From across the other side of India’s long, hot border with Pakistan a moving message of condolence and regret has been delivered over a notorious incident that played out at the height of hostilities almost 50 years ago.
The pilot of a Pakistani fighter jet who in 1965 shot down a civilian Indian aircraft carrying a chief minister, his wife and other officials, has sought out the daughter of the Indian pilot and expressed his sorrow. The woman has accepted the apology and replied, saying she hopes the gesture could heal wounds not only at a personal level but perhaps even between two countries which have on four occasions gone to war.
“If an opportunity ever arises that I could meet you face to face to condole the death of your father, I would grab it with both hands,” wrote Qais Hussain. “I did not play foul and went by the rules of business. But the unfortunate loss of precious lives – no matter how it happens – hurts each human, and I am no exception. I feel sorry for you, your family and other seven families who lost their dearest ones.”
The incident took place in 1965 as the seven-month Indo-Pak war was drawing to a close when Mr Hussain spotted an Indian Beechcraft plane flying on the border area. The plane was a civilian aircraft carrying the Gujarati chief minister, Balwantrai Mehta. As the planes approached, the Indian plane, flown by World War II fighter pilot Jahangir Engineer, wobbled its wings to try and indicate it was not a threat.
Mr Hussain, radioed to the control room in Karachi to express his doubts about the target, but the message came back after several minutes that the Indian plane might be a spotter aircraft and that he should proceed with his orders to attack it. The Indian plane was subsequently shot down over the Rann of Kutch. No-one survived.
Mr Hussain whose gesture was first reported by Pakistan’s The News, said it had not seemed appropriate to try and contact the families before. But this summer, he attended a meeting of fellow former pilots where he learned more details about the incident and decided he must attempt to send his message to the daughter of Mr Engineer, Farida Singh.
Mrs Singh, who was a teenager when the incident happened, replied to Mr Hussain’s emailed letter, thanking him for his courage and saying she felt overwhelmed. “This was the one incident which defined our lives henceforth. But in all the struggles that followed, we never, not for one moment, bore bitterness or hatred for the person who actually pulled the trigger,” she wrote. “The fact that this all happened in the confusion of a tragic war was never lost to us. We are all pawns in this terrible game of war and peace.”
She added: “My father would have liked that [this] goes towards bringing a spark of forgiveness between our two peoples, who after all were one.”
Mr Hussain told The Independent that while he “may have taken a small courageous step, she has taken a huge magnanimous leap”. He said he believed everyone involved felt that such dialogue between ordinary citizens may encourage the governments of India and Pakistan to do more to improve relations between the countries.
Mrs Singh, who lives in Delhi, said he had been moved by the reaction the correspondence had received on both sides of the border. “As to why it happened, you cannot ask yourself that too much. It is recipe for madness. I was 19 years old. I had to get on with me life,” she said last night. “Even though it has been 46 years, the climate for this is now right.”