Saturday, December 9, 2023

Pervez vs Pervez: A page from annals of India-Pak conflicts

Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf

The Indian forces detected intrusion by Pakistani soldiers into Kargil heights in May 1999 and the political leadership of the day, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and others were categorical that they had to be evicted. What followed was massive mobilisation of the Indian Army, leading to a unique war, unique because it was fought in one district, Kargil alone, as Vajpayee refused to enlarge its scope beyond eviction!  The Indian Air Force (IAF) participated in a limited role in operations called Safed Sagar and conspicuously absent was participation of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) into hostilities.

This happened as the then PAF chief Pervez Mehdi Qureshi refused to allow the use of his force in this conflict. He told then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to find a way to de-escalate as this India-Pakistan war had essentially been orchestrated by Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Musharraf. Qureshi said Musharraf had not confided in PAF top brass nor did even many top Pak Army Generals know about his plans!

Of course, it is often said that Musharraf had presented a fait accompli to Mian Sharif wriggling out of which was virtually impossible. In July 1999, Sharif even went to Washington to request US President Bill Clinton to intervene, to ask India to step back but those entreaties failed. Atal conveyed to the US leadership that the question of ceding any territory to Pakistan was out of question, irrespective of the costs. This firm message was conveyed to other nations also and the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) men who were leading the battle on Pakistani side got little, if any support, when the chips were down.   

So? During Kargil war in 1999, the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) were headed respectively by Pervez Musharraf and Parvaiz Mehdi Qureshi. As you speak their names, they sound almost same, just a minor difference of some letters in English spellings. But in character, they were temperamentally as different as chalk and cheese! Incidentally, at one time they were even shared a room with Aziz Mirza, the last named heading the Pakistan Navy at one time.

Three young men sharing a room, getting selected in different branches of Pakistan armed forces and rising all the way to the top. But that is not something we need to dwell more upon.     

Pervez Mehdi Qureshi

By all accounts, Qureshi had a life-long friendship with Musharraf but differed to the point of not allowing PAF to join the Kargil war! He knew Musharraf’s impulsiveness and advised Sharif against backing Musharraf. It is another matter that Musharraf staged a coup against Mian Nawaz Sharif later. That too is a story too well known in the contemporary history of the sub-continent.

What is not known is how Qureshi was taken prisoner by the Indian Army after his aircraft was shot down on November 22, 1971, five decades ago! In a manner of speaking, Qureshi had the distinction of piloting a Pakistan fighter aircraft which was the first to be shot down in the 1971 India-Pakistan war, or the Bangladesh Liberation War. He was a Flight Lieutenant piloting a F 86 when he was shot down by missiles fired by a Folland Gnat, a diminutive fighter aircraft. Gnat pilots were considered the most feisty in another space, time, with legendary skills and took on much advanced Pakistani aircraft of that time.

Another interesting fact about Qureshi is that when he bailed out and parachuted down, he was captured by Indian soldiers. After taking him as a Prisoner of War (PoW), the soldiers started beating him up. He was then rescued by (then) Captain H S Panag, who went on to become a Lieutenant General in the Indian Army. Qureshi was the first Pakistani PoW in the 1971 war.

When President Ram Nath Kovind gave Vir Chakra to Group Captain Abhinandan Varthman at New Delhi on Monday, for shooting down a Pakistani F 16 on February 27, 2019, Pakistan denied that it had lost any aircraft. “Pakistan categorically rejects the entirely baseless Indian claims that a Pakistani F-16 aircraft was shot down by an Indian pilot” in February 2019, the Foreign Office said in a statement. 

What it cannot deny is what different MiG variants have done to it in an era gone by. As early as in 1971 war of Bangladesh liberation, during the air war over Bangladesh, the IAF scored its first victory with MiG-21s. These MiGs were similar to MiG-21 Bison which was being piloted by Varthaman when his aircraft was shot down and he was captured over Pakistan Administered Kashmir territory. 

In 1971, during an air raid against a Pakistani airfield, a 28 Squadron MiG-21FL shot down a PAF F-86 Sabre with two R-3S air-to-air missiles. The MiGs were also used for strike during the conflict, notably hitting a cabinet meeting held by the East Pakistani government. That too remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of the IAF from that war which had led to surrender of over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers to the Indian Army.

India had first taken deliveries of MiG-21s (of the F-13 variant) from then USSR to augment their aging force of British-built fighters in January 1963. Six of these fighter aircraft equipped 28 Squadron “First Supersonics”. Seven pilots from that unit had received training in the USSR. On November 22, 1971, for the first time the PAF and IAF pilots faced one another in the eastern sector.

The IAF fighter aircraft intercepted Pakistan Air Force fighter planes after they crossed over into Indian territory and this led to what is known as Battle of Boyra. Before that, tensions had simmered between India and Pakistan for several months. It was PAF aircraft from Dhaka which had intruded into Indian airspace repeatedly that day. Those intrusions led to the IAF scrambling its aircraft to chase out the Pakistani planes. 

In the ensuing dogfight, the IAF Gnats scored two hits and the pilots of one PAF aircraft which was downed was taken as a prisoner. They were named Pervez Mehdi Qureshi and Khaleel Ahmed. Qureshi later went on to become chief of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). He was chief of PAF when the Kargil war took place in 1999 between India and Pakistan, triggered by another namesake, General Pervez Musharraf. It is said that as PAF chief, he did not allow use of the PAF in this war.

The MiGs were also used for strike during the conflict, notably hitting a cabinet meeting held by the East Pakistani government. That too remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of the IAF from that war which had led to surrender of over 93,000 Pakistani soldiers to the Indian Army.

Sant Kumar Sharma, a seasoned journalist, is an authority on Jammu and Kashmir. Two of his books on Article 370 and Delimitation are already out. The third one on Indus Waters Treaty is now out and could be bought here.

Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000.

He edits, a newspaper from Jammu presently.

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