Within a few hours of its forced landing, the straying Indian Army helicopter along with its crew members was released by Pakistan as a gesture of goodwill. The helicopter carried two pilots, Major R.G. Raja and Major G. Kapila; a junior commissioned officer, Subedar Adilesh Sharma and an engineer officer, Lieutenant Colonel S.P. Verma. The helicopter had taken off from Leh in Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region and was bound for Bhimbhat in Drass sector near Kargil, on the LoC, to assist an Indian Army helicopter that got grounded there after a technical snag. The Pakistan army allowed the chopper to return to Kargil after refueling the machine and providing directions to the pilots.
Pakistan’s benevolent motion was spurned by Indians, who started their usual blame game. Indian daily, The Hindustan Times quoted unnamed Indian government officials as saying that the incident was being probed at a high level as the GPS data of the helicopter was found wiped out, along with nicknames and code signs of all the helipads in the Nemu, Leh-based 14 Corps, which is responsible for the defence of Kargil-Leh, Siachen Glacier and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with Tibet. To start with, if the helicopter was equipped with GPS, there is no reason for its straying off course and violating Pakistani air space; secondly helicopter landing pads are hardly a classified data in this age of satellite imagery as they are visibly marked in Jeppeson navigation manual and other aviation charts, and Pakistan would have no need to steal them from the Indian helicopter.
It appears that the Pakistani gesture has been wasted on a nation which only knows the message of belligerence. Readers may recall that on August 10, 1999, Indian Air Force MiG-21 fighters scrambled from the IAF Base Naliya in Gujarat had shot down an unarmed Pakistan Navy (PN) maritime surveillance aircraft. The French-built Breguet Atlantique of PN’s 29 squadron had got airborne with 16 crew members including five officers from Mehran Air Base for a routine patrol and reconnaissance training mission in the coastal region near the Indian border. Indian air defence radars, which were tracking the PN aircraft, decided to take aggressive action although the PN aircraft was staying within the Pakistani boundary. Despite the fact that the Atlantique is an unarmed aircraft, the IAF MiGs fired an R-60 air-to-air missile and destroyed the Atlantique, killing all 16 on board. When the Indians realized that the debris was on the Pakistani side, they dispatched a helicopter to land near the crash site and drag the wreckage into the Indian border to make a case for itself. A PN helicopter escorted by PAF fighter aircraft sent to look for survivors drove the Indians away.
On September 21, 1999, Pakistan lodged a compensation claim at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, accusing India of shooting down an unarmed aircraft. Pakistan sought $60 million in reparations from India and compensation for the victims’ families. India’s attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, argued that the court did not have jurisdiction, citing an exemption it filed in 1974 to exclude disputes between India and other Commonwealth States, and disputes covered by multi-lateral treaties.
To rub salt in the wound, the Indians awarded the prestigious Vayusena medal to Squadron Leader P.K. Bundela. The medal was also awarded to Wing Commander V.S. Sharma (the fighter controller who tracked the Atlantique, guided the pilot and ordered him to attack the plane) and Squadron Leader Pankaj Vishnoi, the helicopter pilot dispatched to steal the debris of the Atlantique. However, fate has its own plans for exacting revenge. Two and a half years after the incident, Squadron Leader P.K. Bundela, crashed in Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district on April 4, 2002, killing seven civilians on the ground in the air accident. The 16 PN personnel must have embraced shahadat instantly as the IAF R-60 missile streaked into its broadside. Squadron Leader Prashant Bundela suffering was protracted; still in his early thirties, he ejected from his MiG-21, only to land on his back. His spinal cord got crushed and he was paralyzed neck down. A series of operations did not restore his mobility; he was made to suffer for another year and a half like a virtual vegetable, till death relieved him of his pain and agony.
Pakistan military and foreign office have been magnanimous in returning the violating Indian Army helicopter, if only its government was equally magnanimous in not biting the hand of friendship extended by Pakistan.
Here the views of Maj Gen (R) Jatinder Singh published in The Hindu are also quoted for the benefit of the readers.
“BRAVO PAK ARMY BRAVO
Maj Gen (R) Jatinder Singh of Chandigarh letter in India’s Hindu:
“This refers to the report that Pakistan allowed an India helicopter with four Army personnel to return home five hours after the aircraft was forced to land in Skardu for violating Pakistani airspace. This action vindicates my long-held view that Pakistan Army is a professional institution, not a rogue Army (As claimed by our American friends) and some sections of the media, service colleagues and politicians would like to suggest. Even if Pakistan had shot down the helicopter (Like we shot Pakistan Navy un-armed maritime. The Atlantique Incident was a major international incident that occurred on 10 August 1999 when a Pakistan Naval Air Arm patrol aircraft-a Breguet Atlantique with 16 personnel on board-was shot down in the border area of the Kutch region by Indian Air Force jets. Pakistan and India both claimed the aircraft to be in their respective airspace. However, the wreckage fell well within Pakistani territory, giving credence to the Pakistani claim), and shown it as a crash, we would not have been able to ascertain the truth, considering the sparsely populated terrain of Skardu. The incident speaks volumes for the speed in decision-making, communications set-up and the maturity of the Pakistani Army hierarchy.”