On the Quaid’s train to Lahore


Patron Lt Gen (Retd) Sardar FS Lodi writes about Col (Retd) SG MEHDI's historic trip with Quaid to Lahore

It was by chance that I discovered recently how Colonel S.G. Mehdi MC, of the Punjab Regiment, travelled to Lahore as a student to hear the Quaid-i-Azam's historic speech on March 22, 1940 in the very same train that the Quaid himself was travelling in. This was done at the Quaid's prompting.

I have had the privilege of knowing Colonel Mehdi for over 50 years. When I joined the newly established Pakistan Military Academy on the outskirts of Abbottabad along the foothills of Kakul, as a Junior 'Gentleman Cadet', I was assigned to Qasim Company, newly raised under the dynamic leadership of the newly promoted Major S.G. Mehdi, MC. He was also, perhaps affectionately referred to as 'killer Mehdi' by the British Commandant of the Military Academy, Brigadier F.H.B. Ingall DSO, a Cavalry officer, and his senior colleagues who came from the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun along with Major Mehdi after the partition of India. When we first saw him as he walked rather informally through the Qasim Company lines one afternoon, he certainly looked the 'killer' part with his ferocious bristling moustache, and general demeanour. But his soft and reassuring voice told a different story. Behind the outward manifestations of stern military authority was a simple professional soldier who wished to find out if we were settling down well in our new and unfamiliar surroundings.

After a passage of over 50 years I still remember Major Mehdi teaching us the finer points of becoming an officer and a gentleman. He went on to graduate from the British Army Staff College in England and teach a generation of officers, military tactics and the art of command, at the Army Staff College at Quetta. He was later selected to Command the Pakistan Army's Corps de Elite, Commando force, the Special Services Group (SSG). His former students and admirers often wondered why he was not promoted to General's rank. With my experience I can now only add, that not every good officer is.

Last year while sitting on the terrace at the Sind Club in Karachi, Colonel Mehdi eventually told me the story of the Quaid's train in March 1940. He did so over many cups of tea and plenty of coaxing as he is reluctant to talk about himself.

S.G. Mehdi was a student at the R.S.D. College in Ferozepore (now in the Indian Punjab), when he heard that the Quaid-i-Azam was passing through Ferozepore on his way to Lahore, on board the Frontier Mail in the early hours of March 22, 1940. This was a godsend opportunity to see the great Quaid in person and Mehdi was not going to miss it. He organized the Muslim students at the hostel where he was living and reached the railway station in a group.

When the train arrived it was easy to find the Quaid's compartment as his name was outside the first class coupe. Mehdi as leader of the group banged on the door in some excitement. When it was opened, he grabbed the Quaid's arm and while holding it aloft turned round and with his back to the compartment started shouting 'Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad'. He was expecting the other students to follow his lead but there was a half-hearted response only, while they kept pointing to the Quaid's compartment. When Mehdi turned around he found to his utter horror that he was not holding the arm of the Quaid but that of his sister Miss Fatima Jinnah, who seemed pretty amused with the whole incident. Mehdi quickly left Miss Jinnah's arm apologising profusely and somewhat incoherently owing to his embarrassment.

In the meantime Mehdi saw the Quaid come out of the toilet wearing a dressing gown and walk to the door. He looked at Mehdi and said, 'Young man what do you want'. Mehdi was mesmerized, seeing the great man so close to him and even asking him what he wanted. 'We had not come with any plan or request for the Quaid but only rushed to the railway station to see him' said Mehdi in his now calm voice. But the great man was expecting an answer, so Mehdi, on the spur of the moment requested the Quaid to make a speech. The Quaid looked at Mehdi and his companions and said 'I am going to Lahore to make an important speech, if you want to hear me, come to Lahore'. Mehdi looked at his colleagues and a spontaneous cry went up 'Lahore Chalo' (lets go to Lahore). The train started to move, the Quaid smiled and closed the door to his coupe, Mehdi and his colleagues jumped into the nearest compartments and were on their way to Lahore as the Quaid wanted, and on board the same train. Colonel S.G. Mehdi belongs to the fast diminishing group of persons who were present at Lahore and participated in the historic events of 22 and 23 March 1940. He is probably the only person alive who accompanied the Quaid-i-Azam from Ferozepore to Lahore in the same train at the Quaid's gentle prompting.

Mehdi remembers seeing the Lahore railway station packed to capacity by a large and enthusiastic crowd as the Frontier Mail with the Quaid on board steamed in. There were repeated shouts of 'Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad'. It took over an hour or more for everyone to leave the station. Mehdi and his colleagues made their way on foot to the Badshahi Mosque and the venue of the Muslim League meeting next door. There were crowds everywhere. There was a large tent (pandaal) erected for the purpose, which was full to capacity with the crowds overflowing on to the large park and the roads beyond. Muslim League national guards in uniform were everywhere controlling the vast crowd and entry to the tents. Mehdi remembers hearing the Quaid's speech. It started at about 2 p.m. and lasted maybe two hours or so. It was all in English and in the rear often difficult to hear owing to the disturbance in the loudspeakers. But the gist of it seems to have been getting through to the crowd as sometimes there was spontaneous applause at the right moments. What impressed the young students, the most, was the grand spectacle of Muslim unity which they had not witnessed before.

In the evening S.G. Mehdi and his colleagues had to pool their meagre resources to have a meal together not having eaten anything since leaving Ferozepore in the morning. For the night some found places with their friends, others slept in the tents as many were doing, who had come from far off places. Next day since early dawn people were up and about, talking and discussing, a new mood had gripped the people. A separate homeland for Muslims was in the air, the Quaid in his speech the day earlier had asked for one.

In the afternoon under the Quaid's Chairmanship, S.G. Mehdi saw the Premier of Bengal Mr A.K. Fazlul Haque get up to move the resolution for a separate homeland, he was followed by others. The loudspeakers in the rear were still, often not too clear. The people asked each other, 'what did he say' (the speaker) As an answer the following three words were being passed on from person to person and group to group amongst the people who had assembled all around, 'Pakistan ban gia' (Pakistan has been made). That was also the impression carried by Mehdi and his colleagues as they walked slowly towards the railway station. The problem was they had no money to purchase tickets. They had not paid for the outward journey either. So they formed themselves into an orderly group and walked in shouting 'Pakistan Zindabad'. Colonel Mehdi explained to me the atmosphere in Lahore which he said was politically charged, Muslims were on top and Pakistan was in the air - so the guards at the Lahore railway station looked the other way.

S. G. Mehdi later joined the British Indian army and was commissioned into the 1st Battalion of the 15th Punjab Regiment. He fought on the Burma front during the 2nd World War and was decorated for his brave and exemplary leadership in battle and awarded the Military Cross. On August 14, 1944. Colonel Mehdi wrote to the Quaid and said amongst other things that he hoped to see the day when the Quaid would unfurl the flag of Pakistan on Pakistani soil. He also offered to donate the two squares of land, that had been given to him for the Military Cross, to the Muslim League. The date of his letter, 'August 14', is a remarkable coincidence. By writing to the Quaid, Colonel Mehdi was certainly overstepping the bounds of military protocol as prescribed by the British for the Indian Army not to communicate with politicians. To Mehdi, loyalty to the Quaid and to Pakistan that was soon expected, certainly transcended loyalty to Colonial rule. He is probably the only Muslim officer of the British Indian Army to have written to the Quaid before 1947. To Colonel Mehdi's surprise he received a reply from the Quaid 10 days later. The letter ends in the following words, '... I know that when the time comes Muslims will give their all, if necessary, in order to accomplish our goal of establishing Pakistan. It is a matter of life and death for Muslim India and we will not rest content until we have, once for all, unfurled the flag of Pakistan, where our homelands to-day stand'. The letter is dated August 24, 1944, and addressed to Lieut. S.G. Mehdi.

It is a remarkable story of a remarkable man. Colonel Mehdi is at present the convenor of the 'Strategy Study Group', a private non-profit organization doing research on defence strategy for the region and beyond. He is a leading defence analyst and strategic thinker. It was entirely on his initiative that the government finally accepted his proposal and set up the 'Pakistan Institute of Strategic Studies' in Islamabad.

Colonel Mehdi believes in the future of Pakistan and its great potential in the region and the entire Muslim world and beyond. He has a firm conviction that the creation of Pakistan and the Islamic Revolution of Iran are the harbingers of a united and powerful Muslim Commonwealth.