The Indian ‘Pearl Harbour’ Sheroes

Jyoti Shekar

Kameez ke toote huye button se lekar tooti huyi himmat tak, aurat kuch bhi jodh sakti hai.(From a shirt’s broken button to broken courage, a woman can fix anything.)

A memorable dialogue from the movie Bhuj: The Pride of India. This is what a woman’s strength is, she can overcome anything, face anything and fix anything.

Barring exceptions like me of course, who has always had a man to mend my broken buttons and torn clothes, right from my grandfather, father, husband to the tailor downstairs!

Jokes apart, I do believe women can do anything. They are resilient enough, tough enough and strong enough to face anything life throws at them. And that is exactly what they have been doing for ages.

And if someone tells you battles are for men and being a warrior is for men, let us remind them of the umpteen number of women who have brought glory on the battlefield, whether they be officers of the army, queens of kingdoms, or simple ordinary women going about their business who were forced by circumstances to face the enemy.

And what better example to showcase this than the women of Bhuj, who historically proved to be as tough as they come, and literally carried us to victory in India’s battle against Pakistan back in 1971?

The movie itself is based on the real life story of Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik of the Indian Air Force, who took the initiative of rallying together 300 women of a village called Madhapur in Bhuj, to help build the airstrip destroyed by the enemy air bombs. It so happened that when the bombs were dropping, people started evacuating. After the runway was damaged, the air force team tried to locate the contractors and labourers to help rebuild it. However, it turned out they all had run away, so the Air Force men were on their own. That is when Squadron Leader Vijay Karnik decided to approach the women in the nearby village to help them.

These women rose to the occasion and started building the airstrip in spite of the adverse conditions. Food was scarce. In fact, the first day, they did not have anything to eat. The next day, a nearby temple arranged some fruits and sweets for everyone.

First, the women were trained to run and take cover whenever the bombings happened, which were pretty constant, obviously. No enemy is going to wait for us to settle comfortably before attacking, right? Not only that, they had to cover the built portion of the airstrip with cow dung to ensure the enemy does not see it. They all wore green saris to camouflage themselves.

All of this happened despite some major obstacles. They did not have building materials, hence they broke their own homes and used the material to build the airstrip. Once they successfully built the airstrip, another bomb fell on it and destroyed it, so it had to be rebuilt again. But the biggest obstacle – they were not exactly trained construction workers. Not Vijay Karnik, not his team and not these women.

But none of that stopped them from rebuilding the entire airstrip in 72 hours!!

But this is only one part of the story. Can you imagine what these women must have left behind to do their national duty? Kids at home, old people, duties and responsibilities. For instance, there was this lady, Valbai Seghani, who had an eighteen month old son at the time. She left him with her neighbours while she joined the runway building team. When asked who would have taken care of her son if something had happened to her, she said, “I only knew this was the time my brothers needed me the most. I still remember how the pilots took care of us.”

And it was definitely not a one time adventure for them. Years later, Hiruben Bhudia, another woman who was in the rebuilding team, said, “We still have the same energy, and if the armed forces need us, we will work for them again.”

A mighty salute to these women. Many people referred to this incident as the Indian Pearl Harbour moment, but it did not become as popular as it should have been. But fittingly, a war memorial called Virangana Smarak was dedicated to them in 2018.

Worth a visit, don’t you think?   

Sources:

  1. True Story Of Bhuj – The Women Who Rebuilt The IAF Airstrip In 1971 by Somak Adhikari
  2. In 1971, 300 Bhuj Women Risked Their Lives to Revive a Bombed Airstrip in 3 Days by Jovita Aranha

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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