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An air crash, a Prime Minister’s miraculous escape and a journalistic feat | India

A few days ago, around 9 pm, renowned journalist and author K Govindankutty received a call at his home in Thiruvananthapuram.

It was from beyond Africa and across the Atlantic, from Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, the USA.

The caller was unknown to Govindankutty, a stranger with an exotic name that seemed straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. “Neale Misquitto,” he introduced himself. He wanted to fly down to meet Govindankutty.

Misquitto gave details of an event that took place 45 years ago. And also a name: Clarence Joseph D’lima.

K Govindankutty was a passenger, a journalist accompanying the Prime Minister Morarji Desai on his first official tour of the north east. Photo: Onmanorama.

Govindankutty did not require anyone to remind him of D’lima or the event that brought them together for a brief but eternally profound moment.

It was too mythical an occurrence to slip out of his memory like perhaps the headline of a favourite report of his.

It was a tragic air crash, and it involved the Prime Minister of India.

Wing Commander Clarence D’lima, the pilot of the aircraft carrying Prime Minister Morarji Desai, died in Govindankutty’s arms.

Superman’s last momentsIn the darkness surrounding the crashed aircraft, four or five bodies were strewn around the paddy marsh at Takela Gaon village in Assam. Govindankutty found himself near D’lima’s.

He was the best in the country; a pilot with ‘master green’ instrumental rating, an honour reserved for those with superhuman airmanship.

In a half daze, Govindankutty heard the joint director of the Intelligence Bureau John Lobo say to no one in particular: “He is sinking.

Former PM Morarji Desai was on his first visit to the North-East on the aircraft Pushpak, in 1977 November. Photo: Manorama.

Give him a hard massage”. “My incapable hands pressed his heart mechanically. There was no need. With a disquieting sound, he breathed his last,” Govindankutty said.

Neale Misquitto is D’lima’s godson. D’lima’s wife is Misquitto’s mother’s niece. Govindankutty showed Misquitto’s WhatsApp DP. A happy chubby-cheeked young man with a designer buzz cut.

“He is an aviation researcher. He wants to meet people associated with the crash. He is developing a website,” Govindankuty said.

Morarji’s co-passengerGovindankutty, then a young All India Radio (AIR) correspondent, was the first to report the crash.

He was a passenger, a journalist accompanying the Prime Minister on his first official tour of the north east.

It was November 1977, just months after Indira Gandhi and cohorts were swept away in a tsunami of public anger and Morarji Desai became India’s first ever non-Congress Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister’s aircraft, ‘Pushpaka’, a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-124, took off from the Air Force technical area of the International Airport at Palam, Delhi, at 5.15 pm on November 4.

The destination was Jorhat in Assam.

A large area behind the cockpit, nearly half the fuselage, was specially designed for the Prime Minister. In this portion, with the Prime Minister was his son Kantilal Desai, Gandhian and Sarvodaya worker Narayan Desai, officer on special duty at the Prime Minister’s office Hamsmukh Shah and John Lobo who was in charge of the PM’s security.

Behind, cut off from the PM’s area, were some top security officers, PTI’s S N V Swami, Films Division’s Raman and AIR’s Govindankutty.

Fall of the Soviet birdThe airliner came above the Jorhat landing strip around 7.30 pm. “We could see some lights and realised it was the airport. But the aircraft did not land at the first attempt. It dropped from cruise height but instead of landing it swam back into the darkness,” Govindankutty said.

Then, after making a circuit, the aircraft made a plunge like it was crazy. Pushpaka’s left wing scythed through a bamboo plantation.

The wing tore itself from the body and the aircraft, crashing through the bamboo thicket, threw itself into a paddy marsh. It sped burning through the marsh for some time and rammed into a small mound, and was stilled. The actual runway was four kilometres away.

D’lima, his co-pilot Squadron Leader Mathew Cyriac, a Malayali, and three other crew members were thrown off the cockpit, and were killed.

In Google pictures of the crash, the cockpit portion of ‘Pushpaka’ looks like the broken beak of a giant bird.

Deaths and second livesThe 81-year-old Prime Minister, who sat in the front, was unhurt. Except for his son Kantilal, no other passenger had any serious injuries.

Govindankutty’s head banged violently in front. He lost his spectacles and got two lumps on his forehead.

He was one of the first passengers to jump out into the dark from the emergency window at the back; it was almost like jumping from a two-storey house.

“Still, there was not a scratch on my body,” he said. Later, he even got back his spectacles and other possessions, all of them intact.

After D’lima’s death, he saw the Prime Minister being helped down to the ground by the security officers. “All of us, the Prime Minister included, held our arms together in the dark and quickly moved away from the crash spot. The intention was to move as far as we can from the burning deck,” Govindankutty said.

There was a fear that the broken but still fuming aircraft might explode. The Prime Minister was quickly shifted to the far end of the marsh.

Blood on the PMNow that they had survived, journalists Swami and Govindankutty quickly got into work mode.

They decided to walk in pitch dark, through unknown territory, to the nearest military outpost where a telephone would be available.

It was nearing 8.30 pm. The last AIR bulletin, World News, will be aired at 11 pm.

Before this, Govindankutty had to deliver the news of the crash and report that the PM was safe.

As he rushed from the site, he saw the Prime Minister seated on a farmer’s charpoy brought there by the concerned villagers of Tekela Gaon.

They gathered around the Prime Minister who was waiting for the rescue team to arrive and were talking in animated whispers.

Govindankutty said the Prime Minister looked like a paragon of monkish detachment.

“Without a hint of panic, he was heard asking his officers ‘where is Kanti’,” Govindankutty said. His son had suffered multiple fractures, and was serious.

From the dry-leaf torches the villagers held, Govindankutty saw a sparkle of blood right under the nose of the Prime Minister. His dentures were also missing.

Guardians of the darkIt took more than one-and-a-half hours for the two journalists to reach the military detachment.

There was no path to speak of. But a group of headscarfed men who came out of nowhere and whose faces were not visible led them on with their swaying feeble flambeaus.

The writer still looks back with a tinge of disbelief at the sudden appearance of these seemingly otherworldly guides in a godforsaken stretch made dangerously opaque by a demonic darkness.

“I doubt whether these men would have walked through this path again,” he said.

Deadline crisisAt the outpost, it was PTI’s Swami, being the senior and the more aggressive of the two, who grabbed the phone first.

He called up the telephone exchange and gave a list of some six to seven phone numbers he wanted to contact.

The exchange will get in touch with these numbers and then call back; such an arrangement seen as a marvel of communication those days can now, in the age of smartphones, seem as primitive as a stone age tool.

Govindankutty feared his chance to talk to the AIR in Delhi would come only after Swami received all his calls. Swami did not bother to convey that the AIR correspondent was also with him.

Govindankutty knew it would be too late and that it would be the end of him professionally. “Rather than work, I would better go and hang myself,” he said.

By the time he got the phone after Swami had placed all his calls, futility had washed over him. “My excitement had gone cold,” he said. In clipped telegram language, Govindankutty told the operator this much: “Plane crashed. Prime Minister survived. Pass information to AIR general news room, Delhi. AIR will close at nine.”

‘Tring’ of redemptionA few heartbeats after he replaced the receiver, the phone rang.

Swami jumped. By then, it was already 10.45 pm. Swami would take at least an hour to dictate his report. “But the call was for me,” Govindankutty said.

It was from the AIR general news room. At that instant, his editor Prabhakar Mishra was getting a call from the AIR director, S C Bhatt, asking about the AIR correspondent who had travelled with the PM.

At the same instant, in a second line in Bhatt’s house, information and broadcasting minister L K Advani was waiting on the other side to know about the Prime Minister.

“Bhatt conveyed my report to Advani and in a minute the news was broadcast around the world by the AIR,” he said.

The crash that happened around 7.45 pm was reported to the world at 11 pm. Even the PTI report that arrived the next day had quoted the AIR bulletin.

The feat did not fetch him a promotion as many had expected. But a letter of appreciation from the I&B secretary came his way.

Govindankutty had detailed all that he had experienced and seen before the commission that was constituted to probe the crash with Air Marshal Subbiah as its head.

Now, 45 years later, when Wing Commander D’lima’s godson Misquitto comes calling, he will have no trouble recalling every word he told Air Marshal Subbiah.

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