M.P.Anil Kumar - Tribute to a historian.

The pool of aviation historians in India is a very small one.  One among them was M P Anil Kumar .  This is a tribute to the Historian i knew. 


It was with a heavy heart that I learnt that M.P. Anil Kumar, whom I considered as a friend even though I never met him, had passed away at the Military Hospital in Pune on. Anil is a celebrity in his own regard . He was the former fighter pilot who had earned a place in the hearts of many Indians as the "Airborne to Chairborne" hero. At a young age he was paralysed neck down in a motorcycle accident. Despite his disabiity he mastered the skill of writing by holding a pen in his mouth and writing on paper. His first long letter to a competion "Airborne to Chairborne" earned him recognition, popularity and his story became standard fare in the school text books of Maharashtra and Kerala.  Much has been written about M P Anil Kumar and his strength as an individual who overcame personal tragedy and challenges that I need not repeat here. I had known him for just over ten years . In addition to the public persona that everyone knew, I also knew him and respected him as a historian in his own right. A special one who overcame his constraints that his disability has put on him and did considerable service to the country by publicising stories related to heroism and gallantry in the Indian Armed Forces.

It was in 2002 or so  I first heard about Anil when Air Marshal S K S Ramdas had cursorily mentioned meeting him (I knew nothing of his disability) . Air Marshal Ramdas was discussing about the Bharat Rakshak website and mentioned to Anil about the history content on it and happened to take my name. Anil thought he knew me.  A few days later Anil visited the website and after going through the various pages, ended up at the attrition section on the Warbirds of India website. There he happened to stumble upon an entry from 1984, that mentioned the recovery of a TS-11 Iskra from a lake at Jeedimetla in Hyderabad.  Anil noted that the pilot's name was not mentioned and he promptly wrote in offering the name - Flight Cadet M J S Bains. I responded back and in the series of emails he told me about Bain's story who as a young inexperienced trainee pilot dead sticked the Iskra with skill after engine failure. The aircraft went into a lake and Bains jumped out but unfortunately got trapped in weeds and drowned. Anil also mentioned that Bains was his coursemate and he offerred additional details of other ejections from his trainee course. All the time, I never knew the background story for Anil, and thought I was dealing with a serving Squadron Leader/Wing Commander of the IAF.  And to my query about what rank he held, he wrote a short reply "I'm a retired Flying Officer.  My coursemates are Wing Commanders and many are commanding fighter/helicopter units.  I fell by the wayside."  I was rather dense in the head and never asked him why he was a 'retired Flying Officer'. I didnt even try to 'Google' him .. 

Anil was on the verge of becoming a Historian at the time he contacted me - one of his first pieces was Left out Lefties (Sept 2002) on the sad death of a Flight Cadet who mistakenly tried to locate the D ring of a parachute on the wrong side.  Anil was probably thinking about doing a series of stories on close escapes of airmen, when he stumbled onto my website. And finding information with familiar names may have sparked his interest in trying to document the stories.

A few months later in May 2003, he wrote to me asking about the miraculous escape of a 3 Squadron Pilot  Ranbir Singh aka 'Bira' whose MiG-21 impacted the ground during a LL flight, with the seat getting thrown out on impact . Bira survived with cuts and bruises. and his story was a legend in the cobras at that time.  Apparently at that time Anil was a junior pilot in the Squadron and heard about Bira's crash on the intercom. He knew Bira survived but had to go on annual leave the next day and didnt really have all the details. Though he was in touch with Ranbir Singh, Anil did not feel like prying him for additional details. Anil shared the details as he knew it in a lengthy email and in our exchange of emails I prodded him to convince Bira to write down what happened that day. Anil promised he would raise the point in his next meeting with him. (Again, I had no idea who Anil was, and how he was corresponding all the time. As I would later find out - he must have been typing these emails one letter at a time, with a pen/stylus in his mouth against the vertically mounted keyboard . The single email he sent me about his perspective of Bira's accident must have taken an hour or more to type )

This exchange of information must have been at the back of his mind when after a few months, Anil was visited by none other than Wing Commander Ranbir Singh himself.  In the course of his discussions with him , Anil was convinced to record the details for posterity - and he did so with finesse in an article on the Internet - Miracles do Happen  was published in the Indian Express on 3 September 2003, the 20th Anniversary of the incident. The piece was a challenge to write. There was a word count limit on the article and it is not easy to tell it concisely yet he managed it. As he would later mention "It would have been an easier task to write a 3000 word article!"

It was after reading the Ranbir Singh article, that I was finally prompted to find out more about Anil and a simple Google Search bought me to a page where I read about Anil Kumar the pilot and the inspiration. I saw the original facsimile of "Airborne to Chairborne" .. beautifully penned on paper before the advent of computers, and also the more recent developments which resulted him operating a personal computer and communicating via email.  Aside from the inspirational story, the very fact that I was oblivious of who I was communicating with over the past year, and the difficulty that Anil must have had writing emails to me made me feel  both in awe of the person as well as embarrased that I did not know this earlier.

In September 2004, Anil wrote about Flight Cadet Bains - whose accident was the reason our correspondence started off in the first place. Frozen, Mid Flight was a short tribute to the Flight Cadet. I had the pleasure of telling Anil, that Bains was recognized for his feat - and that he received the Shaurya Chakra after his death. At that time he wanted me to trace the citation for the award, and inspite of my best efforts I could not. I did find the citation after a few years, but we have both moved on since then.

Anil continued telling the fantastic stories about his coursemates. There was a tribute to B S Krishna Kumar, the doughty CO of the Mi-8 Flight at Car Nicobar airfield who took off immediately after the Tsunami and rescued hundreds of people till the helicopters exhausted their fuel . And another tribute to Pilot Officer O M Nirmal Kumar - who during Anil's Training days bought back a Kiran after a bird hit.  

Some of his best work came in 2011 . The Flying hero of 1971, tells the story of Fg Offr Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon PVC. While Sekhons story has been told many times before, it was never told at the rivetting pace that Anil had written it in. In research of the story, Anil had consulted various accounts, written to various veterans including Air Cmde Ghuman (Sekhon's wingman), Wg Cdr G M David and others. He consulted the war diaries of 18 Squadron and even versions from the other side of the border to weave a well balanced  and exciting story around the IAF's first Param Vir Chakra awardee. The article made an impression on many young minds, and in a matter of days , he had received more than two dozen emails from youngsters who had read the story for the first time and were deeply moved by it.

Anil's contribution was not just in writing. In 2012, He was able to part of an effort that led the Indian Air Force to commisison its first paraplegic officer Flying Officer Herojit Rajkumar Singh. Herojit was still a flying cadet in the AF when an ejection accident in 2011 paralysed him waist down. Anil met Herojit for the first time in April 2012. And in that meeting he was convinced that Herojit should have been commissioned in the IAF so that he could serve in a branch that could make use of his qualities. In the meantime Anil had his own moment of glory. In August 2012, the Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne, personally visited the PRC at Kirkee to pin the CAS Commendation Badge on Anil.  This was the second Commandation that Anil had received. Earlier he was commended by the GOC-in-C of Southern Command, Indian Army.

MPAnilKumar

 

Chief of Air Staff, ACM N A K Browne pinning the CAS Commendation Badge on Anil on 2nd August 2012

An additional benefit of the CAS Visit was that Herojit got to meet the CAS in person and present his case. With support from Anil's coursemates - who were still serving in the IAF, as well as some strings pulled from the outside. In November 2012, Anil wrote an editorial in the Indian Express asking for progress in the Herojit case. In the end the multi pronged approach from Herojit's supporters worked. He was commissioned as a Flying Officer in December 2012  - in Anils words "A lot of friends put their shoulder to the wheel".

Anil was also parallelly working on his articles. For the 50th Anniversary of th e1962 war, he wrote a piece on Lt Col B Awasthi and the battle of Lagyala Gompa, the IAF's contribution to the operations and the story of PVC awardee Subedar Joginder Singh

A few months later in 2013, Anil started working on retelling the 'POW Escape Story' - the saga of three officers of the IAF who were prisoners of war in 1971, that managed to escape and almost made it to freedom. Anil started tracing out contacts. He wanted to tell the story of not just the three officers who escaped, but the story of all the twelve IAF officers who were in captivity.  In the end he had to limit himself with recounting the POW story and he published the narrative on Rediff in September 2013 in two parts . An Indian prisoner of war escape story and The great escape - India's Unsung war heroes once again bought forth the stories of bravery and courage to a whole new generation of Indians who did not know about the escapades.  Part of Anil's motivation was to shine light on the three officers- whom he believed were not duely recognised for their effort. Anil hoped that the story would drive the IAF to recognise the three officers with a suitable gallantry award. While that did not take place (yet), the articles bought about much needed publicity to the story and the heroes. 

In December 2013, Faith Johnston, a Canadian author wrote a book on the escape attempt, and this prompted a national level TV interviews for the two surviving officers. This was the reason for my last correspondence with Anil in late January 2014. Anil was obviously excited to see the coverage of Johnstons book and the interviews on TV. Anil was hopeful that the renewed publicity from the TV program may cause the IAF to move again on the recognition to the three officers who attempted the escape.

Considering the prolific research and writing that Anil had been carrying out in recent years, it was a shock to hear about his rapid decline in his health and passing away in a matter of days.  I heard Anil's cremation was held at Bopodi Crematorium on Wednesday, 21st May 2014. By all acounts it was a dignified military funeral attended by friends, well wishers, caregivers, officers from NDA and AFS Lohegaon. Wreaths were laid out on behalf of 134 PC, 65 NDA course and several army formations.  The IAF ensign was laid on his body while everyone paid their respects.

We lost not only a fighter but also a historian. Despite his career in the IAF being cut short, Anil never stopped contributing to the IAF. I am glad the IAF recognised this in his last years.

Many have paid tributes to Anil and remarked how he made a lasting impression on them. I count myself as one among those who have been touched by him. You will be missed Anil. Au Revoir!