An Indian soldier who died in a plane crash 39 years ago was cremated with full honours in his Assam village on Tuesday after his glacier-entombed body was recovered by a military expedition team this month.
Twenty-year-old Mahendra Nath Phukon was among 102 other army and air force personnel who died Feb 7, 1968 after the AN-12 aircraft carrying them from Chandigarh to Leh crashed near the 6,264-metre Chandrabhaga Peak in Himachal Pradesh's Lahaul valley. There were no survivors in the crash.
The wreckage was sighted only in July 2003, and a soldier named Pioneer Beli Ram was the first corpse excavated - the wreckage was buried deep inside the glaciated area.
After the discovery of the wreckage, the army had been launching expeditions every summer.
On Aug 2, an expedition team led by Major Nishant Kumar of Dogra Scouts recovered three bodies from the area. One of them was Phukon - still in uniform. His identity card and other documents led to his identification.
For his family in Deodhai village in Sivasagar district, about 360 km east of Assam's main city of Guwahati, it has been a long wait.
On Monday, his body ensconced in a coffin and draped with the Indian flag was brought to his village with full military honours.
Nearly four decades after his death, he was cremated on Tuesday with thousands of people paying their last respects.
"It was like a dream. We feel happy that we were able to perform the last rites even after 40 long years and sad as it was a tearful reunion for the family," Mahendra's elder brother Tuben told IANS.
Tuben and his brother Durganath have both retired from the army.
"I think it's more the mystery that everyone is intrigued by. The fact that here's this plane that crashed more than 39 years ago, and there's still somebody up there in fine fettle," Durganath said as tears welled up in his eyes.
The last time Mahendra came home was to attend Tuben's marriage in 1967.
"Unfortunately we didn't even have his photographs to show our children. At least now they got a chance to see him," Tuben said.
This was the second time the family had performed Mahendra's funeral.
"After coming to know about the crash we waited for some days and later performed a symbolic funeral little knowing the corpse would arrive 40 years later," Jiten, the oldest of the four brothers, said.
"The recovery of Phukon's body after 40 long years is a testimony to the fact that the army never gives up its search for a dead soldier no matter if the terrain is inhospitable," army spokesperson Colonel Narender Singh about Phukon, who joined the army in 1965 as a craftsman at the Corps of Electrical Mechanical Engineers and was a mechanic responsible for repairing military equipment.