On the evening of December 3, 1971, it was all quiet on the western front. The lengthening shadows had started dimming. Troops, lying in wait for months, were getting restless for action. An eerie silence prevailed.
Suddenly, the air space above exploded with a deafening sound of low-flying enemy planes. Later, we heard on the radio that Pakistan's air force had attacked our airfields along the western border. India retaliated by declaring war against Pakistan the same evening.
The days that followed were packed with action. Our forces had commenced advance with the aim of capturing Shakkar Garh. The war zone became alive with attacks and counter-attacks by ground forces. Simultaneously, the air space above, too, was filled with intense air activity. Watching the dog-fights and other air combats looked like a three-dimensional war movie.
Once, a Pak Sabre jet shot down by our Gnat crashed in a nearby open field. The pilot ejected. He was badly wounded. We gave him first aid and a hot cup of tea. He was thankful.
And then there was this most horrific experience that haunts me even now. A pair of Sabre jets spotted our movement and attacked us head on. They kept coming at us like sting bees. To be directly under the strafing line is nerve-shattering. The raid that lasted a couple of minutes seemed like hours. After the raid, I found myself alive and unhurt. But my buddy radio operator, Ram Niwas, in the next trench, was not so lucky. He got one in the spine and died on the spot.
By the end of the fortnight, victory was in sight. Troops' morale was high and the mood was jubilant. A gift-truck, just arrived, containing dried fruit and tinned stuff was waiting to be unloaded. Just then a Sabre strayed into our area, fired a few rounds and scooted. The gift-truck caught fire and exploded.
Shocked and helpless, we watched it go up in flames. However, after the raid, we were able to salvage some over-roasted cashew nuts and almonds to celebrate the victory.
Hours later, in the CO's bunker, as we had our drink, I couldn't help thinking of my buddy Ram Niwas. What if I had been in his trench? The war was over and we had emerged victorious. Though we had won the war, I thought, what difference did it make to the dead, the orphaned and the homeless for whom the flame of victory had already been extinguished?
Next day, after the ceasefire, it was all quiet on the western front.