It was an emotional re-union. "Were you scared?" Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa asked his mother. She did not answer her son, but embraced and kissed him. The 26-year old pilot's parents -- K R K Shastri and K S M Laxmi -- were in fact worried till they saw their son saluting Indian soil as he stepped out of the Dornier HM-671 aircraft that brought him to Delhi's air force station at 9 pm on Friday.
Nachiketa looked tired after eight days of captivity in Pakistan. But he seemed simple and down-to-earth. Soon after his arrival, he was escorted to the VIP launch where Defence Minister George Fernandes and Air Chief Marshall A Y Tipnis waited with his parents for Nachi. Fifteen minutes later, he emerged with the VIPs and his parents to speak to the reporters for three minutes.
"I am not a hero. I am a soldier," he told the media. All I wanted to know was how he was treated in Pakistani custody. I knew he would not answer, but in my high-pitch voice and amidst the barrage of questions pouring by I shot the question. The answer was as expected. "The airforce people will brief you about that." Were you tortured in Pakistan custody? "No comments," Nachi cut short his brief media appearance.
Nachi feels his bravado in Kargil has not made him a hero. But for dozens of airforce personnel who converged to greet him at the air station, he was certainly a hero. Many said it was a life-time opportunity. "At 26, who can expect to be photographed with the President, the prime minister, the defence minister and air chief marshal?" asked a junior officer.
The Dornier that brought Nachi from Amritsar had a young woman lieutenant as co-pilot. Is any woman pilot engaged in the Kargil air strikes, I asked an IAF official. "No," he replied. "But all the women pilots in the IAF are willing and eager to participate in Operation Vijay."
Nachi is a marvelous flier. No one can stop him from flying again in Kargil," said an IAF officer who spent more than eight months with Nachiketa at the bachelor accommodation in Jodhpur. He is all praise for Nachi, who he says, was always high-spirited, jovial and optimistic.
Nachi was also good at playing squash and badminton. He often represented his squadron in squash competitions. He loved flying MiG-27s. "Nachi used to make very good breakfast for us. He never had any complaints," he recalled. He feels Nachi is extremely lucky. "Pakistani regulars could have shot him dead like they did Ajay Ahuja. Thank God, I have not lost my best friend," he said.
Will Nachiketa fly again? Will the IAF send him to Kargil again? Everything depends on the detailed medical and psychological tests that he will undergo in coming days. If he is found medically fit, IAF officials say, there will be no bar on him flying again.
Officials believe Nachi does not appear to have suffered any physical injury. He had ejected from his failed MiG-27 on the Line of Control during a most difficult air mission in the Kargil mountains.
Usually ejecting at such a high altitude causes compression of the spine. "But we feel Nachi escaped spinal injury. He is extremely lucky," said one IAF officer. The de-briefing and psychological examinations by aviation experts will ensure Nachi is free from the stress and trauma he underwent in captivity.
He will re-join duty soon after he is declared fit.
As dozens of reporters and television crews eagerly awaited his arrival at Delhi's Palam airport, CNN South Asia Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra was dismayed. "Why is there so much excitement? And why is this media hype about a soldier coming back?" Bindra asked. "The story has national appeal because Nachiketa was captured by the Pakistan army," I answer. "But what about the dozens of Indian soldiers getting killed in Kargil? Why are people not bothered about them?" Bindra persists.
We conclude: there is excitement, drama and appeal when a hero is welcomed back home. But I begin to think: If Nachiketa is found to be unfit to fly any aircraft and debarred from flying, we would easily forget him and his life and story would not appear on the front pages of any national newspaper.
Associate Editor George Iype is a high-flier himself.
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