Written By: Maj Gen Salim Ullah (R)
After a hectic, over four years long tenure in Azad Kashmir, the unit had moved down to Lahore in the second half of 1978. After settling down, we soon got down to intensive training in our operational tasks in the new operational environment. Most of the training was carried out as collective training in the field, returning to the ‘peace location’ in early December.
Our return was greeted with the good news that the unit’s request for presentation of the National Standard and Regimental Colours had been approved by GHQ (General Headquarters). Furthermore, the Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Colonel Commandant of the Frontier Force Regiment, Lt Gen Mohammad Iqbal, had graciously consented to be the chief guest. In view of his commitments, the date of the parade was to be fixed in the last week of March, 1979. At the unit’s request, March 27, 1979 was finalized to coincide with the unit’s designation (27 FF). The parade was to be followed by the unit durbar which was to include installation of Lt Gen M. Attiqur Rahman, Retd, MC, SPk, as the Colonel of the Battalion.
There being hardly enough time, preparations for the event were started in right earnest. Parade rehearsals were held twice daily, especially focusing on drill movements and timings. All Ranks put in their best and the drill standard started to improve remarkably. To coordinate preparation of the parade ground–Ayub Stadium–and the unit lines, as well as to distribute miscellaneous duties, I held a conference of officers and senior JCOs. Young Officers, especially those from Lahore were ecstatic, making lofty suggestions short of acquiring the moon. From fancy invitation cards, to gilded furniture for the spectators, to colourful buntings and flags around the stadium, the suggestions covered all possible aspects. Illustrations were cited of recent functions of other units in the station. For the evening bara khana and the variety show for the men, a young heart proposed none other than the Queen of Melody Noor Jehan herself as the star performer to lead over a dozen renowned singers and artists.
To their surprise, I welcomed all suggestions and proposals. However, their excitement was short-lived as I gave out my sole condition. I put forth that I would not sanction any expenditure from the unit funds, emphasizing that their enterprise and resourcefulness were on test. This being a military event, not an Awami Mela or a wedding function, needed austerity with professional quality. It was decided that the unit Drama Party would prepare a traditional variety programme including traditional folk dances to be presented after the evening bara khana. We would borrow shamianas, qanats and furniture from sister units in the station. I asked the 2IC (Second-in-Command, Maj Wali Ahmed Khan, later Lt Col) to delegate responsibilities to individual officers and report daily progress to me. There would be no colourful flags or buntings fluttering around the stadium, as was witnessed in some recent similar functions in the station. Instead, only national, army, regimental and unit flags would be appropriately hoisted. However, I added, I would prefer to have a decent and bold painting/mural of the PIFFER motto (Labbaik) prepared and prominently displayed atop the centre of the back wall of the Ayub Stadium.
I had barely finished my sentence when the smart, young Lt Ahmed Nadeem Qadri spoke up from a corner in the back row, “Sir, it should be done by Sadequain”. I paused for a moment and then said, “Great idea. Go and get him!” One could notice naughty smiles from the participants.
I continued to insist on a high quality turnout and the standard of parade. A special issue of a new pair of uniform was arranged for JCOs and men through kind courtesy of the Formation Headquarters. New regimental berets were procured for officers, JCOs and men from a local supplier. For the men, the payment was made from the Unit Fund while officers and JCOs paid for their berets.
The parade rehearsals continued to gain pace, both in frequency and quality. One day in early March, we had returned to the unit lines after the morning rehearsals and were busy in routine work when the 2IC walked into my office with a broad smile on his face and said, “Sir, I have a visitor here to see you.” Before I could respond, he gestured to someone behind him to come in. When the visitor came in, I was startled and immediately got up to receive him. It was the legendary Sadequain himself. As we settled down, he said that after meeting young Lt Nadeem, he was keen to visit and see me personally. Worried that Nadeem might have been rude to him, I apologised for any inconvenience that might have been caused to him. “On the contrary,” he said, “I was deeply struck by the young man’s motivation which inspired me to visit you.” He continued, “This morning, my friend Munnu Bhai and I were sitting in Shezan Oriental on the Mall and taking tea. This young man, dressed in uniform, approaches our table, smartly salutes and asks who was Mr. Sadequain out of the two of us. Munnu Bhai asked him why was he interested to know that. Nadeem replied that he had been tasked by his Commanding Officer to contact Mr. Sadequain and he gave the details of the painting assignment. I intervened and said that I was working on a major assignment in the National Bank of Pakistan nearby and even had to regret my availability for an assignment in the new Presidency in Islamabad. Nadeem then turned to me and said that I must accompany him and see his Commanding Officer personally. He added that he had brought a jeep and he must take me along. Munnu Bhai remarked that the young man could not compel Sadequain to accompany. Nadeem, respectfully but firmly, replied that he was required by his oath to comply with all commands of his Commanding Officer even to the peril of his life. Before Munnu Bhai could say more I told Nadeem that I would accompany him provided he would drop me back within two to three hours. He readily agreed and so I am here.” Now worried about his likely fee, I tried to change the subject. Sadequain, however, returned to the painting and asked what concept did I wish the painting to convey. Reluctantly, I told him about the motto Labbaik and its significance, not only during Hajj and Umrah but in the daily life of a Muslim for total subservience to the Almighty. The idea was that, suiting the occasion, the word Labbaik may depict an Islamic force in assault with traditional weaponry. However, I added bluntly that he was a legendary artist and we might not be able to pay according to his expectation. He ignored my observation and desired to see the parade ground. After visiting the parade ground where I explained to him the planned location of the painting and how the unit would form up in front of the painting, he remarked, “The painting is ready–here”, pointing to his head. A work room next to the 2IC’s office was reserved for him where he worked on the painting for the next three days. Lt Nadeem was attached with him as liaison officer under overall supervision of the 2IC. I would peep in off and on and share a cup of tea with him. An epitome of humility, he called himself ‘Faqir’. Strictly avoiding formal meals, he praised the officers’ Tea Room refreshments and men’s ‘Langar daal’ saying, “Faqir loves simple daal.” All this time, he kept evading my questions about his fee. Discreet inquiries by the 2IC and Lt Nadeem also failed to evoke a response.
On the third day, he witnessed a complete parade rehearsal. He appeared to be very impressed. While driving back with me to the unit lines, he remarked that he was highly inspired personally when the troops shouted “Labbaik” in unison while marching past the saluting dais. He added that he could now understand the philosophy behind our motto. He surprised me by saying that the painting would be “Faqir’s contribution to the Labbaik spirit.” He politely, but firmly, dismissed my protests.
Full Dress Rehearsal was held on March 25, 1979. That was the day when the painting was hoisted in Ayub Stadium. I had invited Sadequain to join us and Nadeem had duly escorted him. Of course, he was to be an honoured guest on the actual day, i.e., March 27 as well. I had briefed the 2IC to keep him available after the parade on the 27th to meet the chief guest. Before the parade rehearsal commenced, the commentator briefed the spectators regarding details of the parade and when they were expected to rise, and those in uniform to salute, in addition to other instructions. He described the painting, the motto and its background, adding that the masterpiece had been created by the country’s legendary artist, the one and only Sadequain, stating that “He is fortunately sitting among us. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me to give him a big hand.”
March 27, 1979 remains a ‘red letter day’ in the history of 27 FF. Ayub Stadium and the troops were ready for the big event. As was expected, the ‘Labbaik’ painting drew attention of the guests. True to his reputation, the chief guest arrived on the dot and the parade commenced on schedule. Earlier, before his arrival, the commentator had completed the briefing as per the rehearsed text, including the applause for Sadequain. While reviewing the parade, the chief guest inquired about the Labbaik painting. On my whispering reply, he shot back, “You must have paid him a fortune.” I informed him, to his surprise, that it was complimentary. He exclaimed, “What! Great.” Later, during refreshments after the parade, he praised the standard of the drill, turn out and had a special word of commendation for professional decoration of the stadium. He moved on to the ‘Labbaik’ painting and said that it truly reflected the underlying spirit of the PIFFER motto. Other senior guests like Lt Gen M. Attiqur Rahman also profusely praised the parade. I was looking around for the 2IC and Sadequain. After an agonising 10 minutes or so the 2IC approached me and whispered that Sadequain had not come. He added that Nadeem would give the details later.
Meanwhile, back in the unit for the durbar, the chief guest, Gen Iqbal, said that he liked our invitation card, it was simple and yet comprehensive. He then bluntly asked how much did it cost. I said, “Rs. 4 per card including envelope.” He said that some units had spent 10 times the amount per card but their standard of parade was poor. He added that GHQ would soon issue instructions fixing ceiling on expenditure from the unit funds for such events. He might even decline to review a parade where the concerned unit had indulged in wasteful and avoidable expenditure. He then asked the 2IC how much was the unit spending on hiring artists for the variety show and was pleased to learn that it was the unit drama team running the variety show. I briefed him that I only sanctioned expenditure on new regimental berets for men from the unit fund while officers and JCOs paid for their berets. In his address at the durbar he declared that he was against giving cash awards to units, but in this case, he would make an exception. He would award a special shield to 27FF for an excellent parade. In addition, he would reimburse from GHQ the expenditure made from unit fund on regimental berets for the men.
Later on in the evening, Nadeem told me that he had looked for Sadequain at his residence in Bagh-i-Jinnah, National Bank of Pakistan on the Mall where he was working on a project and the nearby Shezan Oriental restaurant which he would frequently visit from his work. He was not to be found anywhere. Two days later, around mid-day, Sadequain gate-crashed into my office, followed by the 2IC. With a broad smile he regretted his absence without giving excuses but a simple statement,” You see, Faqir does not like self-projection. Let Faqir stay a Faqir. I hope I can continue to enjoy my daal whenever I wish to. Now, can we have it? I am feeling hungry.” While departing, he assured that whenever sataees (27FF) needed Faqir’s services, it would be Labbaik from him.
Our contact began to grow thin owing to his commitments in Islamabad and elsewhere. Later, with our posting out of Lahore, initially mine and later that of the unit, it almost became non-existent. Nonetheless, the Labbaik painting remains an eternal bond between sataees and the legendary Sadequain. May his soul rest in peace!
The writer is former DG ISPR. Besides a long military career comprising various command and staff assignments and two tenures at National Defence College (now National Defence University), Maj Gen Salim Ullah also remained Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates for over three years. He was conferred High Order of Independence by His Highness, the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan for his special services in promoting relations between the two brotherly Muslim nations.