COVER STORY

This interview is dedicated to SARMAST Battalion (4 SINDH)

DJ’s A H AMIN interviewed this twice decorated (1965 and 1971 wars) valiant son of the soil, known for his blunt candour

Remembering Our Warriors
Brig Muhammad Taj, SJ & Bar

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR EARLY LIFE, PARENTS, PLACE OF BIRTH ETC?

I took my first breath of life on March 29, 1928 in a remote village Dewal of Murree Tehsil, which is located at the meeting point of borders of three different areas, namely Punjab, NWFP and Azad Kashmir. Surrounded by lofty mountains. Dewal is a lush green land covered with fruit plants and dotted with natural springs. Though my service in the army kept me away from my village for long spells, but whenever I returned to it I felt like a child landing into the lap of his mother.

Most people of mountain areas are economically handicapped due to a variety of reasons such as meagre holdings, harsh weather and inaccessibility to main centre of work and business. So was my family. My father died when I was a boy of only eleven and the responsibility of raising a family of five children fell upon my mother. My mother met the responsibility with great courage and vision amid dire circumstances and the more we remember her today the more we feel that she was a woman of talismanic dimensions who protected and guided her children to a better future.

I belong to Dhund tribe, a dominant tribe of Murree Tehsil, which owes its origin to the dynasty of Hazrat Abbass (RA), the uncle of prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is because of this linkage that more people from this area use the word Abbassi with their name.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR SCHOOL LIFE, YOUR TEACHERS and CONTEMPORARIES ETC?

I completed my primary education in the village school and later joined the middle school, OSIA, in nearby village, which has the distinction of representing today the highest female literacy rate in the entire country. This distinction of OSIA has been certified by the education department. I passed my matriculation examination from Government High School, Murree in 1944. Those were very difficult days as far as travelling is concerned. Boys from Dewal daily walked more than 20 miles to and from the High School in Murree city.

Our teacher included Hindus and Sikhs also and I must concede that they treated Muslim children without any religious bias. Among the Muslim teachers Master Muhammad Khaqan and Qazi Zafeer ul Haq were the most favourite of the students including myself. With well-starched turban on their head and beards cut to meet Islamic injunctions, both the teachers exuded a commanding personality. Not only did they teach their respective subjects to the students but also imparted religious education to the Muslim students who were in overwhelming majority. They treated students in a fatherly manner but if somebody persistently ignored homework or showed indiscipline, the Moulvi Sahib, as the students referred to both the teachers in private conversation, never spared the rod, which they always carried in their hand.

Qazi Sahib was a respected name in the field of Hikmat also. After retirement, he adopted Hikmat as a fulltime profession and setup his clinic in Rawalpindi where his medical expertise earned him great repute. He lived long and died at the age of about 90.

Most of my close classmates and friends at school ultimately joined army and attained distinguished positions. They included Major General Muhammad Riaz Khan, Air Commodore Khaqan Abbassi, Col. Saleh and Col. Hafiz. (Late) Khaqan Abbassi entered politics in 1985, won the general elections and became Minister for Production in the Cabinet of Muhammad Khan Junejo. He turned out to be a political leader of great qualities of both head and heart. He reached the highest point politically in this entire mountain range of Murree, Kotli Sattian and Kahuta and stood far ahead his more professional rivals. His political career was cut short in the Ojhri Camp blast on April 10, 1988 when a flying missile struck his moving car and killed him on the spot. Apart from being an irreparable personal loss, the death of Khaqan Abbassi shocked the whole country and deprived the hill folk of an able leader.

WHAT WERE YOUR POLITICAL VIEWS AS A YOUNG MAN?

Unlike these days, the rural areas of Murree were politically dormant during my younger days. We heard more of Second World War and the slogans churned out by the British propaganda machinery downgrading the axis power and predicting their immediate doom. Later, issues like freedom struggle for the subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan dominated the din of war. The entire Muslim Community of India supported the idea of Pakistan and showed complete faith in the leadership of Quaid-e-Azam. It was impossible for any Muslim individual not to be a part of the mainstream Muslim politics.

WERE THE DHUNDS OF 1857 WHO REBELLED AGAINST THE BRITISH REMEMBERED IN THE MURREE OF YOUR YOUTH?

Dhunds are a fiercely independent people who always revolted against British Colonialists after the subjugation of Punjab in the middle of nineteenth century. In 1857 when War of Independence broke out in Northern India commonly branded as mutiny by biased English historians, Dhunds came out to challenge the British occupants of their area under the leadership of Sardar Baz Khan. Sardar Baz Khan and his associates went from village to village to mobilize and organize people for their crusade against the British intruders. But British intelligence outwitted their plans and preparations and succeeded in sowing divisions in their ranks. The ultimate result was that after a number of armed confrontations, the British force overpowered the liberation fighters and punished most of them with cruel vengeance for revolt and rebellion against the government by tying them in front of gun muzzles and blasting them to pieces.

Though very rarely quoted in the history of the freedom struggle of the subcontinent, the sacrifices made by the hill folk in this remote corner of the country are worthy of being written in gold. The names of Sardar Baz Khan and his closed associates are still remembered with regard and respect. The revolt of the Dhunds against British colonialist was perhaps the sole major event of its nature in Punjab, which either supported the British or remained apparently uninitiated. Not only during my younger days but even today the sacrifices made by the Dhunds in their war against the British rulers are remembered with great pride and passion. Sardar Baz Khan, the leader of the revolt and some of his less known associates are widely respected. The Dhunds suffered heavily after they failed to oust the British intruders and their tribulations continued till the creation of Pakistan.

ANY INCIDENT THAT INFLUENCED YOU IN A DECISIVE MANNER IN YOUR EARLY LIFE?

I don’t think there was any except the early death of my father, which left my mother and her five children in a state of utter hopeless mess. But my mother fought all odds with courage and brought the rocking boat of the family to the safe shores. The episode, you can say, influenced me in a decisive manner and moulded my future thinking.

WE BELIEVE THAT THERE ARE A NUMBER OF YOUR RELATIVES WHO HAVE BEEN IN THE ARMED FORCES? ANY OUTSTANDING ONES AMONG THEM THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO TALK ABOUT?

I have already mentioned the name and some of the achievements of Khaqan Abbassi. To call him talented only would be an under statement. He had a force and vigour of personality and a gift of God, which blossomed after he chose to walk in the political field. Had life permitted him, I am sure; he would have soared much higher.

Major General Muhammad Riaz Khan was not only a professional soldier but also a man of all the good qualities of life. He, too, died pretty earlier but left a rich crop of values for the family to emulate.

Before concluding, let me say that we are basically an army family. This is despite the fact that the recruitment in the army was banned for the Dhunds for their active participation in the 1857 war of liberation.

DID YOU JOIN THE ARMY BY FORCE OF CIRCUMSTANCES OR WAS JOINING THE ARMY YOUR BURNING PASSION/LIFE’S FOREMOST AMBITION?

Initially, it was force of circumstances because I was in need of employment. Later, a passion did develop and it had direct bearing on my moving ahead in service.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR CADET LIFE AT THE OTS KOHAT?

I joined OTS in 1949 our Platoon Commander was a British Captain. I had gone from the army, faced no adjustment problem. I passed out as one of the top cadets.

ANY INSTRUCTOR WHO IMPRESSED YOU AND WHO PLAYED A FORMATIVE ROLE IN YOUR GROOMING AS A CADET?

There were a number of British and Pakistani instructors in OTS, some of whom reached higher ranks later in service and served as role model for us. Those days’ cadets came from top institution of the country and were more dedicated to the army.

TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE UNIT YOU JOINED ON COMMISSIONING?

I joined 7th Battalion of 1st Punjab Regiment. Some of my elders from village had also served in this regiment. It was considered a very good battalion of the regiment and I wanted to be moulded into a better officer.

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A SUBALTERN? PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR COLLEAGUES?

When I joined the unit Lt. Iqbal, Lt. Osman and Lt. Nadir were already there. Lt. Sohrab and myself joined the unit from the OTS. Unfortunately, Lt. Iqbal was killed in an ambush while serving with Zhob Militia. Osman, Nadir and Sohrab left the army as Majors.

WAS THEIR ANY DISCRIMINATION /RIVALRY/ BIAS AGAINST OTS COMMISSIONED OFFICERS IN THE ARMY OF EARLY FIFTIES?

Initially, the seniority was counted from the date of commission but later because of demand of PMA officers the date of joining of PMA or OTS was made the basis of seniority. This did unleash a wave of dissatisfaction in the beginning but since the decision was logical the issue faded out smoothly.

HOW WAS THE STANDARD OF TRAINING IN THE ARMY OF 1950s?

The training standard at OTS, PMA and the units was very high. The instructors were professional and well qualified and students were keen to learn.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR SERVICE PROFILE FROM DATE OF COMMISSION TILL 1965?

I joined the unit in December 1950 after attending the basic course at Infantry School, Quetta. I held appointments of Company Commander, Quartermaster and Adjutant till 1953. I was posted to Frontier Corps in the same year and stayed there till 1957.

I was lucky to be posted to South Waziristan Scouts, which were the top-notch Corps of Frontier. The most important function that I performed related to the training of shooting team of South Waziristan Scouts. In the history of PARA, SWS was the only unit that won seventeen trophies from PARA. This was a unique honour, which I still cherish. On reversion from Scouts I was appointed to 11 Punjab where I held appointment of company commander until I went to attend Staff College, Quetta. On completion of Staff College Course, I was posted to HQ. 15 Division as GSO 2 (Ops). I performed this duty and was later selected for Career Course at Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. I was the first non-regular officer to be selected for this course. I completed my course in 1965 and was posted to 18 Punjab, my original unit which was at that time stationed at Rann of Kuch.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES AT THE STAFF COLLEGE? THE STANDARD OF INSTRUCTORS, YOUR CONTEMPORARIES ON COURSE ETC?

Staff College is one of the top military training institutions since the British days. During my stay, the instructors constituted the cream of Pakistan Army. The college groomed officers for staff duties at Brigade and Divisional level. My contemporaries included Maj. Gen. Abdullah Saeed, Lt. Gen. Safdar Butt, Maj. Gen. Muhammad Riaz Khan, Lt. Gen. Rafaqat, Maj. Gen. Abdul Rehman, Maj. Gen. Zulfiqar, Maj. Gen. Anwar Masood, Brig. Abdul Shakoor, Brig. Sabir Qureshi and some others. All of them were great soldiers and worked in distinguished position in their respective fields.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR WAR EXPERIENCES OF THE 1965 WAR?

On September 6 as Indo-Pak war broke out, my unit was directed to reach the border of Khokhara Par in Tharparkar district. The entire population from Karachi to every nook and corner of Sindh was deeply motivated and united to defend the country against Indian onslaught. This gave a big boost to the morale of the army and they were ready to shed their last drop of blood for the safety and security of the country. I was given the assignment to recapture ranger post Shakarbu about sixteen miles from Khokhara Par, which had earlier been occupied by the Indian army. My force included a rifle company and a section of mortar guns. My company reached the outskirts of Shakarbu by first light on the attacking day and carried out the operation successfully. The Indian fled away, leaving some dead, and the post was recaptured. On reaching the post, I noticed some activity at Kharin Post on the Indian side of the border, I immediately planned an attack with mobile force consisting of about sixteen men with MGs and RRs. The post was captured without any opposition. Soon thereof, I sighted two enemy tanks advancing rapidly towards the post with two rifle companies. We immediately opened fire with machine guns. L/ Naik Khushi Muhammad, Commander RR, knocked out one tank and rendered the other disfunctional. The advancing Indian elements were engaged by me with mortar and machine gun fire, which forced it to withdraw leaving behind a number of dead bodies and the wreckage of two tanks. I and L/ Naik Khushi Muhammad were awarded SJ and TJ respectively for this performance. It is seldom in military history that a force as small as sixteen men not only knocked out two tanks but also repulsed a counter attack supported by tanks and two Infantry Companies.

On handing over Shakarbu Post to Rangers, I joined the Battalion for Dali operation. My company was to lead the advance and establish a firm base on a high ground in the rear of the enemy. We established the firm base and A and C companies were launched to capture Dali. Two available air sorties performed dare devil-attacking feats; the base commander Air Cdr M. K. Abbassi was himself flying one of the aircraft. Air action not only destroyed the enemy ammunition train but also enemy men and equipment were shelled resulting in heavy casualties. By dusk, attack began with thunderous ‘NARAS’. The result was a complete success. Dali was cleared next day again with the help of D company, which had earlier successfully repulsed an enemy counter attack from the direction of Jasso - JoPar. D Company assaulted with RRs and MGs with one shout “Get out of the trenches otherwise you will be butchered” the enemy men surrendered and seven officers, 12 JCO’s and a number of ORs were taken prisoners. They belonged to 5 Maratha and 17 Madras. Here 18 Punjab captured three tanks also which were in subsequent operation used against Indian army. This action will go down as one of the finest operations ever fought by a Battalion. Next to attract attention of 18 Punjab was Kalran-Ka-Talao. Here Indians had earlier occupied a number of Rangers Post, 18 Punjab was to recapture Kalran-Ka-Talao, hardly Battalion reached the concentration area, Indians attacked Ranger Post, again D company from a flank moved forward and engaged the assaulting troops effectively, inflicting very heavy casualties. The attack was crushed and enemy escaped leaving behind their dead and wounded. 3 Garhwals, that led the advance were licking their wounds for the remaining period of war and never dared to challenge Pakistani troops again. These were the achievement in 1965 war of a battalion that fought against two brigades of Indian army advancing along Gadra-Chachro axis

HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP 1965 WAR AS YOU SAW IT?

In my opinion this war was primarily fought by the officers of the ranks of Lt. Col. and below. They created history and proved to the world that how well-trained and motivated they were and how they repulsed aggression by an army three times bigger in equipment and human resources. I regret to say that generalship failed us in this war otherwise the history of Pakistan would have been much different.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR SERVICE PROFILE FROM 1965 TO 1971? THE BATTALIONS YOU COMMANDED BEFORE 1971 AND DURING 1971?

After 1965 war, I was posted to Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul where I stayed as term/company commander Tariq Company until I was promoted and posted in 1967 to command an Azad Kashmir Battalion in Kotli Sector. In June 1968, I was posted to 18 Punjab, my parent unit at Sialkot. From there I was posted as GSO 1 (Int) Headquarters, 14 Division, Dacca, then East Pakistan, where I stayed till November 1971.

YOU WERE GSO-1 (INTELLIGENCE) 14 DIVISION IN EAST PAKISTAN IN 1970. WHAT WAS YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE SITUATION AT THAT POINT IN TIME AND DID YOU EVER IMAGINE THAT CIVIL WAR AND SECESSION WAS IMMINENT? HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS THE REACTION TO YOUR REQUESTS?

On joining 14 Division my analysis was that Sh. Mujib Ur Rehman was a popular leader and his Six-Point programme was on the lips of almost every East Pakistani. There was hatred against West Pakistanis both in the army and the civilian population. The hatred grew with the passage of time. The East Pakistani non-Muslim intellectuals, particularly those who had economic hold on that wing of the country, fanned the flames of hatred in a very systematic manner. The organization headed by Maulana Bhashani and Jamaat-i-Islami did oppose Sh. Mujib and his party but they were no match to the sway of latter. My assessment was that the alarming situation could be resolved by politicians and not by military commanders who were at the helm of affairs at that time.

PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES IN EAST PAKISTAN IN THE MONTH OF MARCH 1971?

During the 1970 elections, Sh. Mujib’s Awami League won all the seats in East Pakistan leaving of course one or two which was inconsequential. With a pretty less sway, the same phenomenon was witnessed in West Pakistan, where PPP emerged as the dominant party. In all fairness, the majority party Awami League, should have formed the government, but a combination of inauspicious circumstances, created by politicians, forced General Yahya not to hold the NA session on the scheduled date and postpone it. This was not acceptable to East Pakistanis who came out on the streets to agitate against the decision. Most of the East Pakistan establishment, either out of fear for reprisal or wilful determinations, also supported the agitation and walked out of their offices. The army was called in to control the situation but it was too late. The East Pakistanis, with the help of Mukti Bahinis and Indian agents, virtually launched a war against West Pakistanis irrespective of any differentiation between the army and the civil population, who were vastly outnumbered. Government officials from West Pakistan callously killed along with their wives and children. Food supplies to the cantonments were stopped and banks were ordered not to encash cheques of West Pakistanis. There was complete revolt and anarchy and all the shots were called by Sh. Mujib and his party. Given the particular nature of the situation and its political contours, it was not easy for the army to set its targets. Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yaqoob, Commander Eastern Command, requested Gen. Yahya to come to Dacca to handle the situation but he refused to do so. Sheikh Mujib also planned a big rally on March 6, 1971 where it was feared that he would announce UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). In the meantime, killing of West Pakistanis continued and atrocities against them remained unchecked. On March 6, Gen. Tikka Khan arrived in Dacca to take over the Command from Gen. Yaqoob who had resigned following his differences with Gen. Yahya, Gen. Tikka, having assessed the situation also suggested a political solution and requested Gen. Yahya to come to East Pakistan for dialogue with Sheikh Mujib and his party associates. A number of West Pakistanis leaders were also present in Dacca at that time, they included Sardar Shaukat Hayat, Mufti Mahmood, Wali Khan, Akbar Bugti and some others, on March 19, Z.A. Bhutto also arrived with his entourage which; included J. A. Rahim, Hayat Sherpao, Rafi Raza and Ghulam Mustafa Khar. Gen. Yahya had come four days earlier on March 15. He held a series of meeting with the leaders of both the wings but the issues at stake could not be settled. Sheikh Mujib presented a document of confederation before the President. Obviously this could not be accepted under the circumstances existing at that time. This led to complete change in the attitude of the army and it was decided to take military action to control the law and order situation.

IT HAS BEEN ASSERTED IN SOME QUARTERS THAT EVENTS OF 25TH OF MARCH 1971 CONSTITUTED THE POINT OF NO RETURN AS FAR AS SOLVING THE EAST PAKISTAN CRISIS WAS CONCERNED. HOW FAR IS THIS CORRECT?

As I have said earlier, the law and order situation had gone completely out of control and there was no other course available but military action to restore normalcy. We started on March 25 and the situation was brought under control by the middle of April. After that, the government and the politicians should have joined hands to install a political setup in the premises but, unfortunately, this was not done.

WAS SECESSION AND CIVIL WAR INEVITABLE IN 1971 OR WAS IT AVOIDABLE?

It was, no doubt, avoidable provided the democratic process was allowed to take its course. There were too many vested interests both in the army and among the politicians.

WHAT HAPPENED POST-MARCH 25, 1971?

The military action proposed was highly successful and law and order situation was under control. The violent elements went underground. The government did try to install civilian government but the popular leaders of Awami Party were missing.

HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE TIKKA WITH NIAZI AS A COMMANDER IN 1971?

No comparison can be made between the two. Tikka was every inch professional and dedicated soldier.

IS IT TRUE THAT THERE WAS A DIVIDE BETWEEN THE OFFICERS WHO WERE PRESENT IN 1970 IN EAST PAKISTAN AND THOSE WHO CAME IN AND AROUND 25 MARCH, 1971?

Yes, to some extent it is true. The new comers did not appreciate the actions of the officers already posted there. The disagreement was more visible among senior officers.

HOW DID THE MEN TAKE THE CIVIL WAR?

As there was complete anarchy in East Pakistan, the West Pakistanis, including army men were being humiliated and butchered, the men took the military action as the only answer.

HOW DO YOU RATE THE MUKHTI BAHINIS WHO FOUGHT AGAINST YOU?

Mukhti Bahini were not a properly trained force but their venom against West Pakistanis was high. They could not stand against regular army and this was one major reason that they scattered too soon and went either underground or beyond the borders where they had their hideouts.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR SERVICE PROFILE AFTER RETURN FROM EAST PAKISTAN TILL THE OUTBREAK OF 1971 WAR?

I came back to West Pakistan for giving my evidence in connection with the trial of Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman. In November, I took over the command of 44 Punjab (now 4 Sindh) which was at that time deployed near Rahimyar Khan. I commanded this unit during the entire duration of the war.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT 1971 WAR AS A BATTALION COMMANDER?

On December 4, when Indo-Pak war in East Pakistan spilled out we were deployed near Rahimyar Khan as part of 2 Corps. We heard the bad news of the debacle of 18 Division and I was ordered to go to Sadiqabad and get further orders from 18 Division Rear Headquarters. I went there and found the Headquarters in utter confusion.

Soon after I met Lt. Col. Akram Syed who had returned from the front lines. He was cursing everybody around and what appeared from his utterances was that 18 Division operation was complete failure. This was a great setback to the Pakistan army and its subsequent operations were adversely affected. I was ordered to move to Hyderabad sector to reinforce 55 Brigade which was deployed at Chor and was facing problems. We moved by train to Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas. The enemy air was extremely active and all our movements were confined to night except for the move by road to Ghotki. Next morning the battalion moved short of Umarkot and stayed under cover during day time. I went forward and met Lt. Gen. K. M. Azhar, then Governor of NWFP, near Chor. He briefed us on the situation. In the meantime HQ 60 Brigade and GOC 33 Division also moved  to this area as the situation here was deteriorating. I took an instant decision and moved my battalion during daylight despite air superiority of the enemy. 44 Punjab moved forward despite continuous air attacks on the single road upto Umarkot and then from Umarkot towards Chor. I left Umarkot with my ‘R’ group to contact Commander 55 Brigade to get further briefing. On my way I met Gen Naseer who was going to the hospital. He told me that due to intensive enemy air action Gen.  Azhar and his ADC, Major (Now Brigadier) Shafqat  Cheema and he himself were badly wounded and that I must reach the Brigade HQ immediately, on reaching HQ, I met Gen. Azhar and inquired about his condition. He was really badly wounded but refused to be evacuated to hospital. He ordered me to deploy my battalion in defensive position along Sanohi ridge and hold it at all costs. In my battalion there were some officers from East Pakistan who could not be relied upon. Sanohi ridge was an important tactical feature and I wanted to deploy there the best of my men. Captain Ikram Sehgal had joined us on 27 Nov 1971 a few days earlier. I happened to know this young officer from my Dacca days. He was a dedicated professional soldier and reliable. I decided to deploy his company at Sanohi ridge. Later, we were also ordered to be ready to recapture 200r, a hill feature in the area. Captain Sehgal and Captain Fahim (Now Maj. General) were specially selected to command the assaulting companies. Capt. Naseer Ahmed Tariq and Lt. Hanif Butt volunteered to go with the assaulting companies. They were daring officers of the battalion known for their grit and popularity.  I have commanded two Brigades and five Battalions of the Pakistan Army at various times, in peace and war but not seen the equal of such officers who literally laughed in the face of certain death. As they prepared for battle their high morale enthused the whole battalion with great elan and spirit. This assault, however, was not launched for certain logistical reasons. The enemy air actions continued and the battalion had the proud privilege of shooting down two SU-7s. It was on Sanohi Ridge in the desert that Captain Sehgal was promoted to the rank of Major, under the peculiar circumstances prevailing at that time where no Major’s crescent and star was available, I took off my crescent and star and fixed them on the shoulder of Major Sehgal. I also re-named Delta Company as “Sehgal Company” after its Company Commander. (Thirty years later on installation of Maj Gen Fahim as Colonel of the Battalion recently in Okara Cantonment in early April, I was pleasantly surprised to hear full-throated slogans of “Sehgal Company” Zindabad). The battalion continued to stay in the area and effectively checked further advance of enemy forces.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH YOU WERE AWARDED YOUR SECOND SJ?

Second SJ was awarded to me in recognition of my performances in Dacca during military action and subsequent march to Rajshahi, fighting a number of battles en route. This also included crossing of Brahmaputra under dire circumstances and capturing Nagarbari. A number of battles were fought against Mukti Bahini and the defected EPR Rangers.

The crossing of Brahmaputra was so rapid and swift that even our adversary, one Indian General appreciated this operation in one of their books on East Pakistan War.

IT HAS BEEN ASSERTED THAT ONCE 44 PUNJAB ARRIVED IN CHOR AND TOOK UP POSITION ON SANOHI RIDGE AREA, BOTH THE UNITS EARLIER HOLDING THE GENERAL AREA HAD DISAPPEARED. HOW FAR IS THIS CORRECT?

It is not correct in the sense conveyed by the question, though it is true that the battalions deployed on FDLS were newly raised and they could not stand the enemy pressure. They lost a number of posts here to the Indians which could have been defended for a longer duration.

HOW DID 44 PUNJAB (now 4 SINDH) PERFORM AND WOULD YOU SINGLE OUT SOME OFFICERS WHOSE WAR PERFORMANCE WAS OUTSTANDING? WHERE ARE THESE OFFICERS NOW?

44 Punjab performed well under most adverse air situations and moved swiftly to strengthen defences at Chor. I was lucky to have a team of motivated, efficient and reliable officers. I have already named a few of them. I am in constant touch with them particularly Maj. (Retd) Ikram Sehgal, Maj. Gen. Fahim, Captain (Retd) Tariq and Brigadier Iftikhar Mehdi. These officers spent some of their younger days with me when I, too, was not that old. I always considered them as my family members and this relationship will, Inshallah, continue as long as I live.

ANY LOST OPPORTUNITIES IN 1971?

The debacle of 18 Division was a great catastrophe. This gave a serious jolt to our subsequent plans and landed us in great trouble.

ANY GENERAL OFFICER THAT REALLY IMPRESSED YOU IN THE YEAR 1971.

Gen. Tikka impressed me most and he was my ideal. Simple, straight forward and honest. He was a soldier of exceptional qualities which I would like to see in every officer.

HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP THE 1971 WAR?

I have already mentioned some of the aspects of the 1971 war. The army had appointed a high-powered commission to study the event in depth. The report of the commission is lying with the GHQ and covers all the details and dimensions of the war. I hope our senior commanders study this report and take corrective measures.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR SERVICE PROFILE FROM 1971 TILL RETIREMENT?

I continued commanding 44 Punjab which at one stage was employed on IS duties in connection with language riots in Sindh. I was also officiating Brigade commander of 60 Brigade which later moved to Balochistan for counter-insurgency operation in the Marri-Bugti area. In 1974, I was posted to R&D Directorate, GHQ Rawalpindi, where I was promoted to the rank of Brigadier. I was appointed Director Motivation for a couple of months and then Commander 3 AK Brigade, Kotli, Azad Kashmir. During PNA movement in 1977, at a time when three Brigadiers had resigned for the reasons best known to them, I was moved to Lahore to restore law and order.

I successfully controlled the agitation in Lahore city and was later appointed as head of a committee to conduct the accountability of political leaders. From there I retired in 1978.

HOW WAS THE STINT AS A BATTALION COMMANDER IN THE BALOCHISTAN OPERATIONS FROM 1973-74?

60 Brigade was moved to Marri-Bugti area under my command for counter-insurgency operations. The Brigade covered an area of 500 square miles over a rough and rugged terrain with extremely bad roads. The battalion operated from Sibi to Kohlu, Maiwand, Kaihan and Dera Bugti. The Brigade was over stretched with poor logistic support but the task assigned to it was carried out successfully. The battalion had tough time but this did not prevent them from restoring law and order effectively.

HOW DID 44 PUNJAB PERFORM?

It performed well. 44 Punjab was frequently put in difficult positions. They moved from the desert to the mountains to fight frontier warfare and to carry out counter-insurgency operations. It was always overstretched protecting line of communication but the unit’s performance never declined under stress and strain of the rugged mountains.

DURING THE 1973 CONSPIRACY CASE 44 PUNJAB WAS IN QUETTA  AND SUSPECTED TO  BE PART OF THE ATTEMPTED REVOLT. YOU WERE IN PINDI ON LEAVE AND SPECIALLY FLEW TO QUETTA, CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT HAPPENED?

This assumption is not correct!

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT THE BALOCH WERE MASTERS IN MINOR TACTICS. HOW FAR IS THIS CORRECT?

Frontier warfare is totally different. The tribesmen are familiar with the terrain and have a natural gift for good marksmanship. They are good in stalking at night with abundant patience. They constantly watch the activities of their adversary and strike at the right moment. They make best of their enemy’s weaknesses.

HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE BALOCH WITH THE MUKTI BAHINI IN TERMS OF BELIEF IN THEIR CAUSE, PROFICIENCY IN GUERRILLA WARFARE, TYPE OF EQUIPMENT HELD ETC?

There is no comparison between the two. Balochis are a fiercely tribal community who fight to defend their way of life and age old customs and traditions. They are well-armed. Mukti Bahinis, on the other hand, were an armed wing of a political party which aimed at dismembering the country. They were trained and armed by the sworn enemy of Pakistan.

ANY MEMORABLE INCIDENT FROM THE BALOCHISTAN EXPERIENCE?

A raid by tribals on a picquet of 44 Punjab and retaliatory action taken by the battalion is still fresh in my mind. 44 Punjab, occupied a feature to protect Headquarters. The picquet was moved at night. The tribesmen approached the site and launched a sudden attack, killing six men. I was away from HQ and on hearing this, reached the HQ and planned to search the area. We launched this operation moving ridge to ridge and captured a number of tribesmen with weapons. The operation was conducted with a great speed and complete surprise. After this operation the tribesmen never dared to approach anywhere near our posts.

HOW WAS THE AGITATION OF 1977 VIEWED IN THE ARMY?

It was generally believed that the root cause of the agitation was rigging of elections in 1977, though later Islamisation also became a part of it. The army, I believe, keeping its professional character in view, was not inclined to either support or oppose the agitation. Some top-ranking individuals, however, had different views and how ultimately the things turned out is history now.

HOW WAS THE STINT AS HEAD OF AN ENQUIRY COMMISSION THAT DEALT WITH ASSEMBLY MEMBERS OF THE EX-PPP GOVERNMENT AFTER THE IMPOSITION OF 1977 MARTIAL LAW?

Initially, the Enquiry Commission started its work with considerable zeal but ultimately it proved a futile exercise. Political leaders against whom enquires were opened changed their loyalties overnight and managed to ingratiate themselves with the new government. Some of them became ministers while others succeeded in averting the proceedings against them.

WHY THE ARMY DID NOT CONDUCT A RUTHLESS ACCOUNTABILITY AFTER 1977. INSTEAD MANY POLITICIANS CHANGED LOYALTIES AND JOINED THE ZIA REGIME?

Perhaps, the rulers used the process of accountability only as an instrument for arm twisting. Those who surrendered and supported the new government were set free.

THE ARMY IMPOSED MARTIAL LAW BECAUSE OF THE REASON THAT THE ELECTIONS WERE RIGGED? HOWEVER, VERY FEW OFFICIALS INVOLVED IN THE RIGGING WERE EVER PUNISHED. WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?

Your analysis is correct. But again, it appears, punishing those who were involved in rigging did not figure in the agenda of coup-makers.

WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS ABOUT THE ASSESSMENT THAT RIGGING ELECTIONS AS AN ART WAS PERFECTED DURING THE PERIOD 1977 TO 2000?

Actually, rigging was encouraged and promoted at the highest level of the government to change the outcome of elections. Many candidates, however, won on merit. Once a government becomes part of an irregularity it is impossible to check it.

HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS ZIA AS A MAN AND THE INFLUENCE THAT HE HAD DURING HIS 11-YEAR-OLD STINT AS ARMY CHIEF?

I believe he followed double standards throughout his tenure. He said one thing and did quite the opposite to remain in power. The Afghan war, however, provided him with opportunities to prolong his rule.

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT ZIA DELIBERATELY PROMOTED RELATIVELY SPINELESS PEOPLE IN ORDER TO STRENGTHEN HIS GRIP ON THE ARMY. HOW FAR IS THIS ASSERTION CORRECT OR INCORRECT?

This allegation is correct to some extent but this is precisely what every military dictator would do to strengthen his position.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR POST-RETIREMENT LIFE?

I went to Saudi Arabia and joined some friends in business. In 1986, I returned and took over Murree-Kahuta Development Authority which had been revived through the efforts of Mr. Khaqan Abbassi after about 12 years. My contract with the government ended in 1992. I am happy that I did some good work for this mountain range, as DG, MKDA, which people still remember. Thereafter, I started hotel business as a source of livelihood.

PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR DAILY ROUTINE?

Though I have some health problems at 73 which everybody has during this phase of his life, I am still very much active and kicking around. Most of my time is distributed between Rawalpindi and Murree. I drive my car myself and meet all the responsibilities as the head of the family, as a businessman and as a social worker. I am busy most of the time doing something useful for the community.

HOW WOULD YOU ASSESS THE SYSTEM OF PROMOTIONS/ ASSESSMENT OF OFFICERS IN THE ARMY?

The system is scientific and has been evolved after many trials and errors. It is also based on the study of foreign systems. I strongly feel that this should be introduced even in civil service.

HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE ARMY OF 1951, 1956, 1971 AND 1977 WITH THE ARMY OF 2001 IN TERMS OF EFFICIENCY, PROFESSIONALISM AND OPERATIONAL PREPAREDNESS?

The army of the bygone days was more professional, disciplined and dedicated. It believed in simplicity and abhorred material gains. Politics was taboo to it and its sole occupation was to maintain high standard of preparedness to defend the country against foreign aggression. Today’s army is better educated with better vision and equipped with more sophisticated weapons. I wish them best of luck in any future conflict.

YOU LED A SUCCESSFUL AGITATION AGAINST A TAX IMPOSED BY THE NAWAZ GOVERNMENT IN THE MURREE HILLS. PLEASE TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE WHOLE AFFAIR?

After retirement from the army and a short stint as DG, Murree Kahuta Development Authority, I opened a hotel to earn my bread and butter. Once being one of them, prominent members of the hotel community, which constitutes the largest segment of local trade and business, often came to meet me and talked of various problems facing their profession. They persuaded me to accept the Presidentship of their union which I resisted with all the force at my command but finally I had this post virtually thrust on me. It was in this capacity that I came close to other trade, political, religious and social organization who vehemently opposed the arbitrary increase in toll tax in the summer of 1998.

Unfortunately, despite being a popular tourist centre, Murree has always been burdened with a nagging variety of road taxes including toll tax and parking fees. What is more, the officials increased the existing taxes and revived new ones simply with a wave of hand in total disregard of public opinions. In 1998, the toll tax at four posts, encircling the municipality and was increased from an average of Rs. 7 per vehicle to Rs. 50. This was an unprecedented measure anywhere in the country and caused immediate reactions among transporters, the touring public and other segments of local population. Though the local population is exempt from toll tax on private vehicles, it is not always easy to secure an exemptions permit.

We tried our best to sort out this issue amicably with the local administration but to no avail. The officials told us that the increase in toll tax was ordered by no less an authority than Mian Shabaz Sharif, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, and he wanted full compliance with his order. We tried to meet the Chief Minister during his frequent visits to Murree but nobody let us go near him.

This unreasonable stand was a perfect reason for trouble. The situation started warming and one-day complete wheel-jam hartal was observed from Chattar to Kohala which continued for about two weeks. For two weeks, the roads remained deserted, the markets closed and the area under extreme turmoil. This was most difficult period for the common man who could not buy anything, including food item but that is precisely the hartals are aimed at. The event was widely publicized in the press and virtually shook the provincial government which finally conceded to sit with the leaders of the agitation on the negotiating table to settle the issue.

I had the privilege to lead this discussion. It was great experience and I learnt for the first time that a motivated and well-led civil population is no less than a trained army provided the cause is just and the target aimed at is correct.

YOU HAVE NOW ENTERED ACTIVE POLITICS. WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS AND HOW DO YOU ASSESS THE FUTURE OF POLITICS IN PAKISTAN?

No, you can’t say that I have entered active politics. I have not joined any political party and I never speak at political gatherings. But I do have many friends among politicians. My bradri, however, constantly persuades me to lead them in the political field. It is not an easy task and I have not yet made up my mind. As for future politics in Pakistan is concerned, it needs extensive cleansing. The process has already been started by the present government and I hope the future will be better with clean hands entering the political field.

ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO CONVEY THROUGH THE DEFENCE JOURNAL FOR THE READERS?

As a civilian citizen what worries me most is deep division and differences along ethnic, sectarian, linguistic and provinicial lines which pose a great threat to the unity and integrity of the country. The political parties, too, have no working ethics and are bitterly opposed to each other. My life-long experience in the army is that this institution is completely free from such differences. I wish that in the same pattern the unity based on mutual tolerance and understanding develops in our civilian life also and we all behave as Pakistanis and only Pakistanis. Unless the political parties work hard to achieve this end, all their struggle to seek power in the name of democracy is meaningless.

_____________________________________________________________

Personal note from the Publisher and Managing Editor

I have the proud privilege of publishing the interview of Brig Muhammad Taj SJ & Bar. My Commanding Officer (44 PUNJAB now 4 SINDH) is no ordinary person, he is one of the most outstanding and brave soldiers that the Pakistan Army has ever produced. I was lucky to have served under this really amazing man. I am quoting from THE REPORT written by me published in THE NATION on Sept 9, 2000 as an introduction of Brig Taj to the readers.

“Lt Col Taj was CO 44 Punjab (now 4 Sindh) during the 1971 war. Just consider only the events leading upto battle. As my company gave a canopy of machine gun fire over a train burning from end to end carrying Guides Cav tanks at Daharki Railway Station on 10 December 1971, he stood defiantly on the road only 200 yards away, arms akimbo flatly refusing to take cover till the Indian aircraft had been driven away and the cavalrymen ran to their tanks shackled on the MBFRs and started the engines, making a sharp right swivel to break the chains, letting the tanks fall sideways down the dusty embankment and putting out the fire. Now that I call courage! “Don’t be late” Taj growled with pride at the bravery of Guides Cavalry, “Tell Ayub (the Guides Cav CO) we have an appointment with the Indians you better not miss!” Or pummelling Sep Yaqub (now a PIA Security Guard in Karachi) and giving him a bear embrace for shooting down an SU-7 which crashed and exploded only a few hundred yards away a mile or so short of Umerkot.

Try and recapture the elan he would instil in the sub-units of 45 Punjab and 46 Baluch as they fanned out left and right of us, “Good hunting, tell the Indians Taj is here”. Quite dramatic, unabashed showmanship perhaps, but invaluable in raising the morale of troops on the receiving end of continuous Indian air attacks. And on Sanohi Ridge, the guns of 26 Field and 40 Field on the reverse slope booming away, exhorting 44 Punjab to take 199r and 200r, two sandy dunes occupied by the Indians in the proximity of Chor, “Is there a better day to be Shaheed than today, is there a better way to be shaheed than with a bullet in your chest?” he would ask anyone who would listen.

And during the O (Orders) Group with Maj Gen Naseer, GOC 33 Div, sitting with his knee cap shot up and Lt Gen. K.M. Azhar, Governor NWFP, also wounded looking on, “Hamid (we were assembled in the Gun Position of a Battery of 40 Field) will give us something to eat, we won’t become Shaheed on an empty stomach!” Maj (later Lt Gen) Hamid Niaz gave us a banquet of sukhi roti and dal, a very hot mug of gunner’s tea and sent us off with a tearful embrace into the darkness to what he thought was certain death.

Lt Col Taj was decorated with Sitara-e-Jurat for bravery in 1965 and then again in 1971. One cannot recapture in one article Taj’s actual war exploits, only how we were deeply motivated, (individually, as a unit and even as a formation) during desperate times by this man’s presence, how he lifted our spirits in an environment only someone who has been in a battle situation can empathize with.

This Army and this country owes a debt of gratitude to the Tajs of Pakistan, a hundred, maybe a thousand Tajs were seen up and down the line thus exhorting their sub-units, units and formations from Kashmir to Kutch in both the wars. They blunted the brunt of the enemy’s threat, asked for no quarter and gave none,” unquote.

How can those who have never smelt cordite under the stress of battle understand and appreciate heroes like Brig Taj?

previouspagebackhome