Note: This is the first of a 3-part series on Major Kazim, who was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat in 1964 and died a hero’s death in East Pakistan in 1971.
Why does a man yearn to visit the grave of a brother who fell in the line of duty decades ago and 3,000 km away from home? Is it grief, or a sense of duty, or the wish to bring back his remains to the motherland, or to honour the memory of his parents who mourned a lost son? I asked Major Qasim who found the grave of his brother Major Muhammad Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat, 44 years after he was martyred in 1971, in what was once East Pakistan. He acknowledged that he was motivated by an overwhelming love for a brother he adored as a hero. Indeed Kazim was worthy of adoration because he was an exceptional person, a dutiful son, a caring sibling and a brilliant solider.
Rajab Ali Khan, their father, was from Kargil Tehsil on the border between Baltistan and Kashmir. He established a prosperous construction business far away in Southern Bihar as well as Mussoorie, a hill station overlooking Dehradun. Kazim’s early education was at the renowned Oak Grove School in Jharipani (cold water) near Mussoorie, home to a number of other prominent boarding schools, including two Jesus and Mary Convents – Hampton Court and Waverly, as well as St George’s Woodstock School. Oak Grove was established as a residential public school in 1888 by the East Indian Railway and is still ranked as one of the best government-run educational institutions in India – a dream school because apart from its enviable record in sports and education, it is surrounded by 256 acres of forest and situated on a hill top with a magnificent view of Dehradun.
Kazim was a born warrior, in spite of a non-martial background. He was an avid reader who began with comics but advanced to novels of war. His toys were swords and pistols and his games were about fighting – with his friends and the younger of his seven sisters as the “enemy”. He loved battle movies and accompanied his father on hunts in Dehradun’s forests with enthusiasm. There was, however, a soft side to his personality which liked English literature and enjoyed singing as well as playing the mouth organ.
Rajab Ali’s secure world collapsed at Independence in 1947 and the family left everything behind in India. While his father struggled to reestablish his business in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir’s upcoming capital, Kazim was enrolled in a government school in Murree. His previous school had the distinction of producing a line of Olympic players like Richard Allen who had thrice been the goal keeper at the Summer Olympics and made brilliant saves during the famous Berlin Games of 1936. While he was an all-rounder, Kazim excelled in cricket and in Murree played with Javed Burki, a national batsman who turned civil servant and his brothers, Nausherwan and Jamshed.
After graduating from Gordon College in Rawalpindi, he was commissioned in 1957 from the sixth course conducted at the Officer’s Training School (OTS) in Kohat. Here he earned the nickname of “Gurkha” probably due to the mountainous region from which he came and his height of one-and-a-half metres. He was modest, God-fearing and well regarded in the 10th Battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regular Forces (AKRF) where he was initially posted. The AKRF was the military element of the Azad Kashmir Government, with its own intake of officers and soldiers enrolled from Azad Kashmir and a pay and training structure separate from the Pakistan Army. All the AKRF battalions were stationed in Azad Kashmir which is where Kazim earned his Sitare-e-Jurat before the 1965 War.
It was March 1964 and the Indian Army was harassing the civilian population living close to the Cease Fire Line (CFL) in Azad Kashmir. His battalion was deployed in the Bagh Sector where an Indian raid killed and wounded a number of villagers, including women and children. When the harassment persisted for two months, a counter-raid was planned on Sangream, an isolated post in the Bara Gap. The post overlooked Salamabad Nallah, an infiltration route to the town of Uri. And Kazim, who did well at the Advanced Commando Course at Shinkiari, was selected to lead the raid by the battalion’s commando platoon.
He earned the nickname of “Gurkha” probably due to the mountainous region from which he came and his height of one-and-a-half metres
I was intrigued by the records of Kazim covering the raid which his brother shared with me. They contained a set of three-dimensional sketches drawn and shaded with colour pencils, prepared meticulously during the planning. Each bunker, sentry post and trench was identified, as well as the urinal. Numbers on the sketch corresponded to the position of each group/party at the start of the assault. It was obvious that the preparation was thorough and that was why the raid was so successful. An 11-page post-action report accompanying the sketches covered every aspect of the action as well as the lessons learned. Reading this paper submitted 55 years ago was an education. The captain’s expression is good and thinking rational – a product of his education at the Oak Grove School. The paragraph of Lessons Learnt opens with, “Although the raid had been a complete success, it would be wrong to say that the whole affair was without any loop holes. Experience, which is the greatest of teachers, opened my eyes on many avenues of this op (operation) for further thought”.
Kazim initially conducted a daylight reconnaissance from across the valley. The post was on a spur that descended through a series of terraces, with fire trenches facing down a steep slope towards Salamabad Nallah. He understood that if it was targeted from the rear, there were greater chances of success. A second reconnaissance at night in which he approached within 30 metres of the post, confirmed the route. The reconnaissance confirmed the information from locals that Sangream was occupied by two platoons sleeping in three bunkers (houses) – a single-storey one to the north had a platoon of 1 Para Battalion and a double-decker structure 50 metres to the southwest had soldiers from the PAPs (an acronym unfamiliar to the author). In spite of being isolated, neither was the post secured by barbed wire or mines, nor was there a listening post on the obvious track taken by the raiding party. However, on top of the bunkers were three small towers, each manned round-the-clock by a pair of sentries who constantly shone their torches. Except for the weapons with the sentries, the rest were stored in the kote (armoury). The path reached a depression 30 meters west of the post, providing a good starting point for the final assault.
On the night of 20 June, in a light drizzle, Kazim with his 30-strong platoon and local guides left their base at Sank around 8 p.m. Having been bred and served in the mountains, the soldiers were well acclimatized but they still took nearly six hours to descend 1,300 meters through a dense pine forest to the bed of Salamabad Nallah and then climb 650 meters up a steep slope to the track leading to their objective. The night was moonless and the approach took longer than planned but the half-hour margin that Kazim held for the unexpected paid off. The platoon reached the rendezvous (RV) by 1.40 a.m. All his childhood skills honed by eight years of service and the Commando Course were now applied.
The platoon was divided into task-related groups. Sixteen soldiers were carrying Sten submachineguns and the rest .303 rifles. They also carried 64 grenades but Kazim in his post-action report admits that they should have brought a rocket launcher to remove a light machinegun (LMG) post that caused them trouble. From the RV the groups stealthy moved to the launch-point and crept into position. Kazim led the three parties tasked to eliminate the sentries in the towers. Just when Sepoy Akram neutralized the sentries in the central tower, he was hit by an LMG that unexpectedly opened fire from the roof of the double-decker bunker to the southwest. As Akram struggled up, he was hit again but managed to crawl to cover with 11 bullet injuries. Meanwhile, an action group had surrounded the Northern Bunker, firing into the windows and lobbing grenades. Some occupants fled while others fiercely resisted. Kazim wrestled with a Sikh who was nearly twice his weight and size but managed to seize his rifle.
Identifying the greater danger from the Northern Bunker which housed the platoon of 1st Para, the assault had focused on it. Unknown to Kazim, about 40 Indian soldiers had arrived the previous night and were asleep in the double-decker bunker, which also housed the kote (armoury). Naik Lal Hussain who had been at the forefront of the assault on the Northern Bunker rushed with two soldiers to the upper portion of the double-decker bunker just in time to block the exit and lobbed grenades through the door and windows. Unfortunately, the same LMG that had injured Akram sprayed the area and hit Hussain at short range. Before dying he pleaded to his comrades to continue fighting and take his gun back. To distinguish friend from foe, the recognition signal was an exchange of the battle-cry of “Ya Ali”. As the groups worked their way around the bunkers, firing through the windows and lobbing grenades, not only was the recognition signal effective, it also heightened the men’s courage.
While one action group was occupied with the upper floor of the double-decker, another proceeded to the lower level but found the door blocked, and lobbed a grenade through a window. There were shouts and cries from inside indicating a large body of soldiers but the group was reinforced in time by the holding party one of whom dropped a grenade into the chimney. Unfortunately, he was killed by the LMG that had already inflicted two casualties. Ultimately, Kazim crawled within range and neutralized it with a grenade. In all 33 grenades were used during the raid, which lasted 20 minutes. That is a long time in intense fighting and longer than had been anticipated because of the additional Indian platoon that had arrived a night earlier. However, there was a comfortable margin as Kazim appreciated that reinforcements from the nearest Indian post would take 45 minutes. A Very light was fired into the air, signaling a withdrawal to the RV and an LMG from across the Salamabad Nallah provided suppressive fire to help with this. During the entire raid, an Indian LMG in the fire trenches overlooking the nallah, fired fruitlessly down towards a wooden bridge.
Despite multiple wounds, Sepoy Akram trudged 3 km back to the RV on his own, because he didn’t want to slow down his comrades. Clearly he was strong-willed and was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jurat along with two who fell in battle. He finally became the battalion’s Subedar Major. The raid had been a success and had inflicted 50 casualties for the loss of two killed and two injured. Kazim claimed that a reason they didn’t lose more was that the platoon was wearing Mazri (a dark gray cloth) which blended with the night. A well-deserved Sitara-e-Jurat was presented to him by President Ayub Khan and his proud parents were invited to the investiture.
A year later, during the 1965 War, Kazim was back in action, but not with the battalion. 12 Division, responsible for the entire Kashmir Front, had drawn up a plan to penetrate Mujahids (irregular soldiers) supported by detachments of AKRF troops and the Special Services Group, into the Indian Held Kashmir. There were six groups, each of three companies and Kazim was with TARIQ FORCE that infiltrated into Sonamerg from the direction of Dras-Kargil in the north. His father belonged to this region as mentioned, and at home the family spoke Baltistan’s local dialect, which was probably one of the reasons he was part of this group. The groups were infiltrated in August and to reach its objective, TARIQ FORCE had to scale heights of 5,000 metres. Many suffered high-altitude sickness and the force was nearly recalled. They reached their operational base near Zoji La with great resolve and ambushed columns on the Srinagar-Kargil Road. However, they were unsuccessful in demolishing a couple of bridges and, after a full-scale war erupted, were recalled.
Kazim would fight his next and last battle six years later in a very hostile environment 3,000 km from home. It is remembered as the Battle of Ashuganj – a brilliant action by a Pakistani brigade in former East Pakistan that delayed the advance of an Indian division for ten days and culminated in the rout of it troops.
(to be continued)
The author is indebted to Major Qasim for providing him documents and photographs and sharing personal recollections that made this article possible. He also wishes to thank his neighbour and friend Ali Bilgrami, who first suggested that he write about Major Kazim
It is a brilliant and detailed story of a daring raid on a well prepared and strong Indian position. The minor details lucidly described by the author would have enabled even non military men to understand the action. Brilliant action by all standards.