Gurkha From Kargil - III

Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of an exceptional commando: Major Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat

Gurkha From Kargil - III
Note: This is the third of a three-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. 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

Although during the 1971 war there was scant information flowing back to the families from what was then East Pakistan, Major Kazim’s father was informed by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) on the 16th of December 1971: that he was officially reported missing but thought to be a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, in time, the family became conscious through letters from PoWs – which had been routed via the Red Cross – that he had fallen in battle and was buried at Bairab Bazaar. They were devastated. The formal confirmation arrived three years later in July 1974 after the PoWs were repatriated. The letter from MOD stated, “It has been recorded by GHQ, AG’s Branch (through evidence furnished by returnee PWs), that he laid down his life in action on 9/10 December 1971 in East Pakistan while serving with 12 AKRF.”

Unfortunately, official death notices are always inexpressive with no description of the circumstances. His comrades in combat in East Pakistan, however, told the family that Kazim, alias Gurkha, had fallen as a hero in Ashuganj, defending a railway embankment against overwhelming odds. They heard how brilliantly his commander Brigadier Saadullah had not only held an Indian infantry division for almost ten days but also counterattacked and routed the Indians. They also learned that there were more heroes, including Major (later Lieutenant General) Sarfraz, who survived a bullet in the neck and was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat; and Staff Captain Muneer, who rallied the brigade headquarters troops to reinforce the embankment.

The auditorium that bears his name also has this portrait of Maj Kazim (alias 'Gurkha'), Sitara-e-Jurat

Although the tale of bravery of a twice-hero is inspiring, I was fascinated when Qasim explained how he concluded that God had decreed that he would discover his brother’s last resting place. Kazim was 20 years older and as much a father as an elder brother. On the last day of every leave, he would take his youngest sibling to a matinee show before boarding a bus back to his duty station. Kazim dissuaded his brother from joining the army but after the tragedy of 1971, Qasim was adamant and his father relented.

The Azad Kashmir Forces became a regular Pakistan Army infantry regiment in 1974 and a year later Qasim was commissioned into the 2nd AK Battalion. His father died a sad man in 1979 and ten years later, Qasim took an early retirement. His mother passed away in 2006. Among her possessions was her Kazim’s shirt and vest which she smelled and kissed when she believed no one was looking. Qasim never gave up his love of a brother lost but not forgotten in a distant land – but life must continue.

Maj Qasim prays at the last resting place of his brother Maj Kazim - with the Imam who witnessed his burial at Ashuganj

The Quran has a verse (3:54) that informs humanity that “[...] but Allah planned. And Allah is the best of planners”.

In 2011, Qasim’s daughter was in Sydney to complete her Masters and a family from Bangladesh who had settled in Australia proposed for her. While talking to the prospective father-in-law on a long-distance call, Qasim told him about the burial of his brother at Bahirab Bazaar. When the gentleman said his village was only 18 kilometers from the town, Qasim believed that the proposal had the blessings of his brother. The wedding was in Islamabad and after the Valima (marriage reception) in Dhaka, the host took Qasim and his family on what was to be a pilgrimage to the battlefield at Ashuganj.

They walked from the railway station along the embankment resolutely defended by Kazim’s company. They could see the railway culvert through which Brigadier Saadullah launched a sally with a tank and a handful of men that transformed into a full-fledged counterattack. Qasim’s military eye could visualize it rolling over the now overbuilt landscape and putting two Indian battalions with their tanks to flight. On the way back they stopped at a war memorial whose inscription in Bengali glorified the role of rebel forces but the Indian Army wasn’t acknowledged in name and only as “friends”. Considering that Bangladesh would not have emerged on the world map without an offensive by more than three Indian Corps, this inconsistency is strange.

Trio of heroes - Surviving veterans of the 1971 Battle of Ashuganj: Brig Saadullah HJ (center), flanked by his staff captain Maj Munir (left) and his brigade major, Lt Gen Sarfraz, SJ

I asked Qasim how he felt after the visit. “My family and I were overwhelmed with emotion,” he replied, “and I thanked the Almighty for getting us that far.” It was just a day trip, and there was no time to search for the graves of the martyrs of 12th AKRF Battalion.

He returned to Dhaka three years later in 2015 to celebrate Eid’s festival and this time headed for Bhairab Bazaar. Close to the town, he stopped at a tea stall to buy cigarettes. Qasim claims there was “divine intervention” at this moment – an act of God that brought about good. “I saw a young man curiously looking at me and likely wanting to talk,” he recollects. “When I told him I was from Pakistan, he warmly responded saying he had visited Karachi to meet his relatives. I casually asked if he knew about a school where a Pakistan Army unit camped during the 1971 War.” The lad said he was too young to remember but called his mother, who said that it was next to their house and she remembers seeing the Pakistani soldiers through the window. The lad led them to the school and while they looked around and took pictures, he said that he had heard from his elders that the bodies brought from Ashuganj were buried in the city’s old cemetery.

The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, had taken Qasim by the hand and was leading him on.

The old railway bridge over the River Meghna that was blown up during the 1971 war is still visible between two new bridges

With hopeful expectation they arrived at the graveyard where they were approached by an elderly group of men. When told of the intent of the visit, one of them asked the for the exact date of the burial and then introduced himself as the Imam of the adjacent mosque. He recalled that as 16-year-old lad, had attended the last rites and indicated a bare plot which a mass grave of the soldiers. He also pointed out where a an officer was buried separately. It was in an unkempt corner adjacent to the mosque with no mound or headstone – known but to God. For Qasim, the enormous gulf of time and distance had narrowed to a patch of soil that guarded his beloved brother’s remains. This was the last resting place of a fighting hero of Pakistan.

To paraphrase a verse composed by Robert Brook in a poem titled “The Soldier”:

“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field, that is forever Pakistan [...] Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”
While talking to the prospective father-in-law, Qasim told him about the burial of his brother at Bahirab Bazaar. When the gentleman said his village was only 18 kilometers from the town, Qasim believed that the proposal had the blessings of his brother. The wedding was in Islamabad and after the Valima in Dhaka, the host took Qasim and his family on what was to be a pilgrimage to the battlefield at Ashuganj

Qasim wants to bring the remains of his brother home and spoke to Pakistan’s Ambassador in Dhaka as well as the Army Headquarters on his return to Pakistan. The main obstacle is the Bangladesh government’s hostile attitude. From the army’s viewpoint, this is not a one-off case. There are many officers and soldiers buried in the fields of Bangladesh. But Qasim remains hopeful and prays, “Maula madad de” [May God assist me].

But in Pakistan, Kazim’s gallantry and sacrifice was not forgotten and in 1983, a new auditorium at the AK Regiment Center was named after him. Kazim was again remembered in April 2019, when on the initiative of Lieutenant General Sher Afgun, the Colonel Commandant of the AK Regiment, the auditorium was remodeled and inaugurated by the COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who paid glowing tribute to Major Kazim. His brother Qasim was present at the occasion.

At the time of writing this article, Brigadier Saadullah is 90 years old. I sent his son Dr. Billal a photograph of Kazim, hoping the brigadier would recall something about this fighter. I was cautioned that the brigadier’s memory was failing but when he looked at the photograph he said, “Yeh East Pakistan min Shaheed hua tha!” [He was martyred in East Pakistan]. Billal showed him the photo again early next morning when his mind was more active and he uttered the opening stanza from one of the lyrics that inspired the country during the 1965 War:

“Aye puttar hattan te nayein vikde” [Sons like these cannot be purchased in a store].

The Bangladesh War Memorial at Ashuganj. The railway embankment where Maj Kazim fought to the end on the 9th of December 1971 is in the background

Though 40 years had elapsed and in spite of a failing memory, the brigadier remembered the officer. Kazim was one in a million. The Gurkha, as he was known at the Officers Training School, was conscious of being short and stood on his toes next to a very tall officer in a group photograph taken during a course. But in combat, he proved to be a giant among men.

The lyrics of the song “Aye puttar hattan te nayein vikde” are from the great poet Sufi Tabassum and recorded by the iconic singer Noor Jehan. The next stanza is:

“Ki labni aye vich bazaar kure?” [What are you searching for in the market?] – followed by the verse “Aye dain aye mere data di. Na aiwein takran maar kure” [This is the gift of God. That cannot be purchased by your own desire].

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