While watching a clip on YouTube on their programme of enacting the surrender ceremony of the Pakistan Army, I was reminded of an interesting incident that happened to me. The ceasefire happened on 13th December 1971, and we were in a relaxed mood in the officer’s mess, chatting about how we could visit Dacca. Going by road was out of the question as the Pakistanis (Paks) had blown up all the bridges while retreating. So, going by air was the only option we had. We had done quite well in the war regarding our air support communications, and I was on the good net with the Air Force officers of 5 Tac (Tactical Air Centre attached with Head Quarters 4 Corps). I asked Wing Commander (Wingco) Mohan whether they planned to go to Dacca. In case there was, I would also like to join. The next evening, he told me he was going there the following morning. I promptly accepted the offer and was at the airfield the next morning at the given time.
At the airfield, Mohan told me the plan was to go in an Otter aircraft to Agartala. From there, we were to go to a place called Bhairab Bazar in an MI 4 Helicopter to pick up a (Pak) Pakistani General (Gen). We were to return to Agartala and proceed to Dacca in the same Otter. It was around 6 AM on 15th December that Mohan and I landed at Bhairab Bazar. The pilot took some time to locate a suitable place to land. Finally, we landed in a railway yard, which was quite open and spacious. We may have walked for about 10 minutes when I noticed that Mohan looked at his watch frequently. When I inquired the reason for this, he stopped and said,
“Siddiqui, we have a problem. The Otter in which we have come is required for the Army Commander’s duty, who is landing at 9 AM at Dacca and then going to Chittagong. We have already lost some time in reaching here. So, what I will do is to go back and proceed to Dacca in the Otter and send back the helicopter duly fueled up. You go ahead, find the General and bring him to Dacca directly from here”.
Now, suddenly, I found myself alone in an alien place. The place was deserted, with no one around, as if the whole place was under a curfew. I lamented myself for not carrying my sten gun. Although the ceasefire had taken place, the Paks were still armed. I just wondered what would happen if I met a trigger-happy soldier, and this is exactly what happened. As I turned a corner and came onto a main road, I faced a burly Pathan who lost no time straightening his rifle. I waved at him with great bravado and said loudly: “Dekho hum aapke General Sahab se milne aye hain, aap hamen apne officers mess ka rasta bata do.” He then relaxed and gave me directions on how to get there. Just then, a rickshaw appeared from nowhere and was promptly commandeered by him. He told the rickshaw wala where to take me. After a ten-minute ride, I was there. I wanted to pay the guy, but he refused, saying, “What you people have done for us, we will not be able to pay back in generations.” I thanked him and went inside the mess.
The only active place at that time was the kitchen. I asked the staff about the Gen and was told he was still asleep. I told them to go and wake him up and tell him that an Indian Army officer was there to meet him. I then waited inside the mess. The interior looked no different than any of our mess, with a rich display of silver and trophies hanging on the wall. The visitor’s book caught my attention, and I sat down and started browsing through it. After some time, the mess staff came and told me that Gen Sb was ready to meet me. I went and told the General the purpose of my visit. He was still in his sleeping suit and dressing gown. He said, “You will have to give me some time to get ready.” I said it was not a problem, returned to the mess, and continued browsing the visitor’s book. Entries dated back to pre-partition days with mostly British officers’ names. I found some senior Indian names, too, like Srinagesh, Cariappa and Rajendra Singh ji. One name that caught my attention was Brig Wajahat Husain. He hailed from my home town, Allahabad. I had known him as a kid, and we used to call him Wajjan Bhai. Their family went across during the partition, and later, I heard he had joined the army in Pakistan.
It was breakfast time, and slowly, their officers started arriving. Some nodded and said hello. Others remained grim-faced and ignored my presence. Seeing my nameplate, an Engineers Col started talking. On hearing that I hailed from Allahabad, he got interested as he was posted there in mid-forties. He inquired about various places in the town, and I updated him on the changes that had taken place since the partition. Like most Pak officers who found service revolvers too bulky and heavy, he carried a small .32-bore pistol. I was tempted to ask him to give it to me as a souvenir as sooner or later, it would be taken away from him. However, I did not do so, thinking they would have a rather dim view of us.
The mess staff came and informed us that Gen Sb was ready. I went and saw that he was dressed in full military attire. I told him I was unsure of what form our setup in Dacca existed. He was a known face, and it would be easier for us if he wore a civilian dress for security reasons. At this, he remarked: “All my civil clothes are in my bungalow in Dacca, and I am sure by now the Bengalis must have cleaned up the place”. He then wanted to know if he could take his ADC and the orderly along. I told him that we had no instructions on this, but they could come along if the pilot had no objection.
The flying time was a little over one hour. As we landed on the tarmac, we could see a huge crowd everywhere, cheering and waving their newly acquired flag and shouting ‘Joya Bangla’. They were all looking towards our helicopter as it was in the process of landing. Looking out of the window, I saw no sign of any of our own troops. I pointed out the scene outside to the General and told him I could not see our army people. I said, “As it is, you have already earned a name for yourself here. If you came out dressed like this, I am not sure what they would do to you”. Quickly, all of them shed their uniform and changed into civil dress.
We came out of the helicopter and looked around. I saw some activity in a distant hangar. I told them to wait while I arranged to take them to the cantonment (Cantt). Walking towards the hangar, I met one of our unit officers, Maj Nayyar. He was quite senior to me, had just landed from Calcutta, and looked lost. He was in full battle dress with a helmet, “pithhoo” on his back and a sten gun slung on his shoulder. This solved a part of my problem. At least we had an armed escort now. I told him I knew where he was required to report and asked him to accompany me.
I found that some ad-hoc HQ was set up in the hangar. I met Col Mavalankar of Artillery, whom I had known from my previous tenure with the 9 Infantry Division. After exchanging greetings, I told him my problem and requested an armed escort and transport to take the General to the cantonment. He instructed his staff while we sat having a cup of tea. Suddenly, he asked, “By the way, who is this General you have brought with you?” As soon as I mentioned the name “Qazi Abdul Majeed”, he jumped out of his chair. Livid with rage, he started shouting and abusing the General. It appeared that some of his men, who were taken prisoner, were badly treated by the Pakistanis. They were paraded in front of locals on open ground with their hands tied. They were tied to a jeep and dragged around before being shot. He picked up his Sten gun, shouting and screaming, “Where is that b*stard? I will kill him right now. He has no right to live anymore.”
This sudden change in situation quite took me aback. All my euphoria had vanished, and my joy ride had already turned sour. The importance of the mission I had inadvertently been entrusted with suddenly dawned upon me. For any misadventure, I would be held fully responsible. I cooked up a story that the Gen was not with me and was coming a little later in another helicopter. I had come in advance to make necessary arrangements to take the Gen to the Cantt. I then signalled to Maj Nayyar to move away from there. The aim was to decide our next course of action under the suddenly changed situation. As we moved away, a well-dressed gentleman who had been watching the commotion from a distance came up to us and introduced himself as the duty magistrate of the area. He said, “I can see that you are having some problems. Let me know if I can be of any help.” I explained my ordeal to him, and he promptly agreed to take us in his car.
We started off from the airport with Maj Nayyar as the armed escort. As we came out, we saw a crowd had gathered on both sides of the road. On seeing me, they started cheering and waving their flags. At this, the General made a rather sarcastic remark: “Look at these Bengalis! Until only yesterday, they were waving a Pakistani flag, and now they are waving this silly-looking flag”. I glanced at our host to see his reaction, as I knew Bengalis were very emotional. His face had turned red with rage, but he kept quiet and said nothing. After reaching our destination, we bid goodbye to the Magistrate and thanked him profusely for his help. Wingco Mohan was already there waiting for us. He told me to wait in an office. After handing over the General to the concerned people, he returned and said, “Let’s go”. I asked, “Go where, Sir?” His response was, “Back to Mayanamati.” I protested that after having gone through all this trouble, the least we could do was to take a quick round of the city. After looking at his watch, he agreed, and we set off. As we came out of the HQ, we waved at a car. The owner was driving himself and asked where we wanted to go. He agreed on being told that we aimed to take a quick ride of the town, and we started in his car.
As we left the cantonment and turned towards the city, we saw dead bodies lying on the road, with cyclists, rickshaws and cars weaving their way past them. No one was paying any attention to them. When asked who they were and why nobody was doing anything about them, he replied, “Oh! They are Bihari Muslims.” In their definition, a Bihari Muslim was not a Bengali. He could be from UP, Bihar, Punjab, or any other part of the country- but if he was not a Bengali, they were identified as Bihari Muslims.
He continued, “They had sympathised with the Pakistani army, and when the war ended, they were promptly picked up and shot.” Being told this was a shocking realisation of how close a shave we all had with destiny. My mind went racing back to the partition days when my father was sick and admitted to the railway hospital in Allahabad. One day, a letter came from his office, asking him to exercise his option on whether he wanted to continue serving in India or would go over to Pakistan. There was a temporary option, too, in the sense that one went across, and if he was not happy with the working environment, he could come back to India & would be reinstated.
My father exercised only one option, but the policy had changed by then, “India Permanent”. When he had recovered, and we went back to Katihar, where he was posted, we realised that out of 150 Muslims in his department, he was the only one who had stayed back in India. Those who went across were very unhappy as they could not integrate with the locals due to cultural differences. Most wanted to return, but the policy had changed by then, and the temporary option was no longer available. I sat thinking about our plight. My father had decided to go to Pakistan. I was thus lost in my thoughts when Wingco Mohan tapped on my shoulder, saying, “Come on, Siddiqui, we have reached the airport”. With relief, I thanked God and my father for his wise decision. Here we were, leading a life of dignity and respect.
My next trip to Dacca was on the 9th of January, 1972. This trip proved to be much more peaceful. One of the places we visited was No 1 Dhanmondi, which was supposed to be the residence of Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. We learnt that he had only arrived from Karachi that day after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto released him from captivity. We expressed a desire to meet him, and he was gracious enough to invite us in. He offered us a cup of tea and posed for a photograph.