The providential escape of Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Thursday in a chopper crash in Latur brings back a haunting memory of a similar incident involving Union water resources minister Uma Bharati more than 13 years ago.
Barely a month after getting sworn-in as the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Bharati had left for Alirajpur by the state chopper sometime in January 2004. I had accompanied her on her invitation. I was working as a principal correspondent with the Bhopal bureau of Hindustan Times, covering the BJP, among other news beats.
In Alirajpur, besides taking part in other engagements, Bharati and I also visited the birthplace of freedom fighter Chandra Shekhar Azad in Bhabhra, which is about 34 km away from the district headquarters. We witnessed that the house in which Azad was born was not maintained in a manner befitting a legendary freedom fighter.
It was there that Bharati announced renovation of the place. As she had to quit the CM’s post later the same year, it was in incumbent CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s tenure that Bhabhra was renamed Chandra Shekhar Azad Nagar and the historic house was renovated.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bhabhra on Quit India Movement Day - August 9, 2016. He became the first PM to do so.
Meanwhile, we ate dinner at a BJP worker’s home. Next morning we flew back to Bhopal. I was supposed to get down at the MP capital, while Bharati was scheduled to proceed to Gwalior by the same chopper. According to her itinerary, she had to reach Gwalior to be part of the BJP state executive committee meeting.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley, who was in charge of Madhya Pradesh, and urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu as then party president had also been invited to participate in the meeting.
On reaching Bhopal from Alirajpur, my suitcase was unloaded. I was on the verge of taking Bharati’s leave when she floated an idea. She proposed that I accompany her to Gwalior and return with her the next day. After giving some thought, I agreed to her proposal, thinking I would interview her on the way.
Bharati’s busy schedule in Alirajpur had deprived me of an exclusive interview, which would have been the first by any journalist after she had taken over as CM.
My suitcase was loaded again and we took off for Gwalior in that foggy morning. Shortly, we discovered that visibility was quite poor. In contrast, we had found pleasant weather during our Alirajpur flight.
Visibility kept getting poorer every minute. Bharati suggested to the pilot, Wing Commander (retired) Vijay Pratap Singh, to not take a risk and return to Bhopal. Singh, who was the state government’s official pilot, followed her advice and turned back mid-air.
Unfortunately, Singh died in an air crash about four years later. The helicopter and his mortal remains were discovered more than 102 days after the accident. I will share that incident as well. But first the miraculous escape of Uma Bharati.
Soon after the pilot started proceeding towards Bhopal, Bharati, who was seated besides him, asked: “What would you have done had I not suggested you to return?” Singh said, “I would have continued for some more distance.”
With the urgency of attending the BJP’s state executive committee meeting on her mind, Bharati asked Singh to turn back the chopper towards Gwalior. Singh followed her suggestion and soon we were heading towards Gwalior.
Minutes after advancing towards Gwalior, suddenly the chopper was surrounded with thick clouds. There was darkness inside. The turbulence was severe enough to vigorously shake the chopper. The helicopter had hit an air pocket. It suddenly had a free fall.
Devendra Fadnavis had a lucky escape.
Those few seconds vividly etched in my memory are one of the scariest moments of my life.
My eyes were shut. I was sitting right behind the pilot and could hear Bharati’s screams. Suddenly, we experienced a strong jerk. I opened my eyes and could see ground below and it was quite close to us. I also saw Bharati gasping for breath and holding Singh’s arm. She asked Singh to explain what had happened. He asked for some time while slowly manoeuvring a U-turn towards Bhopal.
Two thoughts immediately flashed in my mind - one, my wife and little daughter who were waiting for me at home. Two, my former colleague Sanjeev Sinha of The Indian Express who had died in an air crash just two years ago on September 30, 2001. He was travelling with senior Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia.
Bharati asked her security man, sitting beside me on the backseat, to give her water. He took out her small silver glass from a cloth bag, poured water in it and handed it over to her. I too was feeling thirsty, perhaps due to nervousness. I gulped water straight from the bottle.
While trying to regain composure, I was trying to imagine Bharati’s state of mind. I knew she suffered from air travel phobia. I had read how she would sit beside the pilot in the cockpit because she felt unsafe and insecure otherwise.
Singh explained to us that there was a risk of our chopper hitting any mountain along the way. He said this was reason why he resorted to free-fall. When Bharati asked him why he did not land, he said there was also a risk of the chopper hitting electric wires and catching fire.
I shuddered at the very thought of the probabilities and how we had got a new life.
Meanwhile, Singh kept the chopper at low altitude. We could see sugarcanes being crushed and its juice being boiled to convert into jaggery. I saw the chopper’s shadow on the ground while the small boys and girls, in turn, were trying to chase the shadow.
We had comic relief when Bharati asked Singh to land so that we could drink sugarcane juice and eat freshly made jaggery. The pilot and I had a hearty laugh at her innocent demand. However, Singh declined, saying our stars were not favourable.
We landed at Bhopal and I profusely thanked Singh for showing exemplary presence of mind and saving our lives. However, I did not know that he would die in a chopper crash four years later in an unusually dramatic incident.
Wing Commander (retired) VP Singh’s death
Singh was no more working with the MP government. Perhaps he had retired or had voluntarily resigned. He had started flying private choppers.
On August 3, 2008, he took off from Hyderabad for Raipur along with three crew members. The Ran Air Bell 430 he was flying was supposed to be refuelled at Maoist-infested Jagdalpur in Bastar in 90 minutes. Subsequently, it had to reach the Chhattisgarh capital the same day.
The next day, the Chhattisgarh government had booked the chopper for its then home minister Ram Vichar Netam. It was to fly from Raipur to Jharkhand.
After taking off from Hyderabad, the chopper had flown just 35 minutes before losing contact with the air traffic control (ATC) tower. It never reached Jagdalpur.
A joint operation was launched by the MP, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments to trace the ill-fated helicopter. The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) and Indian Air Force (IAF) were also pressed into service. The Chhattisgarh government announced a cash reward of Rs 10 lakh to anyone who provided any clue.
However, despite the massive search operations, neither the crew members nor the chopper could be traced for 102 days. Several probabilities were discussed - the chopper was shot down by Maoists and the crew members were either killed or taken hostage, the chopper lost way and had landed in some remote area of the dense forests, or it had crashed due to inclement weather.
Singh’s son, an IAF pilot, daughter and wife kept running from pillar to post requesting the authorities to help trace him.
Finally, on November 13, the chopper’s wreckage was found by a local villager in the forest area of Andhra Pradesh’s Khammam district near the Chhattisgarh border, about 400 km from Hyderabad. Skeletal remains of the four crew members, including Singh, were also found. They were still tied to the safety belt. They could be identified from the photo identity cards.
It was not clear whether the helicopter crashed due to a technical snag or was attacked by the Maoists.
Upon hearing the news, my memory ran back to the day when Singh had saved my life as well as that of Bharati. It was a tragic coincidence that he could not save his own life four years later. Whenever I learn about any air crash, I shudder recalling these two incidents.