With the Government of India deciding to do away with Article 370 that accorded special status to Jammu and Kashmir, the social media is agog with the story that Biju Patnaik was the first person to land an aircraft in the valley on 27 October 1947, during the invasion of Kashmir by Pakistan-backed groups, and how he was instrumental in Maharaja Hari Singh signing the Instrument of Accession.
All the biographies, including the official hagiographic mention about this act of bravery by ‘The Tall Man’.
Even the official site of the Odisha government mentions this story and there have been demands for conferring the Bharat Ratna on the senior Patnaik.
However, this is far from the truth. The legendary Odia statesman was nowhere near Srinagar or Jammu and Kashmir on that day, though he undertook many flights later in the month, the first being on the 10 November 1947, a good fourteen days after the invasion by Pakistani forces.
Records reveal that the first landing was done by Wing Commander Karori Lal Bhatia of the Indian Air Force, flying a DC-3 Dakota.
Three Dakotas of 12 Sqn took off from Wellington airfield at Delhi at 0500 hours for Srinagar signaling the start of the IAF operations in the 1947-48 War.
Before the end of the day, 28 Dakota sorties were flown.
Immediately after the Maharaja of Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession on the 26 October 1947, No 12 Sqn, under the command of Wing Commander Bhatia was deputed for operations.
He piloted the very first aircraft, into the Kashmir valley on 27 October 1947, carrying troops of the 1st Sikh Regiment under Lt Col D R Rai.
In the following weeks, the squadron also conducted bombing sorties in support of the army with the bombs being rolled out of the cargo bay by the aircrew.
The fledgling Indian Air Force committed almost its entire resources to the 1947-48 Kashmir operations.
On 9 November, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru flew to Srinagar in an IAF Dakota piloted by Bhatia, while Mehar Singh flew Maharaja Hari Singh from Jammu in another Dakota.
The No 12 Sqn, in the course of its regular casualty evacuation and transport duties in the next few months, airlifted 25 pounder field guns to Poonch and also ran bombing sorties with their trusted Dakotas.
The squadron also flew the first Indian Army troops to Leh, and the second landing in Leh was done by Wing Commander Bhatia.
Karori Lal was later awarded the Vir Chakra along with many pilots of the squadron.
The award was announced on January 1950 when India became a republic and the gallantry awards were instituted.
After the Kashmir operations ended, Karori Lal was made the Station Commander at the Agra Airbase.
The Transport Squadron operating under him had won 13 of the 19 Vir Chakras awarded to the IAF for its heroic deeds in the Kashmir operation.
The air hero, however, died young at the age of 34 years. In March 1948, his Dakota had been hit by the enemy artillery fire while flying to Srinagar.
He was wounded with shrapnel and evacuated to Srinagar where he was operated upon.
However, undetected shrapnel remained embedded in one of his lungs causing an infection that led to cancer.
In December 1953 he was flown to Tata’s Institute at Bombay and from there to London for treatment.
He was operated twice but the disease spread fast, damaging his entire respiratory system and other vital organs. He breathed his last on 20 Jan 1954.
Bhatia is no less than a legend in the IAF, who during his short stint of ten years flew every type of aircraft that operated in the Indian sky: from Tiger Moths to Piston powered Wapitis, Blenheims, Harvards, Hurricanes, Spitfires, Dakotas, Vampires and even the gigantic Liberators.
In fact, he holds the record of having flown nineteen different types of aircraft and clocked a total of 2,842 flying hours.
Biju Patnaik, on the other hand also played a very important role in the Kashmir operations, which was much more important and decisive.
It was he who suggested that Nehru should summon all the operating civilian aircraft to Delhi for the Kashmir operations.
There were about a dozen private operators, mostly flying Dakotas, on different routes in the country. Private airlines like Deccan Airways, Airways India, Bharat Airways, Himalayan Aviation, Indian National Airways, Air India, Air Services of India, Assam Airways, Indamer Airways, Jamair, and Dharbhanga Aviation were flying surplus World War II Dakotas.
At Patnaik’s insistence, Sardar Patel issued a command on All India Radio requisitioning all civilian aircraft. They were summoned to New Delhi and parked at the Wellington (Safdargunj) Airport, from where sorties were made to Kashmir, with Patnaik supervising the operations.
In fact, the seeds of nationalisation and merging of the private airlines were sown during this period.
The legendary leader also saved the day for India by the massive airlifts that were carried on in the first few months of the invasion, when the entire valley was landlocked due to winter.
Everything that the troops required including coal, kerosene, mules, and vegetables besides the ammunition were carried by these workhorses and Patnaik flew many of these flights himself.
Unfortunately, while Group Captain Bhatia’s flight logbooks are available at the IAF archives, there are no records of Patnaik’s flying career, except the legends. Incidentally, according to my research, in his first flight, Patnaik carried a dozen mules and hay for the pack animals.
No small deed this, since these were as vital for the troops as the ammunition and fuel.
It is about time that an official biography of Biju Patnaik should be commissioned so that the false references and stories about him can be cleared and he can be given the right place in the glorious history of modern India.
During my research, I was amazed by the sheer volume that has been written about him by other pilots of the Second World War and I have several books that have anecdotes and stories about his daredevilry.
He deserves much more and much better than what all is being dished out about him.
Demanding Bharat Ratna, an honour that he rightly deserves, should not be based on half-baked, false information, but on truth and facts, and there are many of these that can be the basis for such conferring the award on him.
*The writer is a researcher. Views expressed are his own.