Aerial Aperture

Forty years on, a pilot recalls how he captured images of the Bangladesh Liberation War

Bhoop’s photograph of the bombed Tezgaon runway on 6 December 1971. COURTESY AVM (RETD) BHUPENDRA K BISHNOI
01 December, 2011

BHOOP'S CAMERA now lies in a corner in his flat, carefully packed to keep dust away from it. The heavyweight 35mm rangefinder—a product from Voigtländer, the company that introduced zoom lenses and built-in electronic flashes for professional shutterbugs—was lying in a shop display in Munich in 1967 when it caught his attention. “I was on a vacation and I wanted to record the trip,” he recalls.

His was a vacation from military service. Squadron Leader Bhupendra K Bishnoi—‘Bhoop’ to his comrades—had left for Europe after training pilots in Egypt before the Six-Day War with Israel. Bhoop, who retired as an Air Vice Marshal and is the receipient of two Vir Chakras, sits across from me in his flat in the quiet neighbourhood of Jal Vayu Vihar, a colony built for retired air force and navy personnel in Greater Noida. A man in his 70s, of average build—small, in fact, though remarkably fit—he looks nothing like a Hollywood-crafted war hero. The curtains are drawn but light enters through the cracks, illuminating his tired face as he sits on a recliner, calls for coffee and begins his story.

The year was 1963. Racked by constant conflict with its neighbours, India had acquired six Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 F-13s for a new squadron, No 28 (or ‘First Supersonics’)—the country’s first batch of level-flight supersonic fighter jets. Bishnoi was reassigned in 1970 to the squadron after a long, decorated experience flying Hawker Hunter fighters.

“I loved this aircraft even though it didn’t excuse mistakes. Once you know how to manoeuvre it, it feels like your limbs.”

When war broke out between India and Pakistan 40 years ago, Bhoop was forced to move quickly.

“I took just a pair of pyjamas and the camera when I left for the war in 1971,” he recalls. “On the morning of 5 December my operation commander sent me on an interdiction mission.” An attempt to destroy Pakistani communication services led him and three other pilots into the enemy’s firing range. “But we had no intel. This prompted me to take the camera on my next mission.”

The next morning, Bhoop says he devised a combat plan to bomb the runways of the Pakistani base in Tezgaon, near Dacca. “Four MiGs left the ground with instructions to nosedive from a height of four kilometres and bomb the entire stretch of runway.” It was a risky idea. “I swooped down first, even as white puffs started appearing all around the aircraft. The enemy had seen us.” After dropping two bombs on the runway, he recalls zoom-climbing up to five kilometres and taking a loop. Retrieving the camera, he took photos of the damage done on the ground while upside down in the air.

“My whole aim was to get the photos so we could study the area.” Without being given proper intel, Bhoop felt that he needed to capture the landscape of the combat. As we talk, he pulls out tattered photographs, faded and coloured with time, and shows me the Tezgaon runway. I squint to make out several black dots on the stretch. “These are the bombs exploding,” he explains.

“Not only did I take the photos, I sent them to the Eastern Command with compliments from Squadron 28. I was being sarcastic. It’s not a pilot’s job. But then, whose job was it to give the intel?” Bhoop asks rhetorically.

On 14 December, Bhoop led a pack of four MiG-21s that fired 128 rockets at the Government House in Dacca. “Smoke and dust rose and the whole of Dacca saw it. But the final blow was yet to come,” he says. By the evening, the Pakistani Army had shifted its base to the buildings of Dacca University. In the morning, ‘The First Supersonics’ were sent on a mission that sealed the Pakistan military’s fate.

After Lt Gen AK Niazi’s surrender on 16 December 1971, Bhoop visited each of the sites he had bombed with his camera in hand. He took pictures of everything. “I was interested in our work and the results. A pilot never gets to see what all damage he has done, from the air.”

Ask him about why he gave up photography and he laments, “A few years after the war the camera broke. I didn’t try to mend it. If only I had a sense of history I would have taken a lot more photographs.” After a moment’s pause, Bhoop adds, “This was a supersonic camera.”