Nine years on, Kargil war hero recalls Pakistan captivity

By Soudhriti Bhabani, IANS,

Jorhat (Assam): It’s been nine years since the India-Pakistan conflict in Kargil, but Wing Commander K. Nachiketa, who’s now posted at the Indian Air Force (IAF) base here in Assam, still clearly recalls his days of captivity in Pakistan as a prisoner of war (PoW).

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The deafening roar of the aircraft flying overhead is his constant companion. It is also a daily reminder of Nachiketa’s painful severance from flying fighter planes.

“I really miss fighter aircraft now. I know I can’t fly the MiG-27 anymore because of a backbone injury I sustained nine years ago,” rues the soldier who was part of the Kargil operations in 1999.

Kambampati Nachiketa, the IAF fighter pilot, had spent eight nightmarish days in Pakistani captivity and was later handed over to Indian authorities at the Wagah border following mounting pressure by the UN and international media.

“It was very tough. I can’t describe that experience in words. That time I thought may be death is a simpler solution. But I am thankful to god that destiny was on my side,” Wing Commander Nachiketa told IANS in an interview at IAF’s air-base in Jorhat, around 300 km from Assam’s main city Guwahati.

“The incident made me tough and I now value my life better. It taught me never to repent in life,” he said.

A 14-member team of journalists from Kolkata was taken to the northeast on a two-day visit to see the air defence operations of the Eastern Air Command (EAC) in the region.

“Generally, fighter pilots need to undergo several fitness tests. I am not in a physical condition to fly any fighter jet. But I think every (kind of) flying is equally challenging,” the Kargil hero said.

India and Pakistan fought a bitter war in the Himalayan region of Kargil in 1999 after the former accused the Pakistan army of backing armed insurgents who had taken over high-altitude posts on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC). Pakistan denied the accusation and has held that the insurgents were ‘freedom fighters’ acting on their own.

Nachiketa said the IAF had commenced air attacks on May 26, 1999 to destroy enemy positions with deadly 80 mm rockets in the Batalik sub-sector.

“On the next day (May 27), I’d gone on a mission to carry out strikes on an enemy concentration,” he said.

Nachiketa, who was a flight lieutenant during the Kargil operations, also launched a second attack on the target using the aircraft’s 30mm cannon. Firing in the rarefied atmosphere resulted in the ingestion of fumes into the engine air intake and subsequently, the engine flamed out.

“All attempts to re-ignite the engine failed and I had to eject at a place called Munthudalo – an enemy territory in a snow-capped mountain region. After landing, I saw myself surrounded by Pakistani troops. I exchanged fire using a Russian-made Makarov pistol. But I had to surrender as soon as I ran out of ammunition,” he said.

The Pakistanis took Nachiketa into custody and he was thrown into the dark confines of a prison in Rawalpindi. Till June 3, 1999 he remained as a war prisoner in Pakistan.

“I underwent severe mental and physical torture there for three-four days. On the seventh day, they decided to hand me over to the Red Cross and I finally came to my motherland through Islamabad with the help of the Indian Embassy,” he recalled.

Asked about the trauma his family went through, Nachiketa said: “I am a soldier and I am expected to undergo such kind of torture. But for my family, the experience was much higher than what I felt in the enemy hands.”