Adulthood And Soldiering: Going To War Unwilling

I felt that it would be heavy on my conscience if I killed anybody. But, perhaps it was only that I did not want to be killed? I do not know

Adulthood And Soldiering: Going To War Unwilling

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times

Click here for the second part

On the 8th October 1971 we were told to prepare for moving out of the cantonment. All leave was cancelled and my squadron commander, the grim Captain Zamir with a huge poster-sergeant-major type of moustache, told us that we were on a war footing. Everybody was grim and excited and we troop leaders, who had just been through a crash course of tank tactics outside Multan, were told that we would be tested in battle.

I was not at all sure what purpose a war would serve but was too diffident to say so.

As the tanks were loaded on trains and we moved at night to a desert, I felt isolated and worried. But the hectic routine of loading and unloading tanks on the train, firing and receiving new orders every morning and evening left me with little time for introspection. I just felt how unfortunate it would be if these young soldiers, peasants from the Punjab mostly, would die. I was convinced the war was avoidable though I knew very little of what was going on in the world.

Then we were told this was an exercise. In fact, as nobody had explicitly given an order for war, it might be that we were under that impression because of the timing of the move or the grimness of the officers, but we certainly did think we were about to go to war till this explicit command about being on an exercise. The routine remained the same. Both my diseases, intestinal disorder and insomnia, asserted themselves. I had to report sick and was evacuated to Multan in a dehydrated condition.

I spent the time in Multan CMH reading Eric Maria Remarques’ All Quiet on the Western Front. This book, about World War I, was anti-war and reflected my mood so well that I was deeply moved. I remember sitting out in the verandah when the sun was setting. To me it appeared to be a sad but beautiful sunset. I was in a wistful mood and I reflected over the events of 1971. I now recalled that the young officers had boasted about killing Bengalis and it really sank into my consciousness and I realised that it was Pakistan which was wrong and not the Bengalis. After all Sheikh Mujeeb had won the election and should have been made the prime minister. I also came to understand that, if I had a conscience, I should condemn that military action.

What I knew about political events made me feel that the Government of Pakistan should have held a referendum in East Pakistan on the question of autonomy or separation. Then, if separation was inevitable, West Pakistanis should have left as the British left India and several African colonies.

I further reasoned that, if the military action was wrong, then what we called a mutiny or a rebellion was actually a war of liberation for the Bengalis. This meant that fighting them, even if they were helped by India, was morally indefensible. Having reached this conclusion I felt even more strongly that it was against my conscience to take part in such a war. I felt that it would be heavy on my conscience if I killed anybody. But, perhaps it was only that I did not want to be killed? I do not know. But one thing was clear — I was against that war. I then described myself as a pacifist though, in reality, I was not theoretically against all possible wars. To be more accurate I was a conscientious objector to wars of aggression.

However, after all the hullaballoo about going to be launched against India and being on a war footing and in a secret location in the desert, the 1st Armoured division was not launched. And, while the rest of the regiment remained in the war location, we young officers received orders to go to Nowshera for the Young Officers Basic Course. We travelled by air up to Pindi and, after a day or two at home, I went by mini-bus to Nowshera. There I was allotted a huge house in a semi-dilapidated condition. It had huge lawns all around it but they were not cared for at all. The window panes were broken but my room was livable. Everybody called it the haunted house (bhoot bangla) but I was very comfortable in it since I did not have to share anything with anybody. I had no interest in the course since I was no longer interested in a military career.

For some reason one of the subalterns, whom I shall only call the ‘Exception”,  had got against me and his antagonism had taken the form of insensitive teasing when we were doing the troop leader’s training in Multan. As he was a trend-setter, Asad and Mati too were insensitive towards me. As I had expressed my anti-war views by now, the Exception professed to be scandalised. This reaction was not an unusual one at all. What was surprising was that most other officers were friendly towards me. Thus, I enjoyed my social life in Nowshera.

Among the friends I made there were Azhar (left the army as a major), called Jerry, of 30-cavalry. I had known him from PMA but he now became a very good friend and we used to go  riding occasionally. Other officers were also very friendly towards me and Tariq Aziz and his tirades about my perfidy and anti-army, anti-Pakistan views fell on unreceptive ears. Indeed, that criterion of military correctness, Tambal to his friends (later Lt. General Javed Alam Khan), befriended me and I remember being admitted to the huddle of the cognoscenti in his room. Apart from roaring at jokes and, though just once, watching a rather risqué movie, I do not remember what the cognoscenti did. But for Tambal and his circle to accept someone so odd that he was known as a pacifist was something of a mystery and, for the Exception, a bitter pill which stuck in the throat.

I was also popular with the daredevils who rode horses and did other foolhardy things. An instance of the latter is that I decided to swim across the river Kabul just behind the Armoured Corps Officers Mess in Nowshera. I stripped to an underwear and jumped in and the strong river current almost took me away. With difficulty I turned back to where Jerry and others pulled me to the riverbank. This reminded me of the time I had jumped into the Lake Saiful Muluk.

Another time I rode a mettlesome horse to the Artillery Officers Mess and then on to the Nowshera Club. That horse was almost uncontrollable and shied every time a car passed us by but I was not thrown off its back and came back safe and sound. Yet another foolhardy thing, but this time upon the initiative of Lt. Naveed Quamber, was to travel to Pindi in his car. This car was a vehicle with a mind of its own and en route the bonnet flew into our faces. We got down and repaired it. Then there was another rat-a-tat sound and the car stopped altogether. Again we stopped. Then we got a taxi which towed us and we reached very late. I do not remember who all were with me but Naveed Quamber still insisted that his car was quite unmatched—and, after all, what are a few bonnets in the face between friends!

On the evening of the 3rd of December, jets roared past me across the sky and I knew something momentous was about to happen. Within an hour we knew that the expected attack from the West had begun. While all the young officers cheered, I felt very sad and worried. I had seen cars in Pindi carrying signs reading: ‘Crush India’ and had despaired. My father had a big argument with me about the war. He felt that Pakistan should launch the attack from the Western wing since, like most people, he too had internalised the theory that ‘the defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan’. The argument ended with shouting on his part and anger on mine. As usual, we both could not reach the middle ground.

My father thought that I had been brain-washed into saying anti-war things by the Bengalis and the Hindus. I pointed out to him that I knew no Hindus and never read the newspapers or anything to do with politics. I did, however, have Bengali course mates in PMA, but never discussed politics with them. My pro-Bengali views were based purely upon what I had heard from West Pakistani military officers who had told me how they had killed Bengalis thinking they were doing their duty.

‘Yes, but they were doing their duty. They were offering their chests to bullets to save our country from India’, shouted my father.

‘No. They were, however unknowingly, trying to suppress a nation which wanted to end West Pakistani rule over them. It is a war of self-determination and the Bengalis are right. We are wrong. We should haul the flag down and march out.’ I countered with equal temper banging my fist on the table.  He kept calling me a victim of Indian propaganda and a fool.

The day the war came to an end was a very sad day in the Officers Mess of the School of Armour. Officers were distraught and offended and incredulous. Some of them shouted and threw the badges of their rank on the roof. Only I was relieved that the useless carnage had ended. Everyone felt the war on the Western front would continue and this rumour gained strength as we were posted back to our regiments which were in war locations as I have mentioned before. I was hoping never to go to war while all my friends and acquaintances were rearing to go into action—or so they pretended.

Anyway, we returned and I remember the long bus journey with Jerry across the Punjab in a bus which was cold, noisy and full of people. Jerry was feverish and he dozed with his head resting on my shoulder and occasionally asking me where we were. The roads were broken and the bus bumped its way across the Punjab as towns came and went. At last it was dawn and we were near Multan. Multan was our rear headquarters. From here we were taken to our regiments on jeeps.

The armoured division was in what was called a ‘plantation’. From what I could see it was, not to put too fine a point upon it, an-honest-to-God jungle full of wild boars and other animals. The Officers Mess was a huge tent which had a heater and several gas lanterns. Ajmeri was gliding in and out and he gave me a smile with a hot cup of tea when I met him. The food was as good as it had been and the alcoholic drinks were in abundance. After the dinner I returned to my tent where my batman put up a stretcher, purloined from some ambulance to be sure, as a makeshift bed for me. I had lost my camp cot and there was nothing for me to sleep on.

It was December and the jungle was terribly cold at night. Sometimes one heard the crackling of dry leaves and branches and everybody was sure they were wild boars. We also dug snake trenches with thorny bushes in them around our tents though I pointed out that it was too cold for any self-respecting snake to be out on a stroll in this cold. In response I was told that the snake could be like me who had not checked up if it was December which made me order the digging of this trench. But no wild boar ever came to my tent nor did any snake.

The atmosphere was much like a picnic. We did have our P.T and a few lessons on tactics but that was all. The lunch was in the golden sunlight and the dinner in the tent. Captain Shafqat Ali Khan, the adjutant, was both competent and friendly. Major Amjad was the squadron commander of A-squadron while Major Maqsood Ali Khan (later colonel) commanded my (B) squadron. Both were reputed to be good officers. Captain Rustam Dara (later brigadier) was another very friendly, cheerful and competent officer. Still another well-known figure was Major Afridi. He was a tall, handsome man whom I had seen when he was a platoon commander in PMA. He was seen as a hero and I found him a decent man. In fact, they were all decent people. They knew that I was anti-war but they did not taunt, tease or persecute me.

The only one who remained implacably antagonistic was, of course, the honourable Exception, but much to his annoyance, his other friends, notably Ashiq and Mati (Mats), became quite friendly. My pet name in the regiment was Titch but it fell into disuse and was not used outside the regiment. This was supposed to be an honour since it had been the pet name of Lt General Gul Hasan Khan, also from Probyn’s, who was then the Chief of the Army Staff. The C.O was Lt Col Ali Gohar. He was very friendly towards me despite the fact that he knew my unorthodox views. Soon I discovered that Major Afridi and others had some sort of grievances (whether professional or personal I never found out) against Col Ali Gohar. These were ventilated in the evening over a chota peg of course. The Exception, knowing that the C.O appeared to favour me, incited all the others against me.

‘If this is so, it is the senior’s fault’, said Maj. Afridi, ‘not the junior’s’. After this nobody bothered me although I stayed aloof from late night parties nor did I knowingly ingratiate myself with the C.O or any of the outstanding officers like Afridi who all remained friendly towards me.

Soon other young officers joined us. Their names were Sohail (later major), Omar Asghar Khan (left the army as a lieutenant) and Tariq Tikka. I knew Omar, son of Air Marshal Asghar Khan but not the other two. Tariq Tikka was the son of General Tikka Khan, later the COAS. Sohail was the exception in that he was from an educated middle-class, professional family. Tariq behaved with impeccable propriety. He could not have sympathized with my views since his father was the general who had carried out the military action in Dhaka, but he never let me know it. Indeed, I even went to the COAS’s house in Pindi to meet him and he entertained me courteously.

Omar kept listening to my views and later became so influenced by my academic taste that he also decided to study for his B.A as a private candidate. However, I never induced Omar to resign from the army nor did he become a ‘pacifist’ as some army officers thought. He resigned, as he told me, because Bhutto was against his father and Omar thought Bhutto was so vengeful that his military career was a non-starter. Sohail and I became and remained reasonably good friends since we were in the same squadron.

(to be continued)