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):
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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.
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DAYS OF SHAME
In early November I was told to immediately take over the artillery of 6 Armoured Division as its commander was medically incapacitated. Within a couple of days I joined my command and discovered that, though the division was in Gujranwala, my HQ was in the Narowal area, near the Indian border, where it was commanding an artillery group of seven artillery regiments (of different calibres from field to heavy) assembled from several formations to support an attack on the Dharam enclave, a piece of Indian territory on our side of the river Ravi.
The war started on the evening of 3rd December 1971 with the launching of our attack on the Dharam enclave (along with a few isolated attacks in other sectors, and air attacks on some Indian airfields) commencing hostilities on the West Pakistan border with India. Our attack succeeded with just the preliminary bombardment from our guns; the Indians withdrew and our infantry occupied the enclave without a fight. With no signs of any Indian riposte or even of any defences or troops on the other side of the river, I urged the local division commander to exploit this success by pushing on into Indian territory. He said he had strict orders not to do so. The same thing happened in other sectors, too. It seemed the only purpose of starting the war in the West was to push foreign powers to intervene and impose a ceasefire in both East and West.
I rejoined the division with most of my units after a couple of days. In Gujranwala I discovered that, as well as commanding my own divisional artillery, I was to be the artillery commander for the newly formed Army Reserve North (consisting of our division and 17 Division) and also the de facto artillery adviser to HQ 1 Corps (which was in charge of the divisions defending the Sialkot-Shakargarh-Narowal sector), since its artillery commander had parked himself 40 miles away with his HQ and guns in order to carry out counter-bombardment (though I suspect it was mainly to get away from the corps commander). The Army Reserve commander was based at our division HQ with a couple of staff officers (it was generally believed that he was really there to keep an eye on our division commander, who was a Bengali officer). My multiple roles not only allowed me to observe the progress of the war throughout this area, but also gave me the opportunity to try and influence it.
The overall strategy being followed was no better. On 12 Dec the Army Chief of Staff, Gen Hamid Khan, came to HQ 1 Corps to confer with the local commanders. I had accompanied Gen Bashir, the Army Reserve commander, to Corps HQ, and was in the room adjoining the one where the generals were meeting when I was suddenly called in. Gen Bashir introduced me by saying to Gen Hamid: Brig Ali has some good ideas on the subject. He then asked me to brief them. Unsure of what he wanted me to talk about, I began to explain the plan I had sold to Gen Bashir for his potential operation. Gen Hamid obviously wasn’t interested in this and instead asked what I thought should be done in the present situation. This was an unexpected question, but I immediately replied that the artillery must be used in a concentrated fashion. I explained that 14 regiments from within the sector could be assembled but if he gave us some Corps artillery units from neighbouring sectors that were not engaged, we could bring about 20 regiments of artillery to bear upon the enemy, which would stop any advance. He said he couldn’t provide the extra units, but directed the Corps commander to concentrate his own artillery. In the event, nothing happened.
At about 1 p.m. as I was talking to Kamal Rabbani (8 Div artillery commander) in the operations bunker an officer burst in with the news that we had accepted an Indian ceasefire offer! We refused to believe this until a couple of others confirmed that they had also heard it over the radio. It was a stunning shock. The first reaction was rage, a consuming, devouring rage. Then came contempt, contempt for these generals who did not know how to fight, and would not let others who did do so, and who had now lost their nerve even though the bulk of the army was still intact, indeed had hardly done any fighting at all. Coming a day after the shameful surrender in East Pakistan which made about 90,000 of our soldiers Indian prisoners of war, this was a crushing blow............................................................
December 17th seemed to me like the end of the world. I felt that the country, the people and the armed forces had all been betrayed. What made it worse was that, though I felt personally betrayed, I realised that I, too, bore some of the responsibility for what had happened. Every senior officer was responsible for the shame and disgrace that had fallen upon us.
I decided to accept my share of this responsibility. That evening, shortly after the ceasefire came into effect, I drafted and signed my letter of resignation from the army in which I had served for 24 years and sent it to the appropriate staff officer at the HQ.
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THE DAY OF REDEMPTION
When I sent in my resignation on the evening of the 17th December I took it for granted the Yahya regime would realise that, after the horrible debacle they had caused in both East and West Pakistan, they could no longer continue in power and would quit. I was astounded the next morning when I learnt that they had no such intention; in fact, Yahya announced that he was going to promulgate a new constitution! Meanwhile, large-scale public demonstrations against the regime had broken out all across the country with people demanding it should go.
That morning (the 18th Dec) our division commander called a meeting of his three Brigadiers and the Colonel Staff. Maj Gen Karim was a Bengali officer from what had been East Pakistan and he wasn’t sure where he stood after the recent events. He explained this dilemma and asked if we still had confidence in him, failing which he would ask to be reassigned. As the senior officer present I replied first; I told him I and the men under my command had full confidence in him but we did not have any in anyone above him. The others in turn expressed general agreement with my views.................
I said that there was no way out except for the regime to go; the others felt the same way. We urged Gen Karim to convey our views to GHQ. He seemed to agree with us and said he would think over the best way of conveying this message.
The morning turned to afternoon and still Gen Karim took no action. Finally, in late afternoon Col Javed Iqbal (the Col Staff) and I drafted a signal for Gen Karim to send to Lt Gen Gul Hasan, the Chief of the General Staff. Javed took it to Gen Karim in his caravan; the latter was quite taken aback, remarking that it amounted to sedition; he asked Javed to leave it with him and he would think it over. But the day passed without him doing anything.
Next morning, the 19th, I discussed the impasse with Javed Iqbal and decided to force Gen Karim’s hand. I drafted a formal official letter from me to Gen Karim repeating what was contained in the signal of the day before, and requesting that my views and those of my command be conveyed to “the quarters that can take action on them”. Javed had it typed up and I signed it; we then went to see Gen Karim...........I told him this was quite insufficient, and suggested that, if he booked off sick, I would take over acting command as the senior officer and would send the signal we had proposed earlier. He did not agree to this.
I then took out the letter I had prepared that morning and handed it over to him. He read it and went rather pale. He asked who had typed it; Javed said his PA had done so. He was silent for a while, then his manner turned formal and official and he said very coldly: Very well, I will let you know my decision. That will be all. We came out of his caravan and stood nearby, not sure what to do next. I had wanted, through my letter, to push Gen Karim into acting, but it seemed that what he was going to do was act against us. All that we were trying to achieve was in danger of being lost, but I couldn’t think of what to do next.
Just then Gen Karim came out of his caravan and, pulling on his gloves, walked towards his waiting jeep. I realised that once he departed it would all be over: everything lost for no gain whatsoever. With hardly a moment’s hesitation I went up to Gen Karim, saluted, and said: I’m sorry, sir, but I’m taking over command of the division! He just looked at me, speechless. I walked away with my mind in overdrive, trying to figure out what I should do next; I had never even thought about this eventuality. Just then I saw the division signals battalion commander, Lt Col M Khurshid, and, calling him over, told him to immediately cut all communications out of the HQ. Without any question, he ran off towards the switchboard tent to do this.
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THE JOURNEY BEGINS
I knew it was probably all up when I met Mirza Hamdani on the evening of 22 March 73 in Rawalpindi; he told me he had met an old colleague of his who was in the Intelligence and he had told him they were aware of a plot brewing in the military against the government. There was a possibility the trail had not led to me, but it was a slim one. Any remaining hope vanished when I returned to Karachi and went to my office on the 26th; someone from Military Intelligence had been snooping around the building making enquiries about me. I knew then it was all up. I wrote at once (in veiled language) to Aleem Afridi telling him about this.
The next two days were difficult ones, filled with a horrible feeling of the net closing around me. I could see clearly what would happen. I also knew that I could, if I so chose, escape: I could go underground or I could leave the country. I discussed it with Jamila, but she was not much help; as she said later, she didn’t really believe I could be arrested. I needed help, and there was no one I could go to, no one with whom I could even discuss it. I would have done so with Ijaz but he was away.
I awoke with a curious sound of rustling in my ears. I hardly had time to realize this was the sound of many feet on the dry leaves in our compound, when a long ring on the entrance buzzer shattered the peace of the night. Actually, it was 5 a.m. though still dark, and a large force of police had surrounded the house.
We were all up at once, and I told Yawar to go to the front door while I splashed some water on my face. Just then they started banging on the door, and shouting “Kholo! Kholo!” I quickly dried my face, and walked down the passage towards the front door; Jamila had gone a little ahead of me. Just then Afroze opened her door, which overlooked the lobby.
When I got to the lobby I found the door half open and quite a collection of people outside, mostly police officers though the person holding the door open was in civilian clothes. It seems that when Yawar had opened the door they had barged in but Jamila had ordered them out again. As I came into view, the civilian asked me “Are you Brig FB Ali?” When I said I was, he said, “Sir, I am Mueen-ud-din, SSP Karachi, and I have a warrant for your arrest and for the search of your house”. At this Afroze let out a little scream of terror, “Mommy!” We had not told the children anything.
It was a lonely journey, sitting there handcuffed and blindfolded. Leaving behind those I loved to an uncertain fate, and going into an unknown future that promised to be anything but pleasant. Manzur Qadir had indicated that moving a person after arrest to another province required a certain procedure, took time, and could be fought in the courts. But here I was, within an hour of my arrest handed over to the Army and flown out to an unknown destination. Throughout the flight I kept steeling myself to undergo what I knew was to come; the attitude displayed so far promised that things were going to be rough. Underneath it all, a feeling of utter desolation. Everything was finished.
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There was also bitter regret. Regret at all that was lost with nothing to show for it. My life felt finished; there was nothing to look forward to. The one highlight – December 1971 – had also turned sour: it, too, seemed one big fiasco. I felt a deep anger at those who had caused this shambles by their crass stupidity, the casual manner in which they had gone around talking to people about their intentions, their insane confidence that they would not be exposed, the total lack of any precautions.
Prey to all these feelings, I was afflicted with a sharp restlessness. I would spend hours walking about my cell. At times a wayward train of thought would take me, unsuspecting, around a corner and leave me face to face with a memory or an image, and I would find myself gasping, wracked by an anguish that sometimes made me cry out. What made the emotional turmoil worse was that I had no way of expressing it; there was no one to talk to. Later in April they allowed us to us buy a writing pad and pen (to write a letter home). I felt an urgent need to use this writing material to express what I was feeling; the only appropriate medium seemed to be verse, and over the next few weeks I composed some poems. I was myself somewhat surprised at the depth of hurt they revealed. They are reproduced in Appendix 3 at page 203.
Thus passed day after day. The solitariness was almost complete. Apart from a word or two with the guards or an exchange of greetings with Chughtai, the young guard lieutenant, there was no conversation. I used to look forward to the daily visits of Boota, the sweeper, because with him I would exchange a few words. I found I had to talk to myself for company. Others used to sing or whistle, but I tried this only a few times. I had nothing to read. Often I would spend long hours lying on the bed trying to make out various shapes and forms on the walls. Some of these became old friends.
A long, hard road had we traversed, with no end yet in sight. This catastrophe had drastically changed so many lives and shattered others; many of them so young. The babies that were born to fathers in captivity (Asif, Munir, Farooq Nawaz, Nadir Parvez). The murdered brother (Munir’s). The father who died of a broken heart (the Adams’). The many others who walked about and smiled and even laughed, but within whom something had died, and something more was dying as the lost weeks and months went by.
It was heart-breaking to see the children, and difficult to decide who was worse off: the small ones who didn't understand what was happening and why their fathers would not come and be with them; or those old enough to understand only too well and perhaps also peer into a frightening future. And feel the hurt at what was being done to someone they loved.
The time of Attock was a strange time. It started with chains and blindfolds and iron bars. Then there were times when it became almost a holiday camp. Interspersed throughout were the crises and confrontations, and then there was the fraud and farce of the trial. The grinning Terry Thomas who played the role of the kind and fair judge right up to the last day when he sealed our fates while wishing us all (even the wives) a Happy New Year and long and prosperous lives!
Cut off from the rest of the world, Attock was a world on its own. With its resident snake (Aziz) and a visiting clown (Ghouse). A world we never made. Yet we lived what seemed our whole lives in it. Its name will be found branded on our hearts (how many more such names will keep it company?). We lived there, we laughed our laughs, we shed our tears, and then we left it as we had come to it − in chains.