Military & Aerospace

1971 War: Inside the Pakistani Jail
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Issue Book Excerpt: My Years in a Pakistani Prison | Date : 09 Aug , 2020

While in Kotlakhpat I had easy access to some of the leading national newspapers of Pakistan because of the friendship I managed with some senior lumberdars and other functionaries of the jail administration. My favorite paper was the ‘Nava-e-Waqt,’ an Urdu daily of longstanding wide circulation at the grass root level since the pre-partition days. As one of the few surviving relics of fraternal co-existence of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the undivided Punjab, Nava-e-Waqt still maintained the tradition of printing the date on its daily editions as per the traditional Hindu calendar (Vikrami samvat) in addition to the Islamic (Hizri) and the Julian Christian era.

The paper also contained well-nuanced analysis of all the political news in its columns. So lucid was the paper’s presentation that some of the inmates who had been regularly reading it in the Jail for a long time had developed an uncanny ability to read between the lines and anticipate the shape of things to come on the political horizon of their country. Normally the two wardens assigned for maintenance of proper order in our barrack would join our group in discussion of the political situation during day time when we were busy pounding the sarkanda for ‘munj.’ The collective sound produced by the wooden pounder made refreshingly rhythmic with much labored effort by the group was loud enough to not let any outsider listen to what was being discussed by the ‘Sikhs.’

Soon it became quite a merriment and we started calling the sessions ‘Munjikut Zirga.’ (The term Zirga became popular in our group much earlier than the Americans sponsored the grand assembly of the Afghans after the Talibans were ousted from power. The choice of the term was our unique way of showing respect to our Pathan lumberdar who not only allowed us the freedom but also took active part in the discussion himself.)

China’s objective in investing in cash and kind in Pakistan could have been to neutralize an overarching American and nascent Russian influence in the country.

It was in the course of these ‘munjikut zirgas’ that we learnt that after the Tashkent agreement with India, ZA Bhutto had started an intense campaign of hatred against General Ayub Khan. While General Ayub was busy rounding up the small time agitators and an occasional big fish, their leader Mr. Bhutto was negotiating with the Chinese to consolidate his position. An obliging People’s Republic of China not only flushed Bhutto’s PPP with funds but also clandestinely deputed some Muslims of Chinese origin for a hands down training to its office bearers on how to manage a political party the Chinese way.

China’s objective in investing in cash and kind in Pakistan could have been to neutralize an overarching American and nascent Russian influence in the country. It is another matter that with the march of times an unexpected development that took place was the convergence of Chinese and American objectives in the sub-continent when they both started pandering Pakistan for minimizing Indian and Russian influence in equal measure. The arms and ammunitions supplied by both these countries for the sake of Afghan Mujahideens fighting the Russians were diverted to the militants operating in the Kashmir valley with full knowledge of the suppliers – China and the US – as well as the distributor, Pakistan.

The lumberdar attempted to clarify that I was an Indian and Pakistan was not my land.

Both Bhutto and China succeeded in their game plan, as General Ayub had to step down in favor of General Yahya Khan who appointed Bhutto as his Foreign Minister. The bonhomie with China continued during Bhutto’s stewardship of his country’s foreign office under the Yahya regime when China started making significant contribution to Pakistan in the field of defence production and supplied, among other things, the T-54 tanks for use by the Pakistan Army. (Ironically it was this damned T-54 Tank that was at the root of my joining the MI and all the good or bad incidents that happened subsequently.)

The Sino-Pak military to military cooperation that started in those early days has never had to look back and the rumor mill had it that even the security and intelligence agencies of Pakistan had been penetrated by the Chinese in the later half of the sixties. (How accurate was the assessment of the ‘munjikut zirga’ became clear to me after I read an interview given by Mr. SUN YUXI to IANS on 27 October 2005 in which he admitted that China had supplied Arms to Pakistan during 1967 – 68 and had also established contact with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. His Excellency further admitted that arms were supplied to Pakistan for use by the Afghan Mujahideen against the Russian forces. What he left unstated was that some of those weapons landed in the hands of the militants operating in the Kashmir valley which the Peoples’ Republic of China didn’t mind so long as it served the collateral purpose of neutralizing the Indian influence in the sub-continent.)

Pakistani_JailThe number of political arrests seemed to have risen up towards the fag end of Ayub’s regime as one entire newly constructed wing of the jail designated as ‘A’ class barrack suddenly came alive with a large number of inmates resulting in a flurry of activity. One day the lumberdar asked me if I knew some masonry work, painting and color washing to be precise. The lumberdar also informed me that the cell was being prepared for “Awam da ik boht vadda rehnuma” (A very big leader of the masses.) After I agreed he took me to a relatively well ventilated, commodious cell and I did what the lumberdar called a ‘good job rather quickly’. “Tainu ki inam chaida hai dass Amrik” (what is the reward you should get for this good job?), he asked me and I said I want to meet the “boht vadda rehnuma” who was to be lodged in the cell. “Tu vada shedai hai” (you are very naughty), he said affectionately and added, “hun tainu juban ditti hai te mulakat vi karavangai” (Now that I have given you my word I shall have to honor it.)

In the evening just before we were to be locked up in our cells for the night, the lumberdar came running and asked me to follow him to the class ‘A’ cell. A strikingly handsome person, with well-chiseled features and unusually bright complexion was sitting on a cane chair contemplatively looking out with his gaze fixed and motionless. He looked exactly like one of those heavenly apparitions who visit mother earth only occasionally as divine blessing. I felt dumbstruck because of the overpowering influence of his presence and looking with spontaneous reverence at him said, “Salamwalequm janab”. The gentleman returned my greeting with visible affection and looked at the lumberdar perhaps wanting to know who I was and what was the purpose of my visit to the cell. “Ai bechara India da Sikhhai janab te etthe jasoosi vich phadya gaya hai” (This poor chap is a Sikh who has been caught on charges of spying.) “Jasoosi,” the man wondered, “koi apne mulk vich vi jasoosi karada hai?” (Spying? How can one be a spy in his own land?)

The number of political arrests seemed to have risen up towards the fag end of Ayubs regime…

The lumberdar attempted to clarify that I was an Indian and Pakistan was not my land. Looking exasperated, the man said, “Aap nahin samjhogai” (You won’t understand.) He then turned to me and said softly, “Aap kahaan phans gayai? Allah Hafiz!” (Where have you got stuck in this mess? Good-bye!) As I was coming out of the cell, the lumberdar told me that the person I had met was Sardar Akbar Bugti, the uncrowned king of the Bugti tribe of Baluchistan. (In October 2006 when news of Akbar Bugti’s death under tragic circumstances came, I couldn’t sleep for days together. His handsome figure and tender disposition kept coming repeatedly to my mind and I cried bitterly every night. I would hide my face to make sure that my family members didn’t seeme crying as they couldn’t have any idea of the intimacy we developed during that brief meeting in Kotlakhpat when he wondered how one could be a spy in his own land thereby giving me the deemed status of his own compatriot. While the lumberdar escorting me might not have understood the true meaning of Sardar Bugti’s words, I had clearly grasped the deep meaning they conveyed.)

After Gulzar and I reported back to Mianwali from Kotlakhpat after conclusion of our trial by the FGCM, the stifling, inhuman atmosphere of the jail was completely changed because of the transfer of Jahangir Khan Hotiana. The new Jailor, Chowdhary Nazir Ahmad was an epitome of compassion and humanity. Barrack No: 2, a cellular barrack nicknamed ‘Sikh Barrack’ had some 25-30 Indian prisoners including our colleagues from the MI. The lumberdar Umar khan and the Head Warder Baba Sher were both kind hearted Pathans who made every possible effort within the constraints of jail discipline to make light of our rigors.

The task of pounding sarkanda for ‘munj’ was perhaps common in all jails across Pakistan and Mianwali was no exception but the lumberdar and the Head Warder were lenient with those who couldn’t complete the given task because of genuine reasons such as ill health. Problems arose because some of our colleagues were used to smoking and wasted considerable time in arranging cigarettes for themselves because of which they couldn’t meet the target given by the jail authorities for pounding munji. Even otherwise cigarettes were expensive in the jail and finding money even for buying a single piece was a difficult proposition.

Necessity indeed is the mother of invention. Our smoker friends found an ingenius (albeit somewhat demeaning) method of meeting their requirement of cigarettes. They would collect butts of used cigarettes from allover the jail compound and put them in a glass full of water. After the water turned thick and deep yellow because of the nicotine having dissolved in it, they would soak a sheet of plain paper in the glass overnight after which they would roll the paper like a cigarette and smoke it. The improvised cigarette was called a ‘beera’ and our friends vouched for its quality being on par with some of the most expensive brands available in the market.

My contribution to the enterprise was limited to providing them with sheets of plain paper out of what the Jail administration issued to me for keeping an account of the daily production of munji done by the group. (I also used some of the sheets for jotting down whatever I thought could be of some interest just in case I were to write about my experiences in the jail at a later time. These sheets were confiscated at the time of our release.)

By now I knew that every Indian in the jail was called a Sikh and instead of explaining that I was an Indian Hindu and somewhat different from a Sikh, I simply nodded my head in agreement.

One day the Head Warder Baba Sher told me that the jail administration was badly on need of a ‘murammat panja’ (group of prisoners who could carry out maintenance and repair of the building) and asked if I would be interested in switching to the new assignment in lieu of ‘munji pounding.’ “Chowdry saab (Chowdhary Nazir Ahmad, the Jailor) wants that you should be in charge of the ‘murammat panja’ because he has heard about the good job you did in Kotlakhpat for doing up the cell for Nawab Bugti,” Baba Sher confided in me. I agreed to the proposal on the condition that I was given a free hand to select my team and the ‘punja’ (group) was given some freedom of movement in the jail premises. Baba Sher quickly consulted the seniors and gave his nod. I selected Gulzar Masih, Sansari Lall, Gular Singh, Bhullar, Upinder Mattoo, Ashok Kumar and Rajinder Gupta as my teammates and formed what became famous as the ‘Sikh Murammat Punja’ in Mianwali.

The ‘murammat punja’ restored our dignity to some extent as the work was not as humiliating as the pounding of ‘munji’. Besides it gave us considerable freedom of movement anywhere in the jail premises between sunrise and sunset. As we visited each and every cell in the course of our new task we also made good friends amongst the local Pakistani prisoners. One such newfound friend was Bashir Ahmad of Sargodha. He came to me one day when our ‘punja’ was whitewashing the cell in which he was lodged. “Kaka tu Sikh hai” (Are you a Sikh), He asked me. By now I knew that every Indian in the jail was called a Sikh and instead of explaining that I was an Indian Hindu and somewhat different from a Sikh, I simply nodded my head in agreement. Bashir Ahmad quickly dipped his hands in an old tattered ‘thaila’ (cloth bag) and took out a small booklet. He touched the small book on his forehead in a gesture of reverence and passed it on to me. “Ai mere walid marhoom di amanat hai. Ainu kabool karle” (I have been holding this book in trust on behalf of my late father. Please accept it.). I took the book and touched it to my forehead as a return gesture of respect and opened to see it.

The book turned out to be a ‘Gutka’ (miniaturized version) of ‘Granth Sahab’ the most revered scripture of the Sikhs. Seeing me looking askance, Bashir Ahmad told that his late father was a Sikh by birth but he converted to Islam at the time of partition. All through his life he read the Holy Koran as well as the Granth Sahab with equal devotion and when the end came he asked me to keep the scripture with full ‘reht-maryada’ (traditional respect) and give it to some follower of Sikh religion if ever I could come across some in my lifetime. “Allah da ajj vadda karam hoya hai” Bashir Ahmad said with tears rolling down his eyes, “Apne valid marhum di amanat main guru de ik pyare de havele kar rahya haan” (Allah has blessed me today as I am able to deliver this scripture to a follower of the Gurus). I have preserved the scripture with full care and respect and recite from it every day.

Madan Gopal and myself were the two ‘Sikh’ prisoners who used to meticulously take bath every morning, the cold winters of west Punjab and the non-availability of hot water in the jail not withstanding, after which we used to devote some time to our daily prayers. After Bashir Ahmad handed over his late father’s ‘Gutka,’ I started reciting some verses from it daily after bath in the morning. The departed soul of Bashir’s father seemed to have been very pleased, as very soon the morning-prayer sessions became a popular event in which all the other Indian inmates started taking part regularly. As I used to recite the verses aloud the Pakistani prisoners and the Jail staff gave me the nickname ‘Sikkhan da Imam” (The prayer leader of the Sikhs.). Bashir Ahmad himself was a devout Muslim and I often saw him join the other fellow prisoners in ‘Namaze Fazr’ (morning prayer) in his barrack and getting emotional on seeing our group collectively recite the japujisahab from the ‘Gutka’ belonging to his late father gifted to me.

The cell was full of the aroma of the tobacco emanating from the smoke puffed out by him from a pipe held delicately between his lips. I was face to face with Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the father of yet to be boen nation, Bangladesh.

In the initial days just after I was captured by the FIU on 18th September, 1966 I used to keep a mental account of the dates coinciding with my shifting from one quarter guard to the other or from   a quarter guard to some police custody. The ‘hot-plate’ treatment at the Shahiquila made me completely disoriented and I could no longer keep track of time except through some rough guesswork based on the season of the year. Things became normal once again in Kotlakhpat when I had access to ‘Nawa-e-Waqt’ and could see not only the Christian dates but also the lunar dates as per Hindu calendar. Those of us who wanted could thus observe fasts on ‘ekadashi’ or ‘puranmasi’ and even observe in our own small way the Hindu festivals and Guru Purabs. Our time sense once again got disoriented when in Mianwali in spite of all the generosity shown by him the new Jailor Chowdhry Nazir Ahmad didn’t allow us access to newspapers. Our estimate of time therefore once again became rough and unreliable. The gossip shared by the Pakistani inmates with us became our only source of information about political situation in Pakistan.

It was perhaps the beginning of 1970 when news started coming about the general elections to be held in Pakistan and the possible scenario post elections. The newspapers were portraying the power struggle between the Bengalis of Eastern Pakistan and the West Pakistan as an individual power struggle between ZA Bhutto and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. Reports of large scale disturbances in East Pakistan and ingenious methods being devised by the political establishment in the West of the country to deny to the Bengalis what should have been their natural station in the overall power structure of Pakistan because of their sheer numbers were coming a plenty. It was obvious that the East and West Pakistan were polarized in their public postures like the Soviet and the American camps during the cold war. General Yahya Khan appeared to be no match to the populist Mr.Bhutto who though a Minister under the General seemed to be actually calling the shots.

It was in this hazy background thick with gossip and rumors that one day lumberdar Umar Khan came to me in the wee hours of the morning, much earlier than the normal unlocking time for the barracks as per jail rules. He asked me to quickly gather the ‘murammat punja’ and get cracking as a cell had to be done up for a VVIP prisoner by late evening. He took me to a room located just near the women’s cell. The whole area was swarming with heavily armed men from a bevy of Pakistan’s security forces. We started working straight away and completed the job a little ahead of the given schedule. As we were leaving, the jailor Chowdhry Nazir Ahmad accompanied by his ‘lawazma’ (subordinates) came for inspection. He pointed out some patches to be given a fresh coat of paint and left for the main office. We were still doing the patchwork when there was a commotion. We were told to keep our stores and implements in a corner and leave immediately as the VVIP inmate had already arrived at the main office and could be brought to the cell any moment. It was obvious the new inmate was some political heavy weight.


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The mystery was solved the next morning when I accompanied by Umar khan lumberdar and an armed guard went again to the cell to pickup the leftover paint and other stores we had dumped in a corner the previous evening because of the tearing hurry. A tall, well-built bespectacled lonely figure clad in crisp white kurta and lungi was sitting on a chair. The cell was full of the aroma of the tobacco emanating from the smoke puffed out by him from a pipe held delicately between his lips. I was face to face with Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the father of yet to be boen nation, Bangladesh. As I paused to greet Sheikh Mujib, the Armed escort accompanying me pulled me back commanding that I pick up my leftover tools and leave quickly. Sheikh Mujib looked at me, smiled and waved his hand. The image of Sheikh Mujib sitting on the chair and smiling is still fresh in my mind.

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Kishorilal Sharma

Kishorilal Sharma

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3 thoughts on “1971 War: Inside the Pakistani Jail

  1. I feel proud of having been closely associated with the writing of this book. Late Kishorilal has been kind enough to acknowledge my role generously in the introduction. Seeing these excerpts is such a fulfilling experience indeed

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