Remembering the dark Friday of March 28 and the unknown martyr.
Everyone was waiting for Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s meeting to start in Mandla. Some of us had gone there. Others, like me, who had just returned from there, did not. They were many more, also including me, who wanted to play it safe by staying in Bhopal and catching Modi back to back in Mandla and Balaghat and, Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi’s rally in Satna live on TV.
Sources could always be called up after the rally for tidbits about the crowd and, after last year’s Vidhan Sabha polls almost everyone in Madhya Pradesh had heard and read everything both of them have to say.
That’s when the Press Trust of India (PTI) tweeted a quote from Dnyaneshwar Patil, the collector of Sheopur—a district in the Chambal Valley bordering Rajasthan, more than 400 km North of Bhopal. The tweet said, “Helicopter crashes on Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border.”
Soon, TV channels tickers began saying that an air force aircraft— a C130J Super Hercules that could carry more than 19 tons and could chart India's peninsular coastline without stopping to refuel— had crashed near Gwalior. Madhya Pradesh journalists cursed their stars. Three rallies and now this!
We are so full of ourselves that most of us didn’t think twice about the occupants of the ill fated aircraft. All we had on our minds was how to get through the defence bureaucracy in the state and get the report out without missing the important bits of the rallies.
Deep in my heart, I said a prayer asking for the death toll to be less than two. It was an irrational prayer and an absurd figure to justify to myself that everything was alright.
Journalists from Gwalior had already started for the site, around 120 km West. No one knew where it was. The multiple descriptions from the lower ranks of the police and revenue administration included a forest, hills, forested hills, dry ravines, ravines with rivulets and Gharials which are crocodiles with long snouts. The ideal site would have been an open field— one that would permit even the most unhealthy of photojournalists to get as close as possible to the crash site.
As things turned out, luck shined brighter on MP’s scribes than it had in a long time. “It’s Rajasthan. We don’t have to deal with the air force today, Phew!”— said a scribe over the phone. The river Chambal, known for the dacoits it hides in its ravines, divides MP and Rajasthan. The crash, he said, was on the Rajasthan side.
The military establishment in MP is notoriously silent. Even the union government’s Press Information Bureau struggles to get to the Generals and Air Marshals. During floods here last year, press notes for the rescue effort came from Defence Headquarters in Delhi. And their deployment numbers were far higher than those communicated to the state police to pass on to us. In Bhopal, business cards are given to, and not exchanged with, military brass at state functions.
“Karauli, Rajasthan, Thana Karanpur, Chowki Maharajpura!” The call was from another brother journalist who added, “It’s not ours. It’s Mahim’s headache now.”
Mahim Pratap Singh is The Hindu’s Rajasthan correspondent who earlier worked in Bhopal. Karauli in Rajasthan borders Sheopur and the scribe who called had got the location of the crash down to police outpost of Maharajpura.
I sat down in front of my laptop. I had forgotten about Modi in this excitement and now I had to find a video of his speech online. But I couldn’t get the Hercules out of my head. The TV ticker said it had split in two. Almost as if to quench my guilt, a source called in: “It crashed on the other bank of the Chambal. Our (MP) cops watched from across the Chambal. They had no boats. They just swung their lathis.”
No boats. No boats! How were there no boats? We lose a Rs.1,000 crore plane and we can’t afford paddle boats!
Rahul’s speech had begun. He was saying something about UPA3, Rights, the 70 crore people above poverty and below the middle class, one man rule, some numbers, more numbers. I couldn’t focus. I called up the Inspector General of Chambal, Dinesh Sagar.
Sagar had served in Chambal earlier too and had made several attempts in vain to get boats to riverside police stations. Currently they were loaned from the Home Guard and the Forest Department, when needed to nab bogus voters or storm dacoit dens. The boats couldn't have saved any lives in this case. But if it was in the monsoon and the Chambal was in spate and the plane had hit the water then maybe, maybe someone could have survived.
However, this wasn’t the news.
The news was that a 24-year-old street performer, alternately called Nawal and Kallah, tried to rush across the rocky river bed, jump over the rivulets and reach the burning fuselage on the other side. He slipped and fell into a strong current. His friends managed to cross but found no souls to be saved. Until this blog was filed there was no sign of Nawal Ra’ov’s body. Sagar fears that the Gharials may have got him.
Nawal defied the status quo which plagues us. He and his friends actually cared about the people in the aircraft. The risk he took was a choice. It was not a call of duty, neither was his charge across the river an accident. Speeches, allocations, borders, life... Nawal sprang beyond these confines of our mind.
His name may not be mentioned in the list of the unfortunate air warriors—Prashant Joshi, Raji Nair, Kaushik Mishra, Ashish Yadav and KP Singh. Yet, Nawal is a martyr in the highest traditions of Chambal—the land of chance, honour and survival.