The Indian Air Force (IAF) has formally informed family members that all those on board the AN-32 aircraft, which went missing in the Bay of Bengal on July 22, are to be presumed dead.
Providing the Certificate of Presumption of Death, the IAF letter dated August 24 to the families states that “the Court of Inquiry, upon very careful scrutiny of circumstantial evidence available, and in light of extensive search and rescue operations carried out, has concluded that it is unlikely that the missing personnel on board the ill-fated aircraft would have survived the accident”.
Defence ministry sources, however, said that “informing the next of kin of the missing personnel after a certain period is a requirement as per military regulations, for release of service and pensionary benefits to the families. It should not be confused with the search for the missing aircraft, its wreckage or debris.”
“The search for the missing AN-32 is still in progress, with ships from National Institute of Ocean Technology and Geological Survey of India — Samudra Ratnakar and Sagar Nidhi — and Remotely Operated Vehicles. Efforts of the IAF, Navy and Coast Guard continue as hitherto. In addition, a general alert has been issued for mariners in the area to look out for any debris,” a source added.
On July 22, the IAF’s Soviet-origin AN-32 aircraft with 29 people on board, including six crew members, went missing over the Bay of Bengal while on its way to Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from Tambaram air base in Tamil Nadu.
The Indian Express spoke to the families of some of those on board the plane.
Corporal Gurdial Singh, 26, jammu and kashmir
Gurdial Singh’s father Churha Ram received the letter from the IAF about two weeks ago. “Some IAF officials visited us to get documents prepared for release of pension, gratuity, insurance and other benefits. But in the absence of evidence confirming my son’s death, my daughter-in-law and I had to sign an undertaking that we will return all the money in case Gurdial is found alive in future,” he said.
A resident of Baniyari in Hiranagar sector, Churha Ram added, “Gurdial may still be alive, as the IAF has not found his belongings or the plane. But it has been nearly two months since the plane disappeared in an area where one can survive a maximum of one week.”
Gurdial joined the IAF in 2007. He married Manjit Kaur last year, and was scheduled to go home on August 14 to finalise arrangements for the wedding of his brother Sanjay, who is with the CISF in Chattisgarh. “A day before his plane went missing, he called me to say his leave had been sanctioned,” recalled Churha Ram.
Flying Officer Pankaj Kumar Nandal, 25, haryana
Krishan Nandal, father of Pankaj Kumar Nandal, the co-pilot of the aircraft, said his family had refused to sign the certificate of presumption of death.
Pankaj’s brother Tejinder, who recently retired from the Navy, said, “When we got the letter, we asked the IAF if there was any proof of death. We also asked if any action was being taken against those responsible for the incident. What is being done for the families of those on board the plane? It seems there is no difference between dying in a road accident and dying while serving the country.”
Tejinder said those on board should be named as martyrs. He said other families had also raised questions, but no response has been received.
Pankaj, from Rohtak, joined the IAF in 2013 and was commissioned in 2014. He was going to get married this year.
Flight Lieutenant Deepika Sheoran, 26, haryana
Deepika Sheoran’s family voiced similar views. Her father Dilip Singh Sheoran said, “There should be some proof. I cannot believe this, no one can believe this. We should be given some reason.”
Deepika, from Bhiwani, cleared the IAF test in 2013 and was posted in Nasik before being transferred to Port Blair along with her husband Kuldeep Dalal, an assistant commandant with the coast guard.
NCE Navjot Thakur, 19, punjab
Navjot Thakur’s mother Narita, a resident of Garhshankar town in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, said they had not received any letter from the IAF. “The last communication was that my son was missing. The government must try its best to locate all those who went missing. I trust God will save my son. Miracles do happen,” she said. Diksha, Navjot’s cousin, also said she was not aware of any IAF communication regarding presumption of death.
Navjot, an only child, joined the IAF on August 8, 2015. He completed his training earlier this year.
SK Charan Maharana, 27, from Odisha
“We knew Charan was no longer there. But we were just praying for a miracle,” said Uday Maharana, his uncle. The family learnt about the declaration of presumptive death from the media. There was no communication from the IAF till late evening.
Charan from Sukunda village in Ganjam district was among the eight members from Naval Armament Depot at Visakhapatnam who were in the AN-32. The only breadwinner of his family, Charan joined the Navy two years ago as a skilled tradesman.
SK Purna Chandra Senapati, 28, from Odisha
At Rangaranga village of Jajpur district, widow Ujali Senapati fainted when TV channels reported that her son Purna Chandra had been presumed dead. Purna Chandra had come to his village in July and promised his widowed mother that he would come back. A mechanical engineering graduate, Purna Chandra joined the Navy as a technician in 2014.