He shot down a fighter, then shot to fame

It was a hazy December morning in 1971 at the strategic Chicken Neck frontline between India and what was then East Pakistan. Dhan Bahadur Rai had been watching a squadron of five Pakistan Air Force F-6s circle above his position.  

Suddenly, one of the planes peeled off and dropped a bomb that landed close to his bunker. The sleek jet then looped back and started strafing the Indian Army positions.

Dhan Bahadur was at his 7.62mm LMG (light machine gun) position, and took aim at the plane as it swooped low for another pass.

“I fired at it in bursts, and I saw it pull away trailing smoke. Soon, it caught fire and crashed. We saw the pilot parachute out, and the plane was buried in a crater about 1km way,” Dhan Bahadur recalls.

The pilot was captured, and became a prisoner of war. Within a week on 16 December 1971, Pakistan had surrendered, and Bangladesh was born.

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Dhan Bahadur, now 77, grows cardamom in his ancestral village of Nundhiki in Sankhuwasabha high in the mountains of eastern Nepal where as a child he herded the family’s livestock.  

At age 19 and never being in school, he walked across the border to Darjeeling with other boys from his village to be recruited into the Indian Army’s Gorkha regiment. He was shortlisted, and assigned a number for 11 months of military training.

Dhan Bahadur is actually a Tamang, but the Indian Army recruitment officers presumed he was a Rai like other Nepalis who had joined up. So, when he went to Delhi with his wife and grandfather to receive the Vir Chakra medal (below) from Indian President V V Giri in 1972 his name was given as Dhan Bahadur Rai.   

Like many of his compatriots, Dhan Bahadur is a modest man, and underplays his role in downing the plane. When other units of the Indian Army also claimed to have shot down the Pakistani plane, he did not press his role.

In the end, it was the Pakistani pilot Flt Lt Wajid Ali Khan who as prisoner of war provided the evidence to prove that it was indeed Dhan Bahadur’s bunker from where the shots were fired that brought down the plane.

This is considered one of the rare occasions in which a supersonic fighter jet has been brought down by small arms fire. The F-6 was the Chinese-made version of the Soviet Mig-19 fighter jet.

Dhan Bahadur was with an advancing column of the 7/11 Gorkha Rifles which on 6 December, 1971 had entered 80km into what was then East Pakistan. The Chicken Neck is a narrow strip of Indian territory between Nepal and Bangladesh that connects India with its northeast. It was strategically important for the Indian military to defend this ‘Siliguri Corridor’.

“We had dug a bunker, expecting a counter attack from Pakistan,” Dhan Bahadur recalls. “They did not retaliate, but they kept sending planes on reconnaissance.”

A cheer went up from the Indian troops when the Pakistani plane went down. And till today, the 7/11 Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army carries the cockpit of the F-6 and Dhan Bahadur’s Vir Chakra medal as souvenirs wherever it is deployed.

Dhan Bahadur was congratulated by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and was promoted to Lance Corporal. He wanted to retire, but a decorated soldier was not allowed to. So he went on to serve in Jammu and Kashmir, Darjeeling and Ladakh.

When he did retire in 1980, Dhan Bahadur returned to his village in Nepal where he lives to this day. He tried to change his name to Dhan Bahadur Rai so that his sons could also join the Indian or British armies, but he could not do it.

Regardless, his seven sons and a daughter have gone on to build their careers and now have their own businesses in Dharan, that they have named after their famous father. father.

Dhan Bahadur now uses a cane as walks in his cardamom field, and says he is enjoying retirement in the village where he was born. “I like village life. I grow cardamom, and I want to live here for the rest of my life,” he says. 

He does travel down to Dharan once in a while to check up on his sons and daughter, and to collect his pension which has grown from IRs 50 in 1980 to IRs48,000 today.

Of the Nepali men who were awarded by the Indian government for their bravery, only Dhan Bahadur Tamang still lives in Nepal. Some stayed back in India and some have died.

He is invited back to his battalion in India for events, and that is when for old times’ sake, he checks up on his medal, the wreckage of the plane he shot down and looks through framed photographs of that fateful day at the Chicken Neck that propelled him to fame.