The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 10, 2000
Time Off

Of officers & gentlemen
By Manohar Malgonkar

GENERAL Cariappa’s throwaway comment, "Ayub is a gentleman, dammit!" was about the last time that the word ‘gentleman’ was bandied about in its Army Act import, that an officer was ipso facto a gentleman, too. But the free-for-all of democratic pressures quickly removed the starch out of the concept. Pakistan, for its part, had lost no time in booting it out by the very officer class taking over the running of the country too, and indeed Ayub Khan, its first military dictator, had seriously thought of crowning himself king and setting up an Ayub dynasty. He was disuaded from such a folly by Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali who, for a time, was his advisor.

But, there as here, the grotesquely bloated size of the armies had the effect of lowering behaviour standards of their officer class closer to street-level norms anyhow. And Jawaharlal Nehru in a parliamentary speech, speaking of some of his seniormost Army officers as dunderheads, reflected what the public in general thought of military officers. Unfortunately, some of the officers themselves contributed to the general diminishment of the class image, by soiling their hands: some were caught in corruption scandals, and boasted of their political connection harnessed to career advancements, and military contracts at every level reeked of kickbacks to officers; even recruitment became a rich source of profit.

Not that the concept was faring much better on its home ground: England. Homosexuality was still a serious military offence. Mind you, homosexuality was there in the Raj’s army too, but a conspiracy of silence operated to black out all reports of it. The consequences of a leak were terrifying, as exemplified by Lord Kitchener when he was India’s C-in-C. It involved a highly decorated officer, Hector Macdonald. Kitchener wanted him to be court-martialled and shot. General Macdonald obliged by shooting himself. Now a much less obedient British press told us about how some of the wartime heroes we had known or admired, were faring. Micheal Calvet whose daring exploits behind the enemy lines in Burma were object lessons in the Infantry school in Mhow: charged with a homosexual offence. Colonel Hamish Mackay, a Gurkha Bahadur with a D.S.O, and Bar, taking up service in a rich American’s house as the butler where his wife became the maid. And I still remember the flush of elation when Colonel Duggie Sawhny asked me to dinner to meet his friend General Frank Messervy, who was his houseguest in Bombay, for Messervy was a wartime legend, a name as famous as, say, that of Orde Wingate or Joe Lentaigne. Messervy, of the right class, who hunted regularly and played polo. When past 60 he was "twice charged for assaulting girls of 15".

Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000

 In the army of Pakistan, which, for much of the time also ruled the country, the cultural excess baggage of the Raj’s days way jettisoned without ceremony, so that there was not even a trade of it left 24 years later, when that army was employed in the task of disciplining the Bengalis who were the citizens of their eastern wing. During the Bangla Desh war, that Pathan Major who had saved the nuns of Baramula’s convent from death or dishonour would have stood out as an eccentric or even a man who had gone against the spirit of the campaign, one of whose principal aims was to "improve the breed of the Bengalis."

By indulging in mass rapes.

That molestation of a nation’s womenfolk can be a part of a soldier’s duty is a concept not easy to come to terms with, but I quote from a book that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who for a time was Pakistan’s Prime Minister, If I am assassinated. This was in early 1973. Mr Bhutto, now presiding over the affairs of a vastly truncated and shaken Pakistan, had ordered an inquiry into the causes that led the country into a military disaster and loss of territory.

The probe was conducted by a senior judge, Justice Hamoodur Rehman. Bhutto reveals that he was as much shocked as he was shamed by what became known as the Hamoodur Report. His army’s officers who, too, had read it "were unanimous" in prevailing upon Bhutto not to publicise the report because "it would cause irreparable damage" to the image of the nation’s army, and it is clear that Bhutto himself was in total agreement with this view. Even the patriot, even in his deathbed accusations against the generals who had plotted against him, Bhutto does not reveal the more damaging parts of the Hamoodur Report. But he permits himself some barbed remarks and in the process reveals how the rank and file of the army had been actually charged by their generals "to purify the blood of the Bengalis" and also that "it exposed the macabre conspiracy of Yahya Khan and his clique," who wanted "the map of Bengal to be painted red."

O.K. With what exemplary zeal the Pakistani soldiers went about carrying out their given tasks, may be a closely guarded secret in Pakistan’s archives, (unless of course, all copies of the Hamoodur Report have been destroyed.) But the excesses of the soldiers live on and will go on living on in the memories of their victims. Here is one of them on record, Tasleema Nasreen, who was nine years old:

"At midnight a group of Pakistani soldiers burst into our house, and dragged my father out. They bound him by rope to a coconut tree and bayoneted him. Then they came into my room. It was dark. They lit their torches and I was terrified. I froze. They whispered to each other and I heard one of them say, "She’s too young. She’ll give us no pleasure." But the next morning Tasleema saw" the other girls coming back to the neighbourhood. They were 16, 17, 18. Their clothes were torn, and they were covered with dirt and blood. One of them was my friend. She was crying. She was only 12."

This recipe, calculated to whip the Bengalis into unquestioning submission to their masters from West Pakistan also had the effect of inflaming the Bengalis into a mood, of boundless hatred for their oppressors.

And then, the whole equation of power was overturned by India’s coming to the aid of the Bengalis. Within days, the entire Pakistan force led by General ‘Tiger’ Niazi was caught up in a situation from which the only escape was capitulation.

This war was fought on the soil of Bengal. What the people of Bengal would have done to the Pakistani army’s soldiers who were now at their mercy is not difficult to imagine, and Niazi had no illusions on that account. He and his colleagues, too, had seen the list of 1500 Pakistani officers and men singled out as ‘War Criminals’, for that list was nailed to trees and pasted on the walls of houses. Those who figured in it were to be tried in Bengali courts for crimes against humanity. But that still left the rest of the 90,000 strong army. Were they then not even to be given the benefit of judicial proceedings but left exposed to the bottled-up rages of the survivors among those whose houses they had demolished, whose crops they had trashed, whose brothers they had killed or humiliated, whose womenfolk they had publicly dishonoured? What lay in store for these Pakistani men just did not bear thinking.

In this predicament, a discarded honour code came to their rescue. Niazi and his top advisors realised that their one chance to escape from the vengeance of the Bengalis was to make sure that they were not involved in the surrender process, and he made that a pre-condition to his offer of surrender. The Indians, in no mood to consider pre-conditions, also knew how the Bengalis would deal with the Pakistani soldiers. They insisted that the surrender must be unconditional. Niazi would have to take the rest on trust, that the Indians would play the game by the rules.

In other words; as officers and gentlemen, the Indians could be depended on to observe the conventions accepted in civilised countries.

And so it came about, that surrender, unconditional, yet with the implicit understanding that what were called the Geneva Conventions of surrendering armies would be scrupulously observed. How faithfully the Indians observed these conventions in both their letter and spirit, is a matter of record. Even the ‘listed War Criminals’ were swept into the umbrella of the Geneva Convention.

All this happened less than 30 years ago, and surely there are a million or so people still in Pakistan,members of this force, their families and friends, who have reason to remember their Indian captors with the same sort of gratitude that some of us in India feel towards that Pathan Major of an even earlier war.

Home This feature was published on November 19, 2000