by Devjyot Ghoshal
I haven’t met Shikhar Kulshrestha in a decade, and I won’t ever again.
But what I’ll remember of him is a fair, lanky, soft-spoken boy in a class full of ruffians. We played football often, with plastic Coca-Cola bottles, and unequivocally followed the unwritten rule of finishing tiffin, usually chicken sandwiches, well before lunch break. Then, he decided that he wanted to fly.
Yesterday morning Flight Lieutenant Kulshrestha’s 40-odd year-old MiG-21 Bison crash landed at an airbase in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, instantly reducing some of us ruffians to remorseful wrecks.
Not that it hasn't happened before, and not that this will be the last either. 482 MiG aircraft accidents took place between 1971-1972 and April 2012, defence minister AK Anthony told Parliament last year, with 171 pilots dead.
But why should that bother anybody? The Indian Air Force, just like every other fighting arm of the country, delivers when it matters: Uttarkhand this year, 2011 Sikkim earthquake, 2008 Kosi floods, 2005 Kashmir earthquake, 2004 tsunami, 2001 Bhuj earthquake, and the list goes on.
When bumbling bureaucrats and paralysed politicians are too shaken to stir their broken systems, it is the country’s bravest, and often sharpest, young men and women who step up. They are lauded, applauded and then forgotten, as the machinations of the world’s largest democracy once again kick into gear.
None of that mattered to Shikhar – and for hundreds of young officers in the armed forces, it really doesn't. There are no prime time news appearances, no acknowledgements on newspaper front pages, unless some reporter is running out of stories to write – or you are dead. Most often, it is the latter. The money they make is just about enough, but not a scratch on what the bankers, consultants or other “civilians” make.
“Phase out hone se pehle, agar MIG 21 nai chalayi, toh kya fayda yaar pilot banke (If I can’t fly a MiG-21 before it’s phased out, what’s the point of becoming a pilot),” Shikhar had once told a classmate from school, herself an captain in the Indian Army.
It was a sort of madness that kept Shikhar and others like him going, despite the clear risks. The same indecipherable drive that held together what was probably one of the largest helicopter-based rescue operation seen anywhere in the world as it unfolded over the mountains of Uttarakhand.
The reward? Death, maybe a few lines on newsprint, a brief flurry of Facebook posts and that’s about it.
And from the mandarins and multi-term parliamentarians on august committees, barely a flinch. Another name shifted, another lump of pension to be paid to another broken family.
And the half-a-century old MiG-21s, albeit upgraded, the Indian airforce’s warhorse, will continue to fly till at least 2017, never mind that it an unforgiving beast of a machine, according to the man who’s flown them most.
But, at what cost? Only the lives of some of this country’s finest young people. That, however, may just be acceptable.