Flying Officer Sudhir Tyagi Vr.C, Indian Airforce

Flying Officer Sudhir Tyagi, Vr.C

Sudhir's mother holding his picture

Flying Officer Sudhir Tyagi had a raging passion for flying since a very early age when he filled up the National Cadet Corps examination forms. After graduating from the National Defence Academy in 1965, he joined Squadron 27 "Flaming Arrows". During the 1971 war, Fg.Off Sudhir Tyagi was shot down over Pakistan.

In a house tucked away in a corner of Uday Park, a colony of war widows in Delhi, Sushila Tyagi lives out each day in hope. Adorning her living room wall is a plaque commemorating her son Flight-Lieutenant Sudhir Tyagi's "supreme sacrifice" while fighting the enemy in the 1971 war. It was presented to Sushila at a special ceremony in 1999 by Air Chief Marshal A.Y Tipnis, who handed similar plaques to 53 other families.

If the government was hoping the ceremony would put the lid on a 29-year-long controversy over the whereabouts of 54 men missing in action, it was wasting its time. "I don't believe for a moment that he is dead," says Sushila, her memories of her son's last visit still vivid.

Posted in Ludhiana, Sudhir had come home to Kapurthala sporting a beard. A war with Pakistan was imminent, said the 24-year-old. "We are growing beards because if we get caught in Pakistan territory, we shouldn't be recognised." Sudhir, excited about the new car he had bought, promised his mother a ride on his next holiday provided, he said, the war didn't begin by then.

On December 3, 1971, he wrote announcing the outbreak of war. The next day, Sudhir flew in a formation of Hunter aircraft on a strike mission over Murid airfield in Pakistan. While attacking the airfield, he spotted an enemy Sabre F-86 close on the tail of his leader. He immediately engaged the Sabre and shot it down. An enemy Mirage and two Sabres then closed in on him. In the ensuing dogfight he was shot down by one of the enemy Sabres, but not before scoring hits on the Mirage.

Those in his formation said he hit two Pak Mirage aircraft before being surrounded by enemy aircraft. "He was our Abhimanyu," the then Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal told Sushila. "No one can hit a Mirage with a Hunter, but he did it." The same night, Pakistan Radio announced they had captured Tyagi and three or four other Indian officers.

Little did his family think that it was the beginning of an existence in which hope would do battle with despair. "I would get news that he is coming next week, tomorrow. We all waited but nothing happened," says Sushila. "He was so young and handsome, if he's alive, he must be so old now."

Letters were dashed off to Pakistani authorities and even to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who wrote back saying Sudhir's plane had crashed and that he was dead. Sushila was unconvinced. The much-publicised release of Roop Lal offered fresh hope.

Sushila with Roop Lal

"If he could be released after 26 years, why not my son?" asks Sushila, who lost her second son last year. Moreover, Roop Lal had stated soon after his release that there were other Indian soldiers and officers in Pakistani jails. "I know my son is alive and he will come back some day," she says, tightening her grip on the framed photograph she holds of Sudhir.

However, the 1971 war is history today and its heroes have been replaced by those who evicted the enemy in Kargil. While the 71 war victims' families were given plots of land and a pension of Rs 415, it is nothing in contrast to the Rs 17 lakh compensation disbursed to the families of Kargil martyrs last year. "And Kargil was not even a full-fledged war," says Sushila.

There was more disillusionment when at a function organised last month to celebrate Vijay Diwas, the Prime Minister seemed indifferent to their plight. "He told us we should know what Pakistan was all about and that the government had done all it could," says Sushila. As far as the government was concerned, the chapter was closed.

"I think the government has a lot to do with our plight," says Sushila. "Why did they release the 90,000 Pakistani soldiers in 71? They could have easily bargained for the lives of our men."

Officially, Fg. Off. Sudhir Tyagi was killed after being shot down over Murid. He was posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra for displaying gallantry, professional skill and devotion to duty of a high order.

In 1978, the "Flying Officer Sudhir Tyagi Memorial Cricket Tournament" was started at Saharanpur. The Tournament is held every year to honor his supreme sacrifice.