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How 200 'Jhansi ki Ranian' tamed Chengiz Khan

By Ramaninder K Bhatia, TNN | Dec 8, 2012, 03.05 AM IST- VADODARA

 Pakistan's military operation of carrying out pre-emptive strikes on Indian airbases in December 1971 war was code-named 'Chengiz Khan'. But it was thanks to the now unsung and forgotten "200 Jhansi ki Ranian" in the small desert township of Bhuj that the Indian armed forces in this sector could measure up to this 'Chengiz Khan'.

Bhuj was then a forward area air base on the western border meant only to be used during active war. The attacks began on December 3 and by 9, a total of 136 bombs had been dropped on to the airfield, out of which nearly 64 bombs landed on a single night, i.e., the intervening night of December 8 and 9, reducing the runway to a rubble.

Unnerved by the constant bombing, while the town people, including the entire manual workforce fled Bhuj, about 200 women folk from affluent and NRI rich village of Madhapar came to Indian Air Force's aid.

"When the people were fleeing, the then district collector N Gopalaswami, who later headed the Election Commission, hopped on to a motorcycle, announcing on a megaphone that people should not panic, but the exodus wouldn't stop," recalls then commanding officer of Bhuj Airbase Wg Cdr (retd) Vijay Karnik, who settled down in Vadodara after his retirement in 1992.

Karnik was a squadron leader then. A day before the bombing, he had been asked to keep the runway ready to receive a squadron of fighter planes from Punjab. Since Jamnagar had started bombing Karachi port and fuel dumps, Indian military was expecting retaliation on the western borders and wanted to use Bhuj actively. But with this airfield gone, and the labour force abandoning town, the task looked impossible, until his friend, the sarpanch from the affluent Madhapur village called up. "Behnon ko le ke aaun?" he asked.

Soon 200 women arrived at the airfield. "They brought their own food while we had the construction material ready. After a short briefing on how to protect themselves during an air raid, they started work," Karnik recalled, adding he had managed a combat air patrol to keep the skies safe during the repair work. Karnik's wife, Usha remembers how the brightly attired women sang while they passed on 'taslas' (metal containers) full of stones and concrete. They finished repairs in two days and after another two days of sweeping the airstrip clean, the runway was declared operational.

Three days later, the ceasefire was declared. In December-end, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi arrived in town. Indira made sure she met the women at the Circuit House. She then declared at a public meeting in Jubilee Baug, "Pehle hamare paas ek Jhansi ki Rani thi, aaj hamare paas yeh 200 Jhansi ki ranian hain".

Riches had not spoilt the women

Madhapar village, which was recently in the limelight for the distinction of having Rs 2,000 crore worth of deposits in its local banks, was very affluent even in 1971. Every household had at least one NRI member to send remittances back home.

"The village boasted of a fridge in every house and you could even see Mercedes and other cars in the houses. But, despite the affluence, they had an unusual tradition of making the women do manual labour, often on the roadside, even though they were educated. Sarpanch's own wife and daughter would work on construction sites for at least two hours a day, while the former worked in the farm," recalls Wg Cdr Vijay Karnik.

Last year, on the 40th anniversary, Karnik re-visited Bhuj to meet the brave women, but had to return disappointed. The Madhapar village is now a bustling town, which was rebuilt after the earthquake. I had heard that 50-odd women were still surviving, but nobody seems to know about them, even the district collectorate had no record. I made every effort to locate them during my four days' stay, but to no avail," says the officer, who remembers the women being honoured on every August 15 and January 26, besides the Air Force Day on October 8. "Apparently, the practice was discontinued over the years. It would be an honour to meet any one of them again," Karnik says.

The octogenarian is now heading the Vadodara War Veteran's Association and is also the head of Motor Sports Association of Gujarat.