India’s Braveheart Nirmaljit Sekhon Param Vir Chakra

The brave hearts of our forces have proven time and again that death is never the supreme sacrifice for them…instead it is their ultimate reward, when it comes to defending their motherland. 

Still in the prime of his youth, the 28-year-old Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon did not think for even a fleeting moment, when he took off as No. 2 in a two-Gnat formation, with Flt Lt Ghumman in the lead, amidst heavy enemy bombing by a squadron of Pakistan Sabre Jets, at Srinagar airfield on December 14, 1971. Outnumbered four-to-one, he literally fought a lone battle in the skies inflicting heavy damage on the attackers, before going down, as his aircraft came under sustained fire. “Shayad mere plane mein nishana lag gaya hai G-man”, those were Nirmal Jit’s last words to Flight Lieutenant Baldhir Singh Ghuman.

Married only for 10 months, this lion heart died a martyr in an attempt to shape his own destiny while defending his country. His famous words still resonate in the memories of his course mates, where he used to often say “Dhuen Udane hai”( ‘धुएं उड़ाने है’ )meaning that he wanted to ‘smoke out the Pakistanis’ in battle.

This is the story of Nirmaljit Sekhon, IAF’s only Param Vir Chakra recipient till date, which was awarded posthumously to him for his ‘sublime heroism, supreme gallantry, flying skill and determination, above and beyond the call of duty  displayed in the face of a certain death’.

Looking back at his life, Nirmaljit was born in a Jat Sikh family on 17 July 1943 in the village of Issewal, Ludhiana in Punjab as the son of Warrant Officer Hon. Flight Lieutenant Tarlochan Singh Sekhon who had always wanted to be a pilot but his services remained limited to the maintenance of aircrafts as he could not pass the required tests.

The life of Air Force and the aircrafts had fascinated Nirmal Jit ever since his childhood, his village being in the vicinity of Air Force base Halwara near Ludhiana. Nonetheless he was also inspired by the innumerable experiences narrated by his father.

He did his schooling from Khalsa High school. He later joined Dayalbagh Engineering college, Agra in 1962. Succumbing to his fascination for Air Force, he left his engineering college in 1964, almost after a year and a half and decided to join the IAF. 

He was finally commissioned into the IAF on 4th June 1967 as a fighter pilot.

He called everyone ‘Brother’, which became his nickname. He was simple. full of energy and used to ride a heavy Jawa motorcycle… that was his personality!

Air Marshal Manjit Singh Sekhon, himself a Vir Chakra awardee from the 1971 war, recalls that Nirmaljit was full of ‘josh’ and that during the conflict, Nirmaljit would often walk up to his room and say in Punjabi, ‘Dhuen udane hai’ — meaning that he wanted to ‘smoke out the Pakistanis in battle.

Srinagar during those days was not a base that had a fighter squadron permanently located there. This was due to the restrictions imposed on India not to base fighter aircraft at air bases in J&K following the UN-sponsored ceasefire in 1947-48. Strangely, this was not revised even after the 1965 India-Pakistan war.

Though Air Chief Marshal Lal had instituted several measures to improve early warning of incoming strike aircraft through a layered network of radars and Mobile Observation Posts (MOPs), the mountainous terrain and valleys offered excellent cover for enemy aircraft to conceal their approach while attacking airfields such as Srinagar. Therefore, the only way for air defence aircraft like the Gnats to intercept incoming strike aircraft was if they had at least five-six minutes of warning that would allow them to scramble in two-three minutes, and then allow the air defence radar to carry out an intercept before the strike hit the target. 

No such window was available on December 14, the day when Sekhon was part of a two-aircraft air defence mission that was on readiness at Srinagar.

Masked with tactical finesse and penetrating the Srinagar valley with ease, a six-aircraft Sabre formation from the PAF’s 26 Squadron led by their squadron commander, Wing Commander Changezi, swooped down on Srinagar airfield at 7.30 am. Comprising four aircraft for airfield attack and two staying high to provide air defence cover, the Sabres thought it would be a cakewalk for them and like a few times earlier, they would exit the Valley before the Gnats were scrambled. This time, however, they did not expect the speed with which Flight Lieutenant BS Ghuman and Flying Officer Sekhon would scramble into the air.

As soon as the first Pakistani aircraft launched an attack, he rolled for take-off as No. 2 in a two-Gnat formation, with Flt Lt Ghumman in lead. The bombs were falling on the runway. Soldiers were getting killed. He could not start immediately as the dust from the first Gnat was still in the clearing up process . Having got airborne before Sekhon as the Number One, Ghuman gained height and turned around to pick up his Number Two, but lost sight of everything below as there was a thick layer of haze between 1,000 and 3,000 feet with six enemy aircrafts hovering overhead, and attack on the airfield continuing.

Sekhon was left all by himself to handle the situation as Ghumman remained out of the fight, once after losing sight. Meanwhile Sekhon, miraculously got airborne even as the first Sabre pair had dropped its bombs on the runway while the second pair was diving for the attack. He chased the enemy aircrafts and immediately made a direct hit on one Sabre and set the other one ablaze. The latter was seen heading away towards Rajauri, leaving behind a trail of black smoke.

Eventually, all by himself, Sekhon ran out of ammunition and was vulnerable to the second pair of Sabres which had its ammunition intact. His aircraft was hit by several bursts of concentrated fire. Sekhon attempted an ejection but was too close to the ground and as his aircraft crashed near Badgam. “ Shayad mere plane mein nishana lag gaya hai G-man“, those were Nirmal Jit’s last words to Flight Lieutenant Baldhir Singh Ghuman

There is ungrudging admiration for Sekhon from all his adversaries who were involved in that day’s combat for his ‘sublime heroism, supreme gallantry, flying skill and determination displayed above and beyond the call of duty in the face of certain death’

To keep the legacy of the IAF’s sole Param Vir Chakra recipient alive, the surviving members of Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon’s course have instituted a scholarship for wards of Air Force personnel.  The scholarships, meant for meritorious students as well as those in financial assistance, will be paid from the interest earned on a corpus that has been formed from donations by the course members. About 80 persons, including 15 widows of course members, have donated for the fund so far. Among the donors is Sekhon’s wife with whom he had been married for just 10 months when he died.

When he embraced martyrdom, Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was only 28. There was both pride and grief when Sekhon’s father, himself a serving Warrant Officer in the Air Force, collected the Param Vir Chakra awarded to his son. He was a proud father of a son who had indeed set the bar high for what it means to live and die for one’s country – a glowing chapter in the valiant tradition of bravery of the Indian Air Force!

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