhari, and is being released this Republic Day. Stay tuned for further announcements on the film’s Facebook page.

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