In the edition of 21st of July 2017 issue of this magazine, I narrated my childhood memories of the 1965 Indo-Pak war. I now recall my reminiscences of war of 1971.
Throughout my service career in the Pakistan Air Force, one of the ribbons I wore on my routine uniforms and corresponding medal on ceremonial occasions was the Tamgh-e-Jang 1971, for having been a member of armed forces during that war. I had qualified for the medal for having joined the Air Force only two months earlier. However, I was nowhere near any place where I could do any damage to the enemy, nor did I endure any personal physical risks – except perhaps for being out at night in the severe winter cold of the Murree Hills.
We cleared our ISSB selection tests in the first week of December 1970, during the fateful days of the general elections. It was there in our candidates’ mess Kohat that we learnt about the election results. According to analysts, they spelt doom for the federation. In East Pakistan, the Awami League had won 160 out of 162 seats in the National and 288 out of 300 seats in the Provincial Assembly. For all practical purposes, the country that we had known was no more. Religion as a binding force had given way to economic and cultural compulsions. Since the Agartala conspiracy case in 1968, we had seen the end unfolding. Regretfully, what should perhaps have been a peaceful separation turned into a bloody dissolution.
While personal friendships continued, there was visible tension whenever politics or the economy came under discussion
I was studying in an institution that enrolled students on open merit without any reserved quotas for any section of the country. Out of 63 boys selected for our entry, there were 14 who joined from East Pakistan. Not all of these were Bengalis, some being wards of West Pakistani officials posted there and some being of Bihari origin. We had some Bengali teachers too – though far too fewer than those of West Pakistani origin. These proportions are reflective of the conditions in other state organisations and institutions.
In the PAF Public School that we joined in September 1965, we were as friendly with our Bengali colleagues as with others. However, things started to change for the worse with time. While personal friendships continued, as they have over the last 50 years, there was visible tension whenever politics or the economy came under discussion. Even the strict policies of that PAF institute could not keep politics out of its apolitical atmosphere. Tensions and tempers ran high. There were frequent mentions of inequality in employment, jute exports fuelling Islamabad’s development and a failure to control devastating floods.
Things really got of hand in late March 1971 when Mujib-ur-Rehman declared independence for Bangladesh. There were massive atrocities on all sides in the ensuing conflict. Families of our Bengali and Bihari friends suffered terrible ordeals from opposing sides. It was truly a house divided against itself. I have heard the most bloody stories from my classfellows – Shafique Ahmed; a Bengali, and Nayyer Javeed; a Bihari. This was the condition when we appeared for our F.Sc examinations in July/August 1971and were sent home for the interim period.
The dark clouds on the national horizon, however, showed no sign of abating. In the absence of objective news on national Radio/TV, all ears remained glued to BBC and what we heard was not encouraging. Our Bengali companions went to East Pakistan as flights between the two wings of the country were still operating.
We did not see them again until much later when they started coming to Pakistan for ex-Sargodhian reunions – three decades later. Some of them we only met in September 2015 during the golden jubilee celebration of our joining the school five decades before. Mercifully, we found that many of the wounds had healed, even though the memories of those fateful days have not.
I joined the Initial Training Wing (ITW) of the Academy at PAF Lower Topa on 10th October 1971, as part of 57th GD(P) course, for basic training that was to last for two terms, i.e. one year. We started the arduous physical training that is the hallmark of military institutions all over the world with our senior course making our life difficult. Due to non-stop round-the-clock intense activity, we didn’t have any time or means, or indeed inclination, to worry about news. Towards the end of November we heard that our senior course was to make an early departure for Risalpur. We were jubilant that our six-month-long first term ordeal had suddenly come to an end after only two months. Soon our instructors also started to leave for active duties. There were only about 45 cadets left in ITW, in addition to a skeleton staff. Our training was severely disrupted.
Formal war with India broke out on the 3rd of December, with PAF launching a massive raid on Indian airfields at dusk. I was a witness to the onset of hostilities in a strange manner. I, along with some other course mates, was practicing drill actions in late afternoon on that day, when we saw a loose array of low-flying PAF aircraft heading for Kashmir. “This is war,” we all whispered to each other. We were in an upbeat mood; certain that we were going to teach India a lesson for meddling in our eastern wing!
Ensuring the physical security of a military installation is an important task during war – even if it is as benign as a training facility on a hilltop deep in the mainland, with no offensive capability. With normal training having been terminated and without any skills as yet that could be of use in the war effort, we were deployed for round-the-clock guard duties along the perimeter of the base on an eight- to twelve-hour shift.
It was cold and windy with night temperatures falling below 0º C. We had been issued the great coats that one frequently sees being worn by soldiers in WWII films. We wore them with many layers of warm clothing underneath. Carrying our bayonet-fitted .303 rifles and bullets, we would march off to our designated beat.
My assigned area to guard was the front of the Officer’s Mess at a slot that either ended at midnight or continued till daybreak. Lower Topa Base comprises of a triangular piece of land and the road from Murree to the current Expressway encloses it on three sides. Standing in the Mess lawn, one could see some houses and shops below, all the way down to the road leading to Kohala bridge.
Saiful Azam continues to be remembered as a hero in the PAF. Seeing him inactive against India, and in confinement, was sickening
When on duty, I would stay in the Mess lawns or take shelter against cold winds under the covered porch. The most that I ventured ahead was to climb over the fence and stand on the retaining wall surrounding the lawn – something I still do when visiting the Base for a day or two. A path through the lawn wall led steeply down to nearby villages. The clear December nights on that pristine hilltop offered a heavenly view of the night sky. I enjoyed gazing at the stars and their path across the night sky but it also became monotonous after a few shifts. The only welcome event of the night, as my friend Sami Toor reminds me, was the clinking sound of the mugs when mess waiter Mr. Kala Khan came over with a big metal kettle to deliver tea that we eagerly awaited. The clinking of mugs was his way of conveying the password. Sometimes the tea tasted like a cough syrup, which Kala Khan attributed to paucity of milk.
My beat being on the Officer’s Mess had another delicious advantage. The steep path was used by the Mess kitchen staff to climb up from their villages for duty at dawn. When the first cook came over during my duty, I would encounter him for the identity check with an additional inquiry about when was he going to make the parathas. Before letting him lower his hands, I would ask him to bring one over when he started cooking. Then, there in the stiff cold of December morning, with the sun rising above the snow-covered distant peaks, I would have a crispy paratha with a sweet cup of tea; a free fresh early snack before my official breakfast. We were young, physically active and … always hungry.
Then our peaceful guard duties turned incendiary one night. There had been rumours that Indian agents were out to sabotage some installation. We were told that Lower Topa could be one of the targets. Our supervisory staff corroborated the rumour. We suspected that the rumour had been started with a purpose; to keep us on our toes. Being soldiers, however, we had to act on the command and not doubt or question it. We became more vigilant, extra suspicious and reactive.
Our course-mate Hanif was on guard duty at the washing line ‘dhobi ghaat’ beat that was adjacent to the one I was assigned. That night, I had left at midnight and Hanif was doing the late-night shift. About an hour before daybreak, he heard something moving surreptitiously in the thick growth close to the road. He froze with apprehension but the movement stopped. As he relaxed a bit, he heard the movement again. Seeking a target with his rifle raised, he challenged, “Halt. Who goes there? Hands up!” There was no response but the rustling continued. He shouted three more times for the identity check and then, when the movement continued, he squeezed the trigger. The bullet flew in to the thicket and the sound travelled in the quiet of the night, alarming people far and near. The intruder, as per Hanif’s statement, took flight. Help flew in to the ‘dhobi ghaat’ area. Hanif was found shivering with anxiety and perspiring profusely. The reinforcements took to the forest with weapons and torch lights but found nothing. The morning search revealed fresh cow dung in the area. Later checks revealed that animals from the village below were accustomed to coming over to this part of the forest for grazing. That day a hungry cow came in early for a morning snack. She was lucky to have found a rookie marksman and survived the lethal lead slug. A terribly shaken Hanif developed a high fever and remained in the hospital for two days.
Refreshing my memory about the incident, my course mate Touqeer aptly observed that it was the only bullet fired in anger at Lower Topa during the entire war.
We enjoyed wearing the heavy greatcoats that gave us the look of German soldiers from the war movies that we had been seeing for the previous six years. Sometimes, we would wear full gear and enact little war-room skits. They affected our course mate Anjum Javed so much that he started wearing a crude SS look the whole day – and even adopted the accent of a haughty general! That look has not left his face and he carries it to the courtrooms of Lahore High Court where he is a practicing lawyer, having done his LLB from McGill University in Montreal.
Another sad spectacle was the Bengali officers who had been interred in the Officer’s Mess at Lower Topa. In August 1971, instructor pilot Matiur Rehman, my much senior school mate, tried to hijack a PAF aircraft to India with his student Rashid Minhas. The aircraft crashed short of the border, in the Thar desert. Rashid was awarded Nishan-e-Haider and is celebrated as a hero in Pakistan. Meanwhile, Matiur was awarded ‘Bir Sreshtho’, the highest gallantry award of Bangladesh in 1972 and is a hero there. After the incident, the loyalty of Bengali officers had become suspect.
Pro-independence Bengalis were initially taken off duty, and interred when the war broke out. Some of them were kept at Lower Topa. They had to be guarded so that they could not escape. Some of us were deployed to guard them, which basically amounted to being with them wherever they went within the Mess area. Of course, they were not allowed to venture any further. It was a melancholy exercise as some of those officers had been well respected and admired members of the service.
Some Bengali officers had opted to continue serving and there were two who were on the training and medical staff at Lower Topa. In general, some officers fought against India with the PAF, including the legendary MM Alam. Others such as Sqn. Ldr. Saiful Azam, a decorated war hero of 1965, were found to be Bangladesh loyalists. He was from my school, from a very senior entry. Saiful had earned the highest gallantry awards from his deployment to Jordan and Iraq in the 1967 war. He has shot down more Israeli aircraft than any other aviator. He continues to be remembered as a hero in the PAF. Seeing him inactive against India, and in confinement, was sickening to say the least. His two younger cousins, both brothers, had been with me in the PAF School. The younger of these brothers Khairul Azam was my class fellow and now holds a doctorate in Marine Biology, serving as a professor at a university in Fiji. The elder brother Fakhrul Azam, two years my senior, rose to become Air Chief of Bangladesh Air Force. One of my class-fellows at the School, Moeen Ahmed, joined Bangladesh Army. He was promoted to the rank of General eventually, and served as the Chief of Army Staff there.
In short, we lost some very bright people in 1971.
The official war news continued to be encouraging, whilst the BBC gave us indications of an impending disaster. We hoped for a favourable outcome. The end came soon. Just two weeks into the war, General Niazi laid down arms and surrendered in Dhaka.
We were devastated. Most of us were in tears. Some of my colleagues left their duty posts, threw away their guns and cried uncontrollably. The war was over and with it died a dream that had galvanised my father’s generation to leave their homeland behind and migrate to Pakistan.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at email@example.com
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org