Flight Lieutenant Kambapatti Nachiketa, Indian Airforce

Flight Lieutenant Kambapatti Nachiketa, VM

The 26-year-old Flt Lt Nachiketa was a defence academy cadet of the 1990 batch and hailed from Andhra Pradesh. He was posted to IAF Squadron No. 9 "Wolfpack" and flew the Mig-27 fighter bomber. As a youngster, "Nachi", as he is fondly called, wanted an army uniform and his parents got him one for his birthday many years ago. "He was very happy when he wore it. But nothing was mentioned about him joining the forces," said his mother Ms K. Lakshmi Sastry. When his classmates at the Kendriya Vidyalaya at R.K. Puram, Delhi, filled up the forms for the National Defence Academy entrance exam, Nachiketa too joined them.

A day before the exam he remarked that he had not even prepared, and was not likely to pass. "When he was selected he was so thrilled he didn't bother about his studies after that," said his mother, who was worried by her son's choice of career. But Nachiketa's father Mr K.R.K. Sastry, who insisted that his children stand in attention whenever a patriotic song was played on radio or TV, had made them confident and independent.

On May 27, 1999, during the Kargil conflict, Flt Lt Nachiketa was captured by the Pakistani army after he bailed out of his MiG-27 following engine failure. " Nachi - engine flame-out, relighting.... Nachi ejecting now." were the last words that his colleagues heard before he faded out. As Nachiketa parachuted down the dark ragged edges of the snow-clad mountains, the sky was lit a brilliant red by the giant explosion of his aircraft. The wreckage of Nachiketa's MiG-27 plane was found 12 kms inside Pakistan. Flt Lt Nachiketa withstood all harassment & torture while in captivity and had refused to divulge any military information.

The MiG-27 wreck

Nachiketa was publicly paraded on Pakistan Television(PTV) as a POW. India summoned the Pakistan Deputy High Commissioner Akbar Zeb and demanded that Nachiketa be treated with dignity and honour while in their custody and returned to India immediately as per well established international customs and norms.

Nachiketa shown on PTV

For the family of Nachiketa there were as many hours of anxiety and concern, as there were fond reassertions of his endearing qualities. "If he comes home tomorrow, he is not going to sit back quietly. He'll be off again," said his father, who had a bypass surgery two months ago. "The sky is the limit as far as KG's (that is what Sastry calls Nachiketa) endurance is concerned. And I am sure the values we have taught him will be very useful for him in this crisis," said the father.

"I feel bad about "Kanhaiya" being in custody," said his mother. "I'll feel good only when the war is over and all our sons return home." Lakshmi Sastry, who calls her son "Kanhaiya", was confident that he would return like the mythological character, Nachiketa. Legend has it that Nachiketa was so inquisitive that his father, troubled with the thousand questions he posed, sent him off to Yama, the god of death. But unable to stand the volley of questions, Yama quickly repatriated him to earth. Lakshmi was confident that his name would bring him home safely.

Finally Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed to release Nachiketa as indicative of his willingness "to go that extra mile" and "In order to demonstrate our goodwill and in keeping with the Islamic traditions". On June 4, 1999, Pakistani authorities handed Flt Lt Nachiketa over to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) officials at the Foreign Office. The ICRC then handed him over to the Indian High Commission.

Pak foreign office spokesman Tariq Altaf (right) hands over Nachiketa to the head of International Committee of the Red Cross, Paul Bonard, in Islamabad

The extent of Pakistani Islamic traditions were revealed later when upon medical examination it was found that Nachiketa had been tortured mentally as well as physically at Pakistani hands. Further details about Pakistan's blatant violation of international laws in their inhuman treatment of Nachiketa and Sq. Ldr Ahuja were later provided by the armed forces.

On June 5, 1999, Nachiketa was received at the joint check post at Wagah on the Indo-Pakistan border at Amritsar. The commandant of the 28th battalion of the Border Security Force, which guards the check post, received him. As Nachiketa's feet stepped across the Radcliffe Line and touched Indian soil, his face broke out in a moving smile of joy. Joy to be home at last, out of the clutches of the enemy. Flt Lt Nachiketa was held by the Pakistani Army as a prisoner of war for 8 days.

Earlier Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke to Nachiketa over the phone conveying his best wishes and that he was looking forward to his early return to India. A relaxed Nachiketa also spoke to the Air Chief A.Y. Tipnis and his parents and told them that he is ''safe and sound''. ''You have done a good job and I am looking forward to your early return to India'', Prime Minister told Nachiketa. The Indian High Commission officials made special arrangements for the telephonic conversation following a special request from the Prime Minister's office. Indian Air Force officials scheduled the reception of Nachiketa at the border by 5:00pm The Indian High Commission authorities rushed through all the formalities so that Nachiketa could get out of Pakistan as soon as possible and return to India.

Once he arrived at Wagah, Nachiketa was overwhelmed by the media circus. With his head held high, he told waiting reporters in a choked voice: ''I am fine and happy to be home. I was not too hopeful of returning to my motherland. Thank God I am back to perform my duty.'' These were the first sentences out of Nachiketa's mouth. Declining to give further details, he however, told newspersons at the border ``he shared his grief over the loss of Sqn Ldr Ajay Ahuja, who was killed while carrying out his operations.'' He said at Wagah he had no idea about the places where he was kept captive in Pakistan. But the true courage and dedication of this brave young soldier finally showed up as he commented, ``I am ready to fly the next sortie now . I am not a hero, but a soldier. Every soldier in Kargil would have done just what I did."

At New Delhi he was received by Defense Minister George Fernandes, Air Chief Marshal Anil Yashwant Tipnis, chief of air staff, and his parents, who have been flown down to the capital for the event. His smile was edgy and nervous in the beginning. But slowly, with constant popping of the flashbulbs, he was more at ease. And finally, Flt-Lt. K. Nachiketa flashed a dazzling smile. Though they had waited patiently for Nachiketa to disembark and meet the IAF brass first, the eyes of Nachiketa's parents who waited for over three hours at the airport for his home-coming, were moist with joy. His sisters, Valimayya and Sandhya, and brothers-in-law, were also present to receive him.

Nachiketa with his parents

Nachiketa's first action was to envelope his mother K. Lakshmi in a bearhug even as reporters fired questions at him. It was a poignant moment for Nachiketa as he stood there on the Palam Air Force Station tarmac, flanked by his parents. The nightmare had come to an end. The inevitable query: how was he treated in Pakistan? was fielded with a diplomatic ``It was okay,''. When asked what would he like to say, now that he had returned safely from the enemy's camp? ``Each and every soldier fighting the battle for our country would do exactly the same,'' he said, before being whisked away by IAF officials in a black Ambassador car on way to the Prime Minister's residence. His father, too, just managed a line. ``He will go home from here, after he is through with the requirements,'' he said, before being taken away. Amid resounding cheers of "Bharat Mata Ki Jai!" and "Nachiketa Zindabad", Nachiketa waved to the crowd as the car wound its way out.

Flt. Lt. Nachiketa and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Flt. Lt. Nachiketa with his parents(left) and P.M. Vajpayee, Defence Minister Fernandes and Air Chief Tipnis.

Nachi feels his bravado in Kargil has not made him a hero. But for dozens of airforce personnel who converged to greet him at the air station, he was certainly a hero. Many said it was a life-time opportunity. "At 26, who can expect to be photographed with the President, the prime minister, the defence minister and air chief marshal?" asked a junior officer. "Nachi is a marvelous flier. No one can stop him from flying again in Kargil," said an IAF officer who spent more than eight months with Nachiketa at the bachelor accommodation in Jodhpur. He is all praise for Nachi, who he says, was always high-spirited, jovial and optimistic. "Nachi was also good at playing squash and badminton. He often represented his squadron in squash competitions. He loved flying MiG-27s. Nachi used to make very good breakfast for us. He never had any complaints," he recalled. He feels Nachi is extremely lucky. "Pakistani regulars could have shot him dead like they did Ajay Ahuja. Thank God, I have not lost my best friend," he said.

On August 14, 1999, Pakistans Independence day, Pakistan Armymen Naik Talib Hussain and Gunner Shafqat Ali (Air Defence) were presented with the Tamgha-i-Jurrat (akin to the Indian Vir Chakra) for shooting the MiG-27 aircraft piloted by Flt. Lt. Nachiketa.

On 8th October, 2000, Flight Lieutenant Kambapatti Nachiketa was awarded the prestigious "Vayu Sena" gallantry medal by Air Chief A.Y Tipnis.