The Param Vir Chakra – India’s highest wartime gallantry medal for officers and other enlisted personnel of all military branches was introduced in January 1950 and with effect from 15 August 1947. Made of bronze, it can be awarded posthumously.
The Param Vir Chakra is equivalent to the U.S.’ Medal of Honour and Great Britain’s Victoria Cross. So far, 21 military men have been awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Out of these, 20 have been awarded to officers and soldiers from the Indian Army, and only one to a Flying Officer of the Indian Air Force. The Indian Navy is yet to open its account on this front.
Who is the braveheart from the Air Force who has been India’s sole non-army recipient of the Param Vir Chakra? It is Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, of No.18 Squadron of the Indian Air Force, also known as “The Flying Bullets”. Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was born on 17 July 1945 in Punjab’s Ludhiana district. He was commissioned into the Indian Air Force on 4 June 1967 as a Pilot Officer. He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra in recognition of his lone defence of Srinagar Air Base against a PAF air raid during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.
Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon’s ‘Param Veerta’
A favourite phrase of Flying Officer Sekhon was ‘Dhuan udani hai’ – meaning that he wanted to ‘smoke out the Pakistanis in battle’. On December 14, 1971, that is precisely what he did. He smoked out a package of Pakistani air force jets all by himself. It is not without cause that Flying Officer Sekhon remains IAF’s lone Param Vir Chakra awardee. Such was Nirmal Jit Singh’s gallantry, heroism and ferocity that even PAF Flt Lt Salim Baig Mirza – who eventually shot down Sekhon’s aircraft, said the Param Vir Chakra awardee displayed indomitable valour.
On December 14, the Srinagar airfield was attacked by six PAF Saber aircraft that started bombing the airfield. FO Sekhon and Flying Lieutenant Ghuman were on duty. As soon as the first aircraft attacked the airbase around 7:30 am, Sekhon rolled for take-off as No. 2 in a two-Gnat formation, with Flt Lt Ghumman in lead, just as the first bombs were falling on the runway. Soon after take-off, Flt Lt Ghuman, lost visual with his wingman, thus getting out of the fight very early on. Thereafter, it was FO Sekhon against six Pakistani Air Force F-86 jets of 26 Sqn from PAF airbase Peshawar. Nevertheless, he fought a 1:6 odds battle with immense courage and took down two PAF jets all by himself.
In the air battle, Sekhon scored a direct hit on one Sabre and set another ablaze. Sekhon, after being hit, was advised to return to the base. However, his last words heard on the Air Traffic Control tower radio were, “I think I have been hit. Ghuman, come and get them.” Sekhon’s aircraft dove down uncontrollably from a very low height, and in all likelihood, the aircraft’s flight control system had failed. Sekhon attempted a last-minute ejection as his canopy was seen flying off, but the height was too low for the ejection system to function properly.
Despite knowing that his aircraft was hit, FO Sekhon tried establishing contact with his counterpart to somehow get him to take down more Pakistani jets. He did not care about his own life and was motivated to smoke out Pakistanis till his very last breath.
Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was only 26 years old when he made the supreme sacrifice for India and saved the Srinagar airbase from Pakistanis.