Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, Indian Airforce

Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, Vr.C

Born on 22 May 1963, Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja hailed from Kota in Rajasthan. He graduated from the National Defence Academy and was commissioned in the IAF as a fighter pilot on 14 June 1985. His 14-year career span as a fighter pilot included tours as an operational pilot on the MiG-23 fighter-bomber and MiG-21 variants, besides instructional flying experience of over 1000 hours spent teaching ab-initio pilots. An A2 instructor, he was extremely popular among his pupils because of his patient and cheerful nature.

A thorough professional, the 36 year old Sqn Ldr Ahuja was posted to the Killi Bhisiana Airbase at Bhatinda, Punjab in 1997. He had only just become the Flight Commander of Squadron No.17 "Golden Arrows"(a specialist photo-reconnaissance squadron), when the Kargil war broke out.

On 27 May 1999, as part of "Operation Safed Sagar" in Kargil, a photo reconnaissance mission was launched over the Indian side of the line of control in Kashmir. Suddenly a member of the mission, Flt Lt Nachiketa ejected from his MiG-27 after an engine "flame out". Sqn Ldr Ahuja stayed over enemy positions to help the rescue attempts knowing fully well the existence of enemy SAMs in the area. This extremely courageous act involving immense risk to his life exemplified the daring qualities of IAF pilots engaged in the operations.

Tragically, he paid the price for his bravery when his MiG-21 fighter was hit by a shoulder-fired "Stinger" Surface to Air Missile (SAM). The aircraft was within the LOC when he was hit. Ahuja gave a radio call – "Hercules(Ahuja’s call sign), I suspecting missile hit". Although Ahuja ejected safely, he was murdered in cold blood on the ground, as was confirmed by the post-mortem report.

On May 29th 1999, Sqn Ldr Ahuja's body was flown in from Srinagar by an IAF plane. The body in a wooden coffin was brought to the local Air Force station from Srinagar by an Indian Air Force plane. Air Vice-Marshal A. Sen, AVSM, accompanied the body which was received by local Station Commander Rakesh Kakker, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, BJP spokesman K.L. Sharma, Mrs Laxmi Kanta Chawla, MLA, Mr Parshotam Lal Ahuja, Mr Vijay Ahuja and Mr Sudhir Sachdeva, father, brother and maternal uncle of the deceased. The body was taken to the MI Room where Ahuja’s widow, Alka, received it.

Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja's coffin

When she saw him off, Alka Ahuja had teased her husband, "You're going to be a hero". A few days later she was clutching a piece of paper which recorded the salutations of all airmen and officers of the Indian Air Force to the man who died a heroic death. "Ajay you have broken your promise to return home after carrying out the task of protecting the frontiers of the country. Why have you broken the promise", wailed Alka. Alka, who was inconsolable, said she was proud of her husband. "The hero never dies".

The hearse remained parked at the Station Sick Quarters where airmen paid their last respects to the valiant officer, before it moved on to Kili village, a few kilometres away. The entire village of Killi turned up to pay its respects to the fallen hero. All present at the funeral burst into tears when Ahuja's six-year-old son Ankur asked his maternal uncle: "Who is in this box", pointing his finger towards the coffin. Nobody dared to answer his query. "Where is my father? I want to salute him," he insisted.

Ahuja's mother Shyama kisses his cap
Wreaths laid on the coffin

Later Sqn Ldr Ahuja's mortal remains were cremated with full military honours. A contingent of the Air Force personnel reversed arms fired three rounds in the air and the Army bugles sounded the "Last Post". Heart-rending scenes were witnessed when Ankur helped by his relatives lit the pyre in the presence of a large number of Air Force personnel and civilians while auspicious Mantras were chanted. There was not one dry eye around. A group of RSS activists shouted "Ajay Ahuja Amar Rahe."

"Last Post"

His widowed wife, Alka was sobbing inconsolably as she watched the body being assigned to the flames. Ajay's father Purshottam Lal Ahuja, 63, a retired railway employee, wept as he recalled his son's childhood. "He was always a topper at the St. Paul's School in Kota. Ajay was the best cadet in the NDA, too. He sacrificed his life so that we could live with honour. He was a brave soldier. I am proud of my son. He has done his country proud". The father's grief was uncontrollable. It was he who wanted Ajay to join the armed forces, despite wife Shyama's protest. Later when he wanted younger son Vijay also to join the forces she was angry. "Luckily for her, he did not get selected. Now in Ankur's case I will never dictate a career," said Ahuja, wiping the incessant tears.

Ahuja's relatives were embittered by the reports that said that though he survived the crash, he was shot dead by the Pakistan Army. India lodged a strong protest over the “cold blooded and cowardly” murder of Sqn Ldr Ahuja by Pakistan. The foreign office in New Delhi summoned the Pakistan deputy high commissioner to convey India’s strong condemnation of the “act of cowardice and savagery” and demanded that the guilty be prosecuted and punished for the crime.

Pakistan however denied that Sqd Ldr Ajay Ahuja was killed in cold blood by Pakistani troops after he baled out and landed in the Pakistani territory. "The Indian claim is false, malicious, concocted and a move to cover up its brutalities and mislead the public opinion," spokesman of the Inter-Services Public Relations Brig Rashid Qureshi said. "Any prisoner of war, specially a pilot, is an important asset... and no man in his senses could think of killing him," he added. Brig Qureshi said the Indian authorities should have kept in mind the situation in which Ahuja was killed when his fighter plane was shot down. "It was like a battlefield. The Indian planes were engaged in rocketing and artillery firing. In such a situation, the pilot could have been killed."

IAF spokesman Air Vice Marshal S K Malik stated that the post-mortem report revealed that Ahuja was shot twice, once through the ear and once through the chest, after he had parachuted into Pakistani territory. He also suffered a fracture on his left knee. AVM Malik said that Ahuja’s colleagues are particularly angered by the way he was killed in captivity. “They are now even more determined to avenge his death,” he said.

Sqn Ldr Ahuja's family, including Ahuja's father Shree Purshottam Lal Ahuja and brother, Vijay were offered all help, including financial, from the government. Mrs Alka Ahuja was given a Class I PCS government job along with a residential plot for settling down in Punjab. A statue of Sqn Ldr Ahuja was installed at the nearby crossing on the Bhatinda-Muktsar road to inspire the youth and others of the area. Chief Minister Badal also renamed the government school of Killi Nihal Singhwala (Bhisina) after Squadron Leader Ahuja.

On 9th August 1999, Ankur released a special CD on "Vande Mataram" before a select gathering on the occassion of "August Kranti day". Addressing the gathering, Information and Broadcasting Minister Mr. Pramod Mahajan said the release of the CD by Ankur was the fittest tribute to Ajay Ahuja, one of the first to be killed in the Kargil conflict.

Ankur shows the CD

He said the disc would kindle a spirit of patriotism and nationalism among the people. The CD has a feature containing the history of Vande Mataram since the time it was written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1874 and was selected by Rabindranath Tagore as the invocation song for the Congress session in 1896

On 15th August 1999, India's third highest wartime gallantry award "Vir Chakra" was posthumously awarded to Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja.

On 27 November 1999, the Indian Air Force today remembered 132 of its personnel who made the supreme sacrifice in all armed conflicts since Independence. Also honoured were Sqn Ldr Ahuja's wife Mrs Alka Ahuja and wives of Squadron Leader Rajiv Pundhir and Sergeant Ravi.

On 06 April 2000, Mrs Alka Ahuja received the Vir Chakra posthumously for her husband from President K.R. Narayanan in an investiture ceremony held at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi.

On 24th August 2000, Mrs Alka Ahuja was allotted a petrol pump at Okhla in Delhi. At a special ceremony, the Union Home Minister Shri L.K. Advani inaugurated the M/S Ajay Ahuja Filling Station under the Special Scheme for Kargil Martyrs. Also present were Union Defence Minister Mr George Fernandes, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Mr Ram Naik, Chief Minister of Delhi Mrs Shiela Dixit and Air Chief Mr A.Y Tipnis. However Mrs Alka Ahuja had to quit her government job because according to stipulations of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), a person in government service cannot operate a petrol pump or LPG agency.

A War Widow's Valour

On May 27 1999, the world was stunned by the news that Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja of the IAF was brutally tortured and shot dead by Pakistani soldiers. As his young wife Alka struggles to come to terms with the tragedy, she has only one dream-that their son too grow up to become a fighter pilot.

Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja had been planning a trip to Nainital with his family. He had booked a Maruti Zen for the same and had also saved up enough money to buy himself sophisticated photographic equipment as he was an avid photographer. Only July 10, Ahuja and his wife Alka were to complete ten years of marriage.

On May 27, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja was shot at point blank range. Ironically, his Zen was delivered to his home that very day. Vouched for as the best cadet in the National Defence Academy and a topper in subsequent courses, life came to an abrupt, untimely end for Squadron Leader Ahuja. But for his young widow and son Ankur, who is all but nine years of age, it is a long haul ahead.

"I can’t believe he is dead," mutters Alka, trying valiantly to remain composed. Then breaking down inconsolably, she says, "I did not even get to see his body. The box went on to the pyre as it was. I keep wondering whether it was him or someone else. I sometimes believe that he is going to come back. The whole thing is so unreal."

For Alka, the future is something she does not even want to contemplate. Her immediate concern revolves around coming to terms with her husband’s demise, fielding her innocent son’s queries and getting over the trauma of knowing that her husband was tortured before he was killed.

"Everything has been such a whirl, it is only now that I have some time to myself. It is difficult to believe that such a vital, energetic person like Ajay is dead. When he first left for Srinagar, I had no idea that there was so much trouble on the border. I was aware that there was tension but I didn’t know it was so bad. However, Ajay told me that operations would take over a month or two, so we had decided that Ankur and I would join him in Srinagar. I was happy with the idea because that is where we had gone for our honeymoon. I don’t know how I will ever go back to that place now."

Contrary to popular belief, families of officers are allowed to stay with them even during war. This is especially so in the air force, unlike the army where the officer invariably returns to base after a sortie. Alka has had to grapple with not just an unreal death but hours of mindless tension. "We knew that he had ejected safely from the aircraft and was in Indian air space. Even though the whole squadron was with me all the time, it was terrible waiting for news of him. One keeps thinking of all sorts of things. On May 27, I was told that he had been shot and his coffin arrived on May 3-0."

What fazes her most is the thought that he may have been tortured before being killed. "You know, it is one thing to be shot and killed immediately but at the thought that Ajay was tortured by the Pakistanis-I alternate between feeling sick and terribly angry. I really think the Pakistanis should be punished. I can’t sleep when thoughts of how they might have tortured him come to my mind. My uncle called from the States once to tell me that they think they had spotted Ajay being dragged somewhere on American television-I don’t know if these stories are true or false but they make me very angry. Ajay was such a considerate person-always thinking of others, so generous and fun loving. Why would anyone torture him?"

While Alka is still trying to come to terms with reality, the Indian Air Force has been standing by its men. An officer has been deputed to take care of all the paper work-insurance, pension etc on behalf of Alka. Considering the fact that Alka has a Masters degree in zoology and a Bachelors degree in education, she has been given a job at the prestigious Air Force School, Subroto Park. Although thankful to the Air Force for all the support, her immediate concern is Ankur.

"Ankur only knows that his papa has gone to war to kill the enemy. He does not understand the consequence of this. Even lighting the pyre war like a game for him. A few days ago, one of the kids told him that his papa was dead and that he would never come back. He had asked a neighbour of mine if that was true. Everybody gives him the consolation that his dad will be back one day. But how long can I do that? He will have to face the truth some time."

Alka wants her son to grow up fast. "What I am waiting for is the day when Ankur becomes a fighter pilot with the ‘Golden Arrow’ just like his father."

It is this unquenchable patriotic spirit which keeps our country going.

Hope and Sorrow
(By Alka Ahuja)

My husband Sq Ldr Ajay Ahuja was the first martyr in Operation Vijay that was launched on May 26 for driving out the intruders from Kargil.

One year has elapsed since that fateful day. But the details of the incident are so deeply etched in my memory that it seems to have occurred only yesterday.

May 27, 1999: It was a normal day, the sun had risen as usual. And it was as hot as summer can be in this part of the country. The Killi (Bhatinda) Air Colony was quiet. I was at home because the Air Force School where I used to teach had closed down for summer. Only my child Ankur was at home. Ajay had earlier left for Srinagar on May 16. The reason: Emergency duty.

The IAF planes thundered in the sky. Those who stay near air bases gradually learn to shut out the defeaning roar of the fighter jet. I could sense the onset of a severe headache. So, after a quick lunch, and watching the TV, I and Ankur retired for an afternoon snooze.

In the evening, I felt refreshed. Suddenly, the door-bell rang. I opened the door to find the Commanding Officer (CO) of our Air Base standing there. This was unusual. My heart missed a beat. And when he blurted out, "Ajay is missing", my heart stopped.

How could that be? Only five days ago, I had greeted him on his birthday, and suggested that Ankur and I should fly down to Srinagar for celebrations. He was game. Had flights to Kashmir not been suspended suddenly on May 23, we would have been in Srinagar.

I was then told what had happened: Ajay was flying Mig 21, and was over the Mantho Dhalo area, when he received a message that Ft. Lt. Nachiketa's plane had been hit. Ajay spotted the wreckage and started communicating its position to the choppers already airborne on rescue mission. It was then that a Stinger missile hit Ajay's plane — and it burst into flames.

Ajay ejected from the plane at 11.20 am.

It was already evening, and there had been no message from him yet. "Is Ajay safe? If so, where is he?" — questions such as these continued to pound in my head.

At 8.30 pm, I had the answer: Ajay was dead.

May 28, 1999: But what I had undergone through the previous day was anyday more preferable to what I experienced when I was told that Ajay's wasn't a natural death, that he had died after six hours of torture.

Subsequently, the post-mortem report was sent to me. It said Ajay had been repeatedly stabbed in the abdomen and then shot through his ear. I clenched my fists, and then sobbed bitterly. What else could I have done? I was helpless.

I developed a strange fascination for the post-mortem report. I would read it repeatedly, recreate the scenes — and match these with the details of May 27 the way I had spent it. And so, when I was enjoying my lunch, Ajay had just fallen into the clutches of the intruders. And when I was surfing TV channels, the intruders had begun working on Ajay's legs. And when I dozed off, Ajay breathed his last.

The CO later told me that Ajay had communicated his position before ejecting from the plane. Did he also leave a message for us? No matter how hard I try convincing myself that I couldn't have helped him, I can't help feeling that I failed Ajay when he needed me most.

Pakistan was reluctant to hand over the body. After much persuasion from the Indian government, the body was handed over on May 29 in Srinagar.

May 30, 1999: The prodigal son who did not think twice about his staking his life for the motherland was returning — obviously, for his final journey. In keeping with his profligate ways he flew home in a special IAF flight to Bhatinda. When the coffin, draped in the Tri-colour and decked with flowers, was brought down from the plane, there was anguish, not grief, in Bharat Mata's eyes. This is how sleep the brave.

That Ankur and I did not even have the last darshan of Ajay still rattles. The last rites were performed with full military honours. When the last post "O soldier, your work is done" sounded, I choked. How true it was. Ajay had done his duty — for his country and his family. It was I who had not lived to the marriage vow of always standing by him: I wasn't there next to him when he needed me most. And I cannot now hope to make amends. The Ajay chapter in the story of my life is over.

I watched Ankur light the pyre of his father. I realised the difference between war and peace. In peace, the son lights the pyre; in war, the father. The son was performing the last rites without even knowing what he was doing. This is what you call WAR. The flames leapt into the sky. The raging fire reminded me of Agni — it was there in my moment of pure bliss —when I was married to Ajay — and also in my moment of irreversible sadness.

During the last one year, the country has showered great love on us. How can I ever hope to repay it; will it suffice if I were to say thank you a million times over? Certainly not. Everyone in the Air Force helped me. I want to do something for this country, society, especially for the Kargil victims.

Life is like the Ganga. Silently has the river flown through the ages, unmindful of all the upheavals and bloodshed on its banks. Even a sparrow whose nest is scattered in the storm must rebuild it when the calm descends.

It's a year since the Kargil war broke out. It is summer, and it's hot all over again. The gulmohar is in full bloom, the scent of white mogra pervades the air. Schools are closed for vacation, and children are playing. As I stand in the balcony of my house and watch the sun set across the Yamuna, I'm reminded of that fateful day last year.

I, then, see the tree across. I see a sparrow rebuild her nest that the storm had destroyed. It's only human to hope.

This week last year the Kargil war erupted It certainly is a proud day for us, Let there be lusty cries of Jai Hind. Raise the Tricolour sky-high. But forget not. On the border Bravehearts have lost their lives, Remember them all Who did not come back.