Indian Air Force pilot P.N.Malhotra: The long goodbye
Fifty years ago, an IAF aircraft disappeared in Himachal Pradesh. There's been no investigation and no closure
It was the evening of 7 February 1968, when Shammi Malhotra awaited her husband, Squadron Leader P. N. Malhotra, at dinner. She had cooked up a scrumptious meal of the fish she knew Malhotra relished. Little did she know that she would never see her husband again, let alone find closure to what exactly happened on that fateful day.
Malhotra was the co-pilot on board the Indian Air Force’s An-12, a Russian-made transport aircraft, which turned back from Leh due to bad weather and soon disappeared somewhere en route in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, with four air force personnel and 98 army jawans on board.
Fifty years is a long time, long enough to heal wounds. Yet, each time remains of the crash surface—the body of a soldier, alongside parts of the wreckage, was recovered last month by a group of mountaineers on Dhaka Glacier (at around 18,000ft) in the Spiti region—the heart-wrenching wait continues for families such as the Malhotras. What exactly happened to that aircraft, why has there not been a thorough investigation yet, and can there not be an effort to bring back the remains of Malhotra and bring solace to his widow?
Sajid Malhotra, the elder son of the Malhotras who was just 4 at the time of the crash, has been looking for answers ever since he could grasp the situation. He spoke to Lounge about his travails. Edited excerpts.
What are your early memories of the plane crash while growing up?
My father, Squadron Leader P. N. Malhotra, returned to Chandigarh after flying a round trip to Leh. Russian-made An-12s flew routinely with personnel who were guarding some of the most precarious borders of the world.
My father logged out and bade farewell to the pilots on the next sortie. When he was walking towards his scooter, one of the pilots asked if he would fly on his behalf as his daughter was sick. My father refused initially, then something overcame him. He returned to the plane and asked the other pilot to go take care of his daughter.
It was an amazing twist of fate, though I have no doubt that if the tables were turned, the other pilot would have done the same. That is who servicemen are and the brotherhood has few analogues.
So, my father takes off, the plane meets bad weather, they radio they are turning back, and then the plane disappears from the radar. Ever since, he has been declared missing.
Whom did you first approach regarding the crash and what was your request?
Time went by and the search continued, even as equipment came in from Russia to detect metal in snow-covered mountains. But there was no trace of the missing An-12.
There have been multiple attempts at correspondence with the air force, but I’ve had no response. My request is simple—get back the wreckage and remains, which are now over a relatively flat piece of land.
Some reports suggest that there were intense search operations conducted after the crash, but because of the landscape, it has been impossible to conduct a thorough job.
Yes, I hear the terrain is treacherous—that is easy to understand. But the movement of the glacier and global warning seems to have raised the wreckage to the surface.
After my cousin informed me (about the latest discovery), I contacted Rajiv Rawat (leader of the trekking expedition). He was quick to respond and even mentioned that he had seen burn marks on the soldier’s body.
They have confirmation on the location and the plane. Because of cold weather in these mountains, the decay is very slow. We should be able to identify the remains.
What did you make of the theories that had emerged about the plane being shot down by Pakistan and having landed in their territory?
For a while in the early 2000s, false reports of my father being held hostage in Pakistani prisons turned our world upside down. It was the most difficult period of this ordeal for me personally.
What has been the compensation offered by the government so far?
The early years were horrible. It is much better today, but still not at parity with war widows.
Every month, my mother had to go to the courts to collect pension (around ₹ 100 for her and ₹ 2 for the two children). She would sit in hallways and wait for the proud call that announced, “Squadron Leader P.N.Malhotra ki vidhwa Shammi Malhotra window No. 4 pe". Her father finally heard one too many of those announcements and succumbed to a heart attack.
When Mrs Giri (former president V.V. Giri’s daughter-in-law, V. Mohini Giri) was chairperson of the War Widows Association, she convinced my mother to take control of her life, helped her get a job and later, ensured that a gas agency in Faridabad was allotted to her. My brother and I were sent to a boarding school and my mother was given a plot of land in East of Kailash (their current home).
To this day, we owe her more than any other person. The services continued to ignore and discriminate—he gave his life in service and yet his wife is treated differently to those widows who lost their husbands at war.
How does your family react, each time such a discovery is made?
My mother cries herself to sleep every night. She says she did not remarry because she wanted to wait.
Since 2003, when a trekking team found the diary and corpse of an army man, Beli Ram, many pieces of the wreckage and bodies have been found. It appears within reach, but there has been no closure—can this wait end?
Why would the Armed Forces of the sixth largest economy in the world not care enough to bring the remains back and pay proper homage? No one has contacted his next of kin. We cannot even identify who is in charge of this effort.
All I wish for is to start a search in sincerity, gather the family members, tell them the start and end date, and the location where the remains will be brought. Let me cremate him and sprinkle his ashes over the grounds where he lost his life.