Few years ago, during my journalistic career, I remembered my friend having a serious argument with my news editor about a story on HAL LCA Tejas that was inducted into the Indian Air Force. Although he had written a positive story, he did mention that an aircraft designed in mid-1980s is now being inducted into the Indian Air Force in late 2000s due to numerous delays in the aircraft’s development. Obviously, my friend’s story was sidelined and was replaced by a standard press release from the IAF. Then I wondered why such matter-of-fact news ruffled the editor’s feathers.
Today, when I read glowing tributes paid to another aircraft the MiG-21 that was retired, I realise how touchy we Indians are about our armed forces. I went through news reports from the Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, India Today, etc., and none one of them mentioned anything about the accidents involving MiG-21s. The numerous peace-time accidents involving MiG-21 fighters that gave it the ignominious nickname “Flying Coffin” were conspicuously missing!
Surprised by that omission, I searched online for more info and found that there was meagre media coverage on this subject. Particularly noteworthy was a website named indianmilitarynews.wordpress.com, which listed all the crash-related news from the IAF. To my shock, the site had a blank page stating “This blog has been archived or suspended for a violation of WordPress Terms of Service”. However, whoever got this site blocked didn’t realise that Google’s cache still provides the stories published on the original site!
Mikoyan-Gurevich-21 or MiG-21 was India’s first supersonic jet fighter aircraft manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1955. It is considered a second-generation jet fighter, which was first inducted in the IAF in 1963. MiG-21 was the IAF’s backbone, playing a stellar role in the 1971 war against Pakistan. It was also used in 1999 during the Kargil War, where one IAF MiG-21 was shot down by ground fire. However, after capably serving the airforce for three decades, the 1,200-strong MiG-21 fleet increasingly showed signs of wear and tear. The IAF was forced to continue using this outdated warhorse, eventually leading to numerous accidents.
According to answers given by various defence ministers in the Parliament, 177 air crashes took place in the IAF during the 1990-2001 period, out of which, the MiG-21s were the biggest casualty with 66 crashes. A high-power committee on Fighter Aircraft Accidents headed by Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, went into the issue and submitted a report in 1997.
In the last three years, the IAF lost 29 fighter planes in crashes including 12 MiG 21s, in which six pilots lost their lives. Since 1970, around 170 Indian Air Force pilots have been killed in MIG-21 accidents, which also resulted in the deaths of 40 civilians. While the IAF officially claims that pilot error was the major cause, internal reports conclude most of the crashes were caused by technical defects and engine flame-outs — strengthening fears that India’s MiG fleet may have outlived its service life.
Our great Indian media, which creates a ruckus on every trivial issue, has managed to play it safe on controversies involving our armed forces. On the contrary, Bollywood, which generally avoids portraying any major social-political issue, took up the cause of IAF pilots who have lost their lives. Renowned director Rakeysh Mehra assembled an eclectic panel of actors led by Aamir Khan to produce a masterpiece named “Rang De Basanti”.
The story raises the issue of frequent MiG-21 crashes that had led to the death of many young pilots and the alleged collusion of politicians in murky arms deals. Incidentally, the filmmakers took no help from the IAF to make the film and they visualised the MiG-21 crash scene through computer graphics. The virtual aircraft they created was so realistic that the IAF called them to check whether the producer had the permission to use an actual MiG-21!
Rang De Basanti arrived as a breath of fresh air amidst the staleness of Indian current affairs and the youth were reinvigorated by its message. India’s urban, educated gen-next, which was detached from the national context and was more interested in maximizing its material well being, suddenly became aware of a range of social issues plaguing the society.
Eminent market analyst Rama Bijapurkar states that this movie was the spark that set ablaze the Indian social activism that we are witnessing today. It began with Laloo’s rout in Bihar, then the outcry over the Jessica Lall verdict, the Supreme Court’s activism on all manner of issues, the spread of naxalism, student protest against the education minister’s imperialism on reservations and more. “If one were to look carefully, hopefully these events have a pattern to them. Maybe the politician rulers are underestimating the fed-up-ness and the activism potential of the middle and upper sections of the society. Maybe it has spread to the lower sections as well,” wrote Rama way back in 2006 when the movie was released.
Today when we look back, it is clear that the nostalgia of MiG-21 valiantly serving the IAF during the war is swept aside by the activism sparked by Rang De Basanti!