September 9, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/M S Sekhon

When Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh announced Air Marshal M S Sekhon's induction into the Congress, many were surprised. Only five-and-a-half months earlier, the captain had released a letter written by the air marshal to then Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, requesting Badal to recommend his appointment as chief of the Western Air Command.

The letter, written on October 22, 2001, surfaced when Sekhon was concluding an investigation into Pakistani firing at a plane carrying the Western Air Command chief, Air Marshal Vinod Bhatia. The inquiry reportedly exposed gaps in intelligence gathering and major lapses on the part of the aircraft crew, including Air Marshal Bhatia.

The Indian Air Force subsequently served Air Marshal Sekhon with a show-cause notice for dismissal and he resigned on March 19.

In an exclusive interview with Chief Correspondent Onkar Singh at his home in Ludhiana, Air Marshal Sekhon said he had committed no offence by writing to Badal and denies seeking any favours from the former chief minister.

Is it true that you have joined the Congress?

On September 3 there was an ex-servicemen's rally at Jalandhar and I was invited to attend it. The chief minister of Punjab was the chief guest at the function. At the end of the function he formally honoured me and announced that he welcomed me to join the Congress party.

Did you know he was going to make an announcement to that effect?

I did not know. It came as a bit of a surprise. Looking at the manner in which he made the announcement, I, being a soldier, accepted his offer because he is also an ex-serviceman. I dedicated myself to the service of ex-servicemen and told them that if anyone had any problem they could come and see me at any point of time. I would help them. I feel a lot needs to be done to improve their plight, particularly those who are living in the Andaman and Nicobar area.

But this came as a surprise because it was the Congress that had released your letter to Mr Badal that led to your exit from the IAF.

Whether the Congress led a campaign against me when I was in the air force, I am not very sure. It was the fallout of the court of inquiry that I conducted against Air Marshal Bhatia. When I was asked to conduct an inquiry against Air Marshal Bhatia I mentioned to the air force chief that in the services we don't conduct inquiries against senior officers. But he insisted that since I was the best and most operational air marshal available within the Indian Air Force, I would have to do the job. [That] since I knew Jammu and Kashmir as the back of my hand, I should do the job.

The chief showed me photographs of the aircraft. I conducted the inquiry in the most honest fashion. I got the black box, the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. I met the army persons on the ground, who saw the aircraft crossing over along the Batalik river. They saw the missile rising from the Pakistani post. Eight officers and 50 subedars and jawans saw this happening and hitting the right wing of the aircraft.

Despite the hit the aircraft continued in the same direction into Pakistan and flew for about 11 minutes in their territory. Luckily, the missile did not explode and the aircraft came back and landed at Leh.

In my inquiry I went and saw the aircraft, analysed the type of missile that had been used. I put the facts of the black box and the cockpit voice recorder. The chief said this was the best inquiry in the last 40 years. I went back to my headquarters. There were pressures that I should change some of the things and say that the aircraft did not cross the line and [that] it was hit by a missile within our own territory. I was not ready to change that.

The next day the letter, which I had written to Parkash Singh Badal about six months [earlier] after I had met him at a social gathering, was released to the media. I had not asked for any favour because I was already air officer commanding-in-chief, Southern Command, and at par with other officers of the same rank.

How did you meet Mr Badal?

As I said, I met him at a social gathering. He asked me when the militancy in Jammu & Kashmir would end. He talked about the unemployed youth in Punjab and said they were taking to drugs. Drugs were becoming a menace. To that I said we have been sending officers to various schools and colleges in the south and guiding the youth, telling them what they could do with their kind of qualification. We had become very popular. The result was that the entry into the armed forces had grown fourfold in no time.

Badal said I was too far away in the South and I should come nearer. I told him I could come as AOC-in-C, Western Air Command, or as vice-chief because of my seniority. So I wrote the same in the letter.

I had two things in mind: to sort out the problem of Jammu & Kashmir and help the people of Punjab by helping the youth to fight the drug menace.

What happened then?

For six months nothing happened and he took no action. After I completed my inquiry against Air Marshal Bhatia, somebody wanted to divert attention from the court of inquiry and they published this letter. The Cabinet was to discuss Ayodhya and whether the aircraft had crossed the Pakistani border. Instead the first point that was discussed was that Air Marshal Sekhon had written a letter to Badal. That letter brought no favour or credit to me. It did not harm anyone. A six-month-old letter was dug up and I was asked to resign.

Did Mr Badal write to the Government of India about you?

I don't know. I have no knowledge. They asked me to resign and like a good soldier I resigned.

Is it true that you were given two choices -- to face an inquiry or resign?

I wanted an inquiry. I had said please order an inquiry. I was told there are not sufficient people available to conduct this kind of inquiry.

So an inquiry was denied to you, is that correct?

Yes. Legally there is a requirement of an inquiry. I could have got a stay. I could have won the case in a court of law. But like a good soldier I obeyed the orders. They were kind enough to send me back for a month to the Southern Air Command as commander-in-chief. I took retirement after three months.

Does it hurt you?

Inwardly, yes. I am a very straightforward soldier. I have taken part in every war beginning from 1962, 1965, 1971, and Kargil. I have been decorated with a Vir Chakra. The amount of land that I got for India in Jammu & Kashmir, no one knows about it. I pushed the Pakistanis inside by 32 kilometres. We took this area in the Thoi sector of Ladakh. This area is still held by us. Out of 40 posts we took over 36 posts in Kargil.

Do you regret writing the letter to Mr Badal?

No, he was the chief minister of my home state and I did no wrong by writing the letter.

Air Marshal, is it possible to strike at terrorist camps within Pakistan?

Absolutely, yes! I don't want to divulge the details. But it is possible. I was brought in as chief of the Western Air Command because there was a likelihood of another Kargil. This time the word would have been Turtuk. They [the Pakistanis] were already making inroads. I made the plans and the chief was very happy. I would have struck them hard. That is why there was no second Kargil. It is possible to take Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Let us have the old Kashmir with us.

Photograph: Vijyendra Tyagi; Design: Lynette Menezes

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