Officers and gentlemen
"OUR Trusty and well beloved Manohar Malgonkar." That was how the reigning British king in 1943 once addressed me.
That letter, or document, written in imposing caligraphy on simulated parchment and ringing with orotund phrases, was meant to be framed and kept as an heirloom,or, at any rate, a valued souvenir. That I have long ago lost it shows that I, personally, did not set much store by it. I mention it now because it enshrined a principle that was sacrosanct to the Raj’s army, that a military officer was somehow a gentleman, too. And it was in line with that concept, that the army Act actually laid down penalties "for conduct unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman."
That army, which was called ‘The Indian Army’, also got divided when what was India became two separate countries: India and Pakistan. Did the officer class in this split-up army continue to live up to the principle that they were also gentlemen? This was part of the theme of a novel I wrote long ago, called Distant Drum. As is well known, within 60 days of their being split, the two armies were at each other’s throats. The first of the Indo-Pak wars. My contention was:O.K. We two now are bitter military enemies. But we’re gentlemen still — at least some of us are.
As will be seen, that concept, of an enemy officer also conforming to the ideals of his class and showing the attributes of gentlemanliness-fair play, honour, respect for human values was not so much cloud-level idealism. It was a fact of life — in 1947.
So a leap backward in time, to October 1947. The scene: the picturesque riverside holiday resort called Baramula, in Kashmir. Here, the local hospital is run by convent nuns of the Franciscan missionaries. Their resident doctor is on leave in Europe, so the management has taken on a locum tennens, Dr Greeta Barretto. Dr Barretto, her husband, a reitred Government servant named Joseph Barretto, and their ten-year-old daughter Angela, live in a cottage in the hospital complex. Here, on October 26, they heard on the radio that a force of raiders had endered from the Pakistani side and were advancing towards the capital, Srinagar. Baramula lay in the direct path of the force.
The Barrettos believed that a military force posed no harm to a hospital, particularly one run by women of some religious orders. Still, they thought that their daughter would be safest in the hospital building itself, and that was how it came about that Angela became a witness to scenes of such terror "which have never been erased" from her mind.
A combat column, sought to be passed off as a raiding party of Pathan tribals was, in fact, a carefully planned attempt by Pakistan to annex Kashmir. To mask it with a semblace of reality, a couple of thousand tribesmen had been ferried in Pakistani military trucks right up to the Kashmir frontier, where some handpicked regular battalions joined them. The leadership and logistical support was given by Pakistan’s war machine. Above all, the whole operation was masterminded — and personally led — by a star Pakistani, Akbar Khan.
On the morning of October 27, they were storming the hospital. Screaming incoherent obscenities, they broke down the doors with axes. At the door, the Mother Superior and her assistant tried to plead with them. Both were felled down in a hail of bullets.
Lodged in the adjoining ward, Anjela heard the screams, wailing, curses, gunfire. After shooting down the reverend Mother and her assistant, the tribesmen had actually killed the patients in the maternity ward: hacked to pieces a Hindu woman in the advanced stage of pregnancy, and an Englishwoman, Mrs Dykes, who had delivered a baby a couple of days earlier. Colonel Dykes, who had rushed in to see what was happening, was gunned down, as was a young nurse, Philomena, "as she was running away in terror."
Angela’s father, Joseph Barretto, too had rushed to the hospital building. As Angela remembers: "My mother was helping the infirm sisters down a back staircase when my father discovered them." Joseph Barretto’s urgings to spare the women seem to have sent the Pathans into paroxysms of anger. They turned on him, yelling Jao! Jao! and pointed to a fir tree in the hospital yard. Angela saw her father, "tall and imposing" stride up to the tree, turn round and hold up to him, shouting ‘You’ve killed my husband!’ they shouted back. ‘Yes, and now we’re going to kill the rest of you too!"
They then proceeded to round up the women. Nine sisters, four nurses, and Angela’s mother, Greeta. They made all the women stand up against a wall, ready for slaughter. That was when a Pathan wearing a Major’s badges of rank burst in on the scene, yelling at the top of his voice. "Stop! Stop! You’re not to kill those women!"
What Angela, a 10-year-old child, witnessed that morning was something truly beyond belief. Within a matter of minutes, she had seen her father, standing against a tree with his arms spread out, collapse and die in her mother’s arms. Then her grieving mother herself and the old and young women she was trying to protect, were made to stand against a wall facing a firing squad, saved by a miracle — by an angel in military uniform firmly ordering his crazed comrades to stop their warton killing. He could not have been on the scene for more than a few minutes because he was a man in a hurry. He rushed off to the next building, the residence of the Priests, just in time to stop his brothers in arms from shooting down father Shanks, father Mallet, and a few other Priests who, too were being herded for their execution.
That Pakistani officer had not only saved the lives of the hospital staff and Priests, he had brought sanity to this particular band of tribal soldiers. For two weeks, they and the remaining inmates of the hospital complex lived check-by-jowl in the undestroyed rooms of the hospital in a chastened mood, its tone set that very first evening by Dr Greeta Barretto who,putting aside her personal grief, had resumed her role as doctor to those who needed her care. One of the raiders who had somehow managed to have his nose torn off, came to her for treatment. As she carefully stitched up the nose, she gently reminded him: "You killed my husband this morning."
In 1947, in the year of the Partition, that Major was not alone in living up to the unwritten code of honour that requires military officers to be gentlemen, too. We daily ran into men and women who had fled from Pakistan who had been helped to escape by Muslim officers, and there were many on our side, too, who had done their best to save innocent Muslims from being slaughtered.
I myself, in my bachelor room in the Wellesly Road Officers’ Mess in Delhi must have given overnight shelter to a dozen or so of them, and when it was safe, escorted them to the Safdarjung airport and put them into Lahore-bound planes. But then outsiders could never understand its influence, and four years later, our first Army Chief K.M. Cariappa, was to draw a good deal of flak from our politicos when he somewhat carelessly said: "why, Ayub is a gentleman, dammit!" Ayub Khan, had just made himself the first Military Dictator of Pakistan.
Well, is that concept, of an unwritten code of behaviour for the officer class, still alive — in the Pakistani army? — in our army?