FB Ali was a rising star in the Pakistan Army when, in 1969, Gen Yahya Khan, the army chief, declared martial law and took over the country. Disheartened at the direction in which Pakistan was heading, and his inability to do anything about it, he contemplated resigning, but the 1971 war with India intervened.
Given an important combat command shortly before it began he witnessed firsthand how badly this disastrous war was mismanaged by the military regime and the incompetent generals it had appointed. The resulting debacle drove him to initiate and lead the army action that forced Gen Yahya Khan to hand over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had won the 1970 election.
The usual fate of kingmakers befell him: in 1972 he was retired from the army and a few months later arrested and tried on charges of trying to overthrow the government. Narrowly escaping a death sentence, he ended up with life imprisonment, spending over 5 years in prison before he was released following Bhutto's ouster in another military coup. Though offered a significant role in the new setup he decided to move to Canada with his family.
This memoir contains an insider account of many important events of that decade, including the 1971 India-Pakistan war and the troubles in East Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. It is also a poignant tale of courage and endurance in the face of adversity.
Below are some excerpts from the book which provide a flavour of its contents and style (other excerpts, and reviews, are available on the Amazon sites):
- 1 -
Where did it begin, this road that took me to the sprawling stone fort of Attock, perched on the low hills above the winding Indus River? And then, from there, through the shadow of the gallows, to those many prisons in the Punjab before I finally ended up here in Canada?
Confucius is reputed to have said: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What, then, was this first step that set me upon this long road that I have travelled?
Was it the sudden ending of my childhood when, at the age of seven, I was plucked from the warm cocoon of a small family and deposited in the midst of a boarding school up in the hills? I had never been away from home, had never had to fend for myself, did not know any English, which is what they spoke there. I had to grow up fast, very fast.
Or, was it all those new and exciting ideas of nationalism and freedom from foreign rule that Taufiq put into my innocent head? My friend, my difficult friend (I was the only one he had in that school), whose precocious mind knew much more about the outside world than I did, and teemed with ideas that I knew nothing about. I still remember the excitement of those "rambles" on which we were occasionally taken out, when, while the other boys played boisterous games around us, I would sit, rapt and entranced, on the sun dappled slope of the wooded hill while he told me the tale of the Count of Monte Cristo, or held forth on how India had to overthrow its subjection to the British.
Poor Taufiq! He could not cope with a world that neither understood nor cared for the brilliance of his mind, the ebullient joy of his spirit, the essential innocence of his soul, a world that would make no allowances for the peculiarities of his nature, a nature that he had neither fashioned nor sought. Finally, unable (or unwilling) to carry on this constant struggle, he went to a railway platform and stepped off it, departing from a world that seemed to have no use for him.
Was it that intoxicating time when I was consumed by the passionate struggle to create Pakistan? My first two years in college had been spent in the heedless but innocent enjoyment of living away from home in a big city. Then, suddenly (it was almost like a religious conversion) this struggle was the only thing that now mattered in my life, and I threw myself into it completely: organizing my fellow students, marching in the processions that mobilized citizens, facing off the police and hostile activists, trudging through the countryside, village after village, mile upon weary mile, seeking votes. Then, as ominous clouds began to gather in the sky, engaging in cloak and dagger escapades in the murky, shadowy world of Khurshid Anwar, risking much more than I then realized.
Surprisingly, there came a time when it seemed to me no longer necessary to pursue my secret goal. In 1968 the political and public agitation against President Ayub Khan’s rule forced him to concede to the demands for a return to the parliamentary system of government, with elections to be held in 1969. What really gave me hope was that a number of patriotic and honest leaders, most notably Asghar Khan (the former chief of the Air Force), had led the movement for the restoration of democracy, and looked set to win these elections. I seriously contemplated leaving the army and working with Asghar Khan to help him in putting Pakistan back on the right path.
All these hopes came crashing down on that fateful day in March of 1969 when Tony suddenly and unexpectedly appeared at our house in Kharian cantonment. That certainly was the first step in the final portion of the road to Attock. The news he brought sickened me, and set me inevitably upon the path that led me to that grim fortress prison, and all that came after.
The real beginning of this journey, though, goes further back, much further back. The path I took was written into my being the day I was born my father’s son. What he bequeathed to me made it inevitable; with that heritage I could have followed no other path. (I make an attempt to depict something of the person he was in Appendix 1, page 46).
That I survived this hard journey, more or less intact, I also owe to my parents. My father had the strength of tempered steel: you could bend it to excruciating extremes, but it would not break. My mother had a core with the hardness of granite: it would chip, but it would not shatter.
IN RETROSPECT ...........
Looking back over the events of this decade it seems as if, on some sardonic whim, Fate had decided to entwine the thread of my life with those of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. My action after the December 1971 war that led to the removal of Gen Yahya Khan brought ZA Bhutto into power. It also had an immediate effect on the career of (then) Brig Zia-ul-Haq. He had recently returned from Jordan (where he had been a military adviser) under a cloud due to his involvement in the crushing of the PLO by King Hussein. Bhutto appointed Zia’s friend and patron Gul Hassan as the Army chief, who in turn promptly promoted Zia to the rank of Maj Gen.
During his political career Bhutto had twice seen the army remove the country's ruler, and he was acutely aware of this risk. Recognizing me as the mover in the last such episode he made sure I was quickly tossed out of the army. Then the Attock case provided him with the opportunity to not only deal with me permanently but also send a powerful message to anyone else in the army who might have such ideas. As a junior general Zia was picked to preside over our court-martial and Bhutto had him provide regular reports in person on its progress; these private sessions gave Zia an unparalleled opportunity to profess and prove his personal loyalty to Bhutto. At the conclusion of the trial Bhutto wanted me to be hanged, and Zia presumably assured him that it would be done; that is why the gallows at Campbellpur Jail was prepared and I was moved (along with Aleem Afridi) right next-door to it. I escaped the end they had intended for me by the narrowest of margins − one vote!
Having failed to get me hanged, Bhutto continued to pursue me with a vengeful ferocity. When he learnt that “life imprisonment” meant, in practice, 14 years behind bars, he had the rules changed so that such court-martial sentences really meant being locked up for life. He kept in his own hands all decisions regarding me, and made sure I spent nearly 4 ½ years in solitary confinement far away from home. Over these years Zia assiduously built upon the foundation he had laid to convince Bhutto of his personal fealty. He succeeded so well that, when the time came, Bhutto picked him to be the next Army chief even though he was the most junior of the six contenders. And so it came to be that when Bhutto over-reached once too often, Zia was the one who removed him from power.
Knowing Bhutto, Zia was aware he could never sleep in peace so long as Bhutto was alive. There were many capital crimes that Bhutto could have been charged with; Zia picked the easiest one to prove, and in due course Bhutto was sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Zia had permitted me to be moved to Kot Lakhpat Jail, and it was there that Bhutto arrived as my neighbour, housed barely 100 yards away. We were both in solitary confinement, but he was in a death-row cell while I was in an A-class suite. When Zia could no longer keep me locked up, he released me, and it was as a free man that I heard, early on 4th April 1979, that Bhutto had been hanged the previous night. Not one of those other generals, any one of whom Bhutto could have picked instead of Zia as the Army chief, possessed the cold-blooded ruthlessness needed to have him hanged. But it was Zia whom he picked.
But for his early promotion in 1972 due to my action, and the resulting opportunity provided by our court-martial to establish a personal relationship with Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq would never have become Army chief. Nor, therefore, would he have become President of Pakistan. Perhaps then that plane in which he was flying on 17th August 1988 would not have inexplicably made a couple of strange loops and then dived straight down into the Bahawalpur desert.
I sit now in a faraway land, and it is but rarely that I view these events of the past unfold as if on a dim stage. Sometimes the side curtains move and it seems to me that in the shadows there I catch a glimpse of the grinning face of History’s Black Jester.