Harold J Wilson


The Rajput Colonel by Jay Wilson

When I first traveled to Pakistan in 1985, I was taken to a wedding party at a doctor’s house and there I met a retired military man, a pleasant looking chap with a clipped white moustache, who insisted on telling me stories in a rather jolly manner. I was somewhat wary and even wondered,”Why me?” But in the ensuing months and years, this man never ceased feeding me stories about Pakistan and India, of military life, and countless small anecdotes as well about almost anything. I went with him to tailors, shoemakers, clubs, weddings, all sorts of events and non-events. He introduced me to people from whom I could obtain useful things and other people from whom I could never obtain anything. After a few years of this, I was so full of his stories that I felt a need for one or the other of us to discharge them, perhaps in writing..

It has often been said by westerners who traveled to the Indian subcontinent for the first time that someone was waiting for them. This was usually a guru-type whose rent was a couple of months overdue. But Colonel Sami cost me nothing. Our families were and are friends, his wife and daughter taught English with my wife; they loaned us their old car, we loaned them our sixteen-year-old Toyota which no one else wanted to be seen in. Tasnim, Mrs. Sami, one day took a hundred ticks off our cocker spaniel  which equalled my own record. We left Godiva with them when we left the country.

But what to do about the stories? You have to help me. It will not cost you much either; only wait a few pages. I’m not sure that I can even start without first sketching a short lesson in history and geography. Bear with me then and let me go on a little about the history of a nation which was only created sixty years ago when Pakistan separated from India. It separated in 1947 because a large number of Indian Muslims thought that they would not be able to live their lives in a much larger country totally dominated by a huge Hindu majority. There is still some argument about who compelled them to think this way because their original founding father, Ali Jinnah, was not in favor of separation. He himself was a secular Muslim, married to a Parsee wife and he liked his glass of Scotch whiskey in the evening. It now seems that he may well even have been forced into partition by Nehru and his ally Patel.

Pakistan at this point is a country of  perhaps nearly two hundred million people, largely illiterate and poor, ruled over by an elite minority of educated Muslim leaders, if one can call them leaders. Because of the pervasive corruption of their elites, Pakistan has frequently been led by military men who have intervened in the political process in order to prevent the total breakdown of civil order.

The Punjab, where Lahore is located and where I met Colonel Sami, is the great agricultural valley of northwest Hindustan. Its landowners were largely Sikhs as on the Indian side today they still are. At Partition, this area was divided roughly in half by a line which runs from the north in Kashmir to the south between Lahore and Amritsar. Lahore was the great northern citadel of the Mughal empire, defending Delhi and the south against the approaching hosts of Mongol or Turk or Persian. Today it is the capital of the Pakistani Punjab (the land of the five rivers), a once gracious city of trees and imperial buildings with its mall and cantonment area where we lived in the summer of ’88 when we could still hear the crackle of small-arms fire from the military ranges in the late afternoon.

Polo is played in Lahore at several grounds and there are wonderful green parks , fountains, and the great Badshahi Mosque, a Red Fort, and in the bordering Old City, along with many specialty shops in the crowded bazaar with its ancient gates.

In the Punjab there is a saying, “Punjabis are human, Pathans are nearly human, Sindhis are subhuman, and the Baluch are inhuman.” That pretty well covers the spectrum of the four Pakistani provinces. For the Pathan point of view simply switch the two top categories. When the first seventeen Punjabi engineers were sent into Baluchistan, a half-century ago, to survey the region, they were captured by Baluch tribals who first raped them, anally and orally, and then castrated them, stuffing their genitals into their mouths before slitting their throats.  Subsequently, it became a little harder to recruit engineers for duty in Baluchistan. This province is, however, the main source of natural gas which the rest of Pakistan cooks on. The locals are still not happy about it. Pakistan is a nation, one might say, with unresolved regional differences.

To conclude our little historical review we may note that this much smaller country than India is built around the long axis of the Indus River which runs from Karachi at the Arabian Gulf one thousand miles up to the mountain massifs of the Karakoram and Western Himalaya ranges. Basically the country is centered about the Punjab which supplies perhaps 60% of its food, 80% of its army, and most of its population. The country cannot be ruled from elsewhere as Pathans and Sindhis like Benazir Bhutto have found out. Possibly, it cannot be governed at all. But as the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, once remarked, “Is France ready for self-government?”

Since Pakistan has so often had to be ruled through its army, it has had dictators about as often as elected officials. One such dictator arose from the military command during the turbulent latter days of the rule of Z.A.Bhutto, the late father of Benazir. This man, Zia ul Haq (the’light of truth’) was a humble military officer of no great family connections, and a graduate along with many high Indian officers of Colonel Brown’s School in Poona. I once knew a retired Indian colonel who was at school there with him.

Zia ruled Pakistan, some would say benevolently, for eleven years before his plane was blown up, probably by the Afghan Secret Service (KHAD) because of his support for the mujahiddeen forces fighting against the Russians. Naturally, this is too simple for the Pakistanis who are convinced that the Americans did it themselves even though the US Ambassador, Arnold Raphael, was on the plane with Zia. (that is the convincing fact for the Pakistanis) It was Zia who first inaugurated the Afghan ‘forward policy’ of training and then sending armed ‘seminarians’ or Talibs  into that country, first to fight the Russians, and second, to take over its government.

To return to my tale, Colonel (Ret.) Samiuddin Ahmed comes from an old Rajput family which lived outside of Delhi and had converted to Islam in his grandfather’s generation. He tells the story of how at Partition when he was perhaps twelve, the Hindu members of their clan gathered together in autos and trucks and bullock carts and provided an armed escort to the border for their Muslim relatives. This is characteristic of the Rajputs who were always considered a ‘martial race’ by the British and who count blood ties as more important than the politics of religious identity. After all, they ruled over the beautiful desert kingdoms of Rajasthan before the Moghul conquest and amongst them honour counted for more than anything.

Sami’s father was a highly respected teacher of the veterinary corps in the Pakistan army which, especially in the hill areas, still needed to travel on mule or horseback. Like him, all the senior officers had been trained alongside the Indians in what then was the British Indian Army. Even after Partition some of the senior officers were British, although the ensuing wars with India put an end to that. (You couldn’t have serving British officers on both sides!)

Because India under Nehru cultivated a friendship with Russia, the US began to take an interest in Pakistan and soon undertook to provide assistance and training for the Pakistan officer corps. As a result of this, Sami, as a Captain, was sent to America for parachute training and Ranger School. He spent time at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, greatly enjoyed the hospitality of American families, and in 1965 after a year and a half in the states was on his leisurely way back to Pakistan with his wife across Europe in a new Volkswagen Beetle.

He and Tasnim had had a wonderful time. She parked the kids with her mother and flew to meet him. They walked through old cities hand-in-hand and camped out in lovely forest areas. It was at a café in Turkey that they first heard of the war with India. Their waiter told them.

After he put Tasnim on the plane, Sami drove night and day across Turkey and Iran to rejoin his armoured unit, the Twenty-Fourth Cavalry Regiment. This was a tank regiment fighting in American Pattons. Sami’s own tank battalion was composed entirely of Bengali drivers and gunners from what was then East Pakistan but is now Bangla Desh. Many of the Punjabi soldiers did not welcome serving with Bengalis but Sami did not share in this attitude. He was a professional and anyway he could get along in Bengali.

After he had reached Lahore and changed clothes, Sami hitchhiked up to his unit and was given a very short briefing before being sent into action. He was told that the Indian armour was moving out of Amritsar towards Lahore in a probe, preparatory to making their main attack on that city. My wife Susannah was teaching at Kinnaird College in Lahore at this time and she remembers the air battles which took place over the city each day.

But the terrain between Amritsar and Lahore was not well suited to large tank maneuvers since it was heavily irrigated farm country, full of canals and dikes.
Sami’s commander told him to proceed toward Amritsar and, if possible, to block the north-south road. He also said that there would be a company of Pathan infantry up ahead of him who would scout his advance. Sami moved out before dawn while it was still dark, riding in the lead tank.

All seemed to go smoothly, the infantry waved them through and they had passed perhaps fifteen kilometers without encountering the enemy. Then it came to Sami – those infantry waving them through were small dark men, not tall light-skinned Pathans! They had been passed behind enemy lines by the Indians and were and right in the midst of them, traveling single file. “Deploy,” Sami ordered his tank captains, to get into fighting formation. “Open fire,” he told them. None of the Bengali gunners obeyed him. They were dumbfounded and thought he had gone daft.

“Open Fire,” Sami shouted again and began to use his machine gun. Emerging shortly from the Indian infantry concentration, they traveled another few kilometers before driving up to an unguarded encampment where a number of men were bathing. Sami halted his tanks and called to a sergeant who strolled over and saluted. Sami pulled his glasses off and said, “Excuse me, sergeant, but I am afraid that I must ask for your surrender. Will you kindly get your men into uniform and begin piling rifles over here.” They had stumbled onto the third or reserve battalion of the Indian infantry regiment they had just encountered. Sami sent the disarmed Indian soldiers back towards his own lines and continued on his way toward Amritsar.

After this incident, things began to heat up. The Indian armour became alerted and a small tank battle now ensued. Sami’s lead tank took a direct hit but he managed to climb out before it caught fire. Looking back, he noticed that the driver was slumped over in the exit hatch but still stirring, though the gunner was dead. So Sami pulled him out and commandeered another tank. Realizing that they were outgunned, the Indians now broke off contact.

Sami regrouped his vehicles, finding that most of his tanks were left. The battlefront had by now turned into a confusing series of small group actions without much overall coherence or strategy in play. The Pakistani army had kilometers marked on their maps but were reading them as if they were miles so that they had no idea of where exactly anyone was. Meanwhile the Indians were broadcasting disinformation on the Pakistani command net frequencies. They announced that the Pakistani commanding general had been killed by Indian artillery fire. Then someone ran up to say that an Indian officer had just arrived in a jeep, under a white flag, carrying the body of a Pakistani brigadier.

Sami saluted the Indian major, “How can I help you?” he asked him. The Indian officer seemed distressed. “I have just brought the body of your brigadier,” he said, “He must have picked up your location on the command net and was trying to join you when he was killed by a sniper.”

“So,” thought Sami, “that’s the ‘commanding general’ they were trying to palm off on us. “But what’s the matter with your soldiers?” he asked the Indian. “Why are they crying?”

“Well, you see,” the major told him, “he used to be our commanding officer and we are all very upset. “Oh dear,” Sami said,” I would offer you a drink, but as Muslims we are not allowed to carry it with us.” “That’s alright,” said the Indian major, “we have a litre or two of rum.” In the midst of the battle they broke out a bottle and toasted the dead brigadier, a man who had served in two armies which were now at war and who was remembered fondly by his comrades in arms.

After this episode, Sami decided to head back to his own forces since they were obviously not coming to him. Driving up from behind them, he surprised elements of a Sikh tank regiment and was able to inflict considerable damage on them in a stand-off battle because his tank cannon were American 85’s while the Sikhs were firing British 75’s which did not have an equivalent range. At the conclusion of this engagement he took the surrender of  a number of Sikh tanks and returned to his own lines, as he described it to me, “ a hero by mistake.”

Sami’s next venture in ‘accidental heroism’ occurred after the confusing ‘Battle of Lahore’ when he was seconded to the command of a suicidal brigadier down near Bahawalpur on the borders of the Thar Desert which extends across into Indian Rajasthan. The Brigadier, as it appears, was one of those officers whose peacetime life is an endless series of debts, drunks, and disasters but who, when bugles sounded and flags flew, was eager for the call of battle. At the time in question, however, not all of his junior officers were entirely of the same mind about this.

There are a series of forts in this desert area, some of them like the fort at Derawar very imposing if not necessarily functional. However, Indian forces had crossed the border and occupied  a fort which potentially threatened the fragile north-south axis of Pakistan. From here they could strike at Bahawalpur and cut the Punjab off from Sind.  The Brigadier was determined to roust them from this position and began to plan an armoured assault on the fort.

At this stage, as he explained it to me, Sami was a very junior, newly promoted major, and no one was asking his advice about the proposed attack. However, given the very limited size of their forces, the other officers were considerably less enthusiastic than the Brigadier – so much so that couple of summary courts martial (of which there were to be more) began to give Sami a great deal more responsibility and visibility which rendered him increasingly uncomfortable. As the fateful moment drew upon them, the situation was made very clear: you either attacked the fort and the superior body of the Indian forces in their fortified position along with the Brigadier, Hell-for-leather and come-what-may, or you must prepare to be court martialled and cashiered out of the military. So Sami reckoned that by mid-day tomorrow, he would either be dead, disgraced, or, thanks to the Brigadier, a hero again.

Just before morning light the Pakistani armour swirled out of the desert dawn, unsupported by their infantry which had gotten lost on the way. The Indians, taken by surprise and supposing them to be a much greater force, summarily abandoned the fort and retired back across their border. Eventually the infantry showed up in time for their commander to be court martialled and a good time was had by all. The Brigadier did not long survive his victory. While visiting a forward position in Azad Kashmir, he was sniped by an Indian rifleman and sent to that peace which he had so long despised.

It was also Sami’s sheer fortune that he was three times posted to the same command as his fellow officer, Lt.Colonel, Colonel, and later General Zia ul Haq. Although Sami had been in the lead tank of his force in four major tank battles, Zia’s only experience of actual combat had been as an advisor with Jordan’s Arab Legion when they moved against the PLO in the ‘Black September of 1971, a fact that he was subsequently very happy to forget. Though not an outstanding officer and a bit desi (‘country’) with his conservative Muslim manners, Zia was shrewd and diligent. He and Sami always got on well and at one point, they were both serving at the Armoured Division Headquarters in Rawalpindi where Zia was commanding one regiment, Col. Nasir Ali another, and the third regiment was under General Tikka Khan, the overall commander of the division.

At the time I am speaking of, in the early seventies, Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto was the Prime Minister and de facto ruler of Pakistan. He was ruler, not only because the left-wing Pakistan People’s Party had swept him into power but because he had behind him significant elements of the army, the bureaucracy and the landowners.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see now that Bhutto, although a crowd-pleaser and apparent populist, was not really a reformer. He was willing at any time to risk the welfare of his country and its people in order to remain in power; and he wielded power autocratically and often cruelly like the feudal aristocrat that he was. When it came to his supposed reforms, he was an effective demagogue: ‘roti, kapra, makan, bread, clothing and shelter, were promised to the masses, but the land reforms were only a hoax as the feudal estates remained safely within the hands of their rich owners, and Bhutto’s ideals did not seem to extend much further than a few ‘Potemkin’ illusions. At this time which I am describing, however, Bhutto was seeking a good simple soldier who would serve his main purpose in life – staying in power. As it happened, Colonel Zia was also seeking someone who would serve his own purposes.

General Tikka Khan had decided to confer a great honor upon Bhutto, he was to be made Honorary Colonel of the Armoured Division, complete with uniform and sword, at a big ceremonial bash in the division mess at Rawalpindi. Sami was detailed off to help Bhutto Sahib with the uniform and to help with the seating placements while Zia was sent out to find a suitable dress sword. Rawalpindi is a big old army town, adjacent to Islamabad, and full of military tailors and shops supplied with the appropriate trappings of high command. A silver tank was also provided and a special silver brooch for Begum Nusrat Bhutto. As the day arrived, however, the question of seating placements grew very acute and Sami found himself caught in the middle between his old friend Colonel Zia and Colonel Ali.

“Look here, Sami,” said Ali, “you can’t seat Begum Zia right next to Bhutto. The woman scarcely knows English and he’ll be offended; so I’ve just taken the liberty of putting my wife’s place card there where Zia had his wife’s.” “Yes, yes, I see,” said Sami, looking worried. “And I think I’d better sit next to Begum Bhutto, don’t you? General Khan can sit on her other side.” “Hmmm,” said Sami.

After Colonel Ali went out, Sami collared the havildar (sergeant) in charge of mess arrangements. “Look here,” he told him, “there is a great tamasha going on about who is to sit where and mistakes will have to be made. So I am going to take care of it and I am going to take care of you, but this is what you must do.” Sami told the havildar to pack a small bag and without saying anything to anyone, go straight out through the camp gate, get on a bus immediately and either go back to his village or hide out with relatives for his ten days annual leave. Then he put Zia’s wife’s place card back next to the Prime Minister’s place, and Zia’s place card next to Begum Bhutto’s seat along with the box containing the brooch to be presented to her.

The ceremonial dinner went easily and well. Bhutto, when trying on his uniform prior to the occasion had seemed a bit uncertain and asked Sami how it looked. Sami considered a moment and then answered carefully, “Well, sir, I don’t think you need really wear that if you don’t feel comfortable in it.” So the Prime Minister didn’t wear his new uniform and thereby felt less foolish and more at ease, the Zias were delighted at being next to the Bhuttos, and Colonel Ali was left a trifle perplexed. Sami whispered to him “That blasted havildar screwed up the seating arrangements just before going on leave. I’ll straighten him out as soon as he gets back.
During the final moments of the ceremony, Zia with his wonderful toothy grin presented Bhutto with the new dress sword, drawing it from its scabbard and placing it in Bhutto’s hand with its blade across the back of his own neck as he bowed, saying, “This is for you, sir, to do with as you will.”

It was not too long after this incident that Sami became a Colonel himself and Zia moved even more quickly up the ladder of preferment , jumping over several more senior regimental commanders to Brigadier and then to Corps Commander at Multan in the southern Punjab. I have had the pleasure of eating dinner in the Officer’s Club there which was, some years ago, rehabilitated by Colonel Sami. It is a striking building with white domes, originally a small local palace of the Nawab of Bahawalpur who donated it to the military cantonment in Multan.

But the Prime Minister seemed to take an interest in General Zia and would fly down to Multan to visit him from time to time. Sami’s regiment was in charge of meeting the PM and they did it, in Sami’s words, “As if King George V were flying into Calcutta, with bands playing and parades.” Apparently Bhutto used to sit up with Zia, drinking Scotch while he told coarse jokes and hooted with laughter as he made insulting remarks about the country’s other political leaders. He often made insulting remarks to Zia as well but Zia only smiled good humouredly. He himself did not drink. “Why should you have to put up with this joker, sir?” Sami asked his good friend one evening after the Prime Minister had groped his way to bed. “He is very powerful,” he replied. “You will see.”

A few years later when in spite of all its twists and turns the Bhutto government had exhausted its public support, the Prime Minister was forced to fall back upon the strong arm of the military to restore public order and confidence. He was fortunate in having as Commander of the Armed Forces a trustworthy and reliable person who could be counted upon to do the right thing, even if it was not the popular thing. At this juncture, Zia with an apologetic smile removed Bhutto from office temporarily, telling him, “We’ll have you back there as soon as it’s safe, boss.”

When public charges were brought against Bhutto, Zia had him locked up in the jail at the base in Rawalpindi where he could keep an eye on him. Then finally when he was convicted of murder, in spite of protests by the Pope and other world leaders, Zia hanged him. He later told Sami that he had visited Bhutto in his temporary quarters in Murree during those first weeks after he had intervened and found the P.M. coldly furious with him. “You had better have me back in office within a week or so,” he told Zia, “or you and those other military clowns are going to be cleaning out the urinals at the Staff College in Quetta with your toothbrushes.” Zia knew that Bhutto would never trust him again. The rest is history.

Zia promised free elections within ninety days but it was eleven years of martial law before his death let any power slip back to such a corruptible system and easily overturned government as he had found Pakistan’s to be. When Benazir Bhutto was elected in ’89 it was still Zia’s ghost which kept her from any real power since the presidency – that post he had carefully prepared for himself – held the bureaucratic card – and the armed forces commander held the third card. Benazir held only one herself, a slim electoral mandate, and that was not enough to govern, even had she been wiser politically than she was.

Sami never made brigadier, he decided to go into business just before his promotion was due. He told General Zia, “I have been a good battalion commander and a first-rate regimental commander. Why should I be a mediocre division commander?” Actually, I think he was quite well aware that Zia wanted him for his ‘kitchen cabinet’ the military cabal of trusted advisors who are highly rewarded but also used for other errands and jobs of a less than pleasant nature. Sami never fancied being Zia’s Zia.

As a businessman he was halfway successful for a few years and then, with a little help from his friends and relations, went bankrupt. Zia in Lahore once asked him if there was anything that he could do for him. And Sami, who was at the time the General Secretary of the Gymkhana Club, said yes. He wanted a sprinkler system for the club’s golf course. Zia shook his head and smiled and walked away. They got the sprinklers.