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Bravo, ‘Ranis of Jhansi’

Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik, who held that rank in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, shares his experience with Bhakti Mehta about a historically significant incident involving the Bhuj Runway

You were a part of a mission that is very significant in the 1971 war. What was it like to be a squadron leader then?

I had played an active part in the 1962 and 1965 wars but the 1971 war was different. In that war, I was the Base Commander at the Bhuj Air Base. It was a significant and responsible post. In the Air Force, we always say, ‘Mission first’.

Accordingly, our mission was to destroy Karachi. We had targets of air bases, petroleum dumps and naval docks. The war started on December 3, 1971, and from that night onwards, our Air Force started attacking Karachi.

The Pakistani Air Force wanted to destroy the Bhuj Air Base, so they bombed Bhuj every night after December 4. But they were not accurate and despite their heavy bombing, Bhuj was not seriously damaged.

During that time, on the night of December 6, we managed to shoot down a Pakistani B-57 bomber using rifles, entry airguns and machine guns. Two Pakistani pilots, Squadron Leader I Hameed and Squadron Leader Z Ahemad, were killed in the air crash.

After that, they increased the bombing over Bhuj. On the night of December 9, they sent eight bombers and the Bhuj Runway was destroyed. We had no one to repair the runway, but 300 women and young girls from Madhapur village came to the rescue and repaired the runway in record time.  We had no casualties and we were all safe despite the heavy bombing. 

What prompted the women of Madhapur to play such an integral part in the war?

When the war broke out, there was a patriotic feeling all over India. When the women from Madhapur learnt of the situation at Bhuj, they were motivated by patriotic feelings to do something significant for the country.

How did this act of bravery help the country win the war?

It is very important to keep the air base operational at all times during the war. Bhuj was non-operational and it was a great setback during the war. But the quick repair of the runway when the war was on is a valiant deed. Bhuj was made operational by these women and all credit goes to them. It was a great help in the progress of the war.

Can you tell us a little about how the operation was executed?

We were fighting a war and if there had been any casualties of any of these women, it would have been a great loss to the war effort. But I took the decision and it worked out. We had briefed them where they could take shelter if attacked and they followed our instructions bravely. 

You have given the rights of this historical tale to be made into a film. Can you shed some light on what prompted you to do that?

Repairing a bomb-damaged runway by women was itself a great, brave story. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi heard about this act of bravery, she visited Bhuj. This was the only air base she visited after the war, and she called the women of Madhapur modern ‘Ranis of Jhansi’. A film is a deserving tribute to these women.

And whom have you given the rights to for this film?

I have given the rights to director Mukesh Dudhaiya and he is making this film for the production house, Moving Pictures.

Now that Mukesh Dudhaiya is directing and Moving Pictures is producing a film based on this incident, what message do you want to convey through this film?

Patriotism inspires us to love our country. Patriotism also breeds great courage in difficult times. Every Indian, particularly our girl students, must know about the sacrifice of the Madhapur women and follow their patriotism and courage in life.

Who do you think would be apt to play your part in it? 

Ajay Devgn ! Ajay Devgn ! And Ajay Devgn !

Is this story being made into a film because people should know about the contribution made by you, your team and the women of Madhapur?

Yes. It is a unique story. It was a mission to keep the airbase operational while it was the mission of the Pakistani Air Force to destroy Bhuj. It showed extreme bravery and tenacity under conditions of heavy bombing sustained by all of us at the base and joined by the Madhapur women and young girls. Hence it has great historical value. It is important that the nation know about this gallant contribution under demanding conditions. A film depicting this story will bea fitting tribute.

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