In Focus

Remembering My Father: An East Pakistani Officer

The sacrifices of the Pakistan Army not only included the loss of lives, but also the loss of ancestral land and blood relations. Major Haroon Al Rashid Khan was one such officer who chose Pakistan over Bangladesh.

We are the scions of history and custodians of the future. At times, our individual past holds a colossal event which influences our collective tomorrow. When we read a human account in the larger canvas of history, we find it relevant towards understanding the past and preparing ourselves for a better future.
1971 was a watershed year for Pakistani nation. This year saw tragic breaking up of our motherland, a wound which still needs closure by acknowledging the truth and reconciliation. As all conflicts have their own set of characters, 1971 War also created its own villains and heroes. Some are celebrated as national icons and a huge number of unsung soldiers are there who contributed as loyal sons of Pakistan.
A few of them are buried in unmarked graves in the forgotten battlefields of East Pakistan. Nevertheless, many lived on, dredging their way back to West Pakistan through scarring Indian Prisoner of War (POW) camps. The horrors of war have many stories to tell, each having real people in flesh and blood.
Amongst them, there is a unique story of an East Pakistani officer who joined Pakistan Army after 1965 War. When 1971 War came, he fought on the Western front and after the tragic culmination of war, he volunteered to stay in his chosen country, Pakistan, being a patriotic, principled Pakistani. In the ensuing paragraphs, I will narrate the life of that officer and my late father, Major Haroon Al Rashid Khan, a Bengali speaking Pakistani from Comilla.
Writing about my father’s life is a subject entailing great audacity. I feel that my family history and history of our nation are entwined in a story which is needed to be told to the audience aspiring for a progressive Pakistan. To understand this story, the judgemental lens of insecurity about the prejudices of past must be taken off. Only then may lessons be learnt by acceptance of mistakes in order to make our future liberated from the catastrophic national failures. 
Here is the story of the man who had the courage to take the monumental decision to break away from Bengali nationalism based on his patriotism for Pakistan and volunteered to stay in Pakistan because of his oath to Pakistan Army. He was a modest man, the usual do-or-die kind and like good old soldiers, he faded away to remain forever in our memories. He was a loving father and a family-oriented man, always heeding to our needs, but he was also a lonely figure, eventually lost in the yearning to reunite with his soil.
The Beginning
Major Haroon was born in Comilla, erstwhile East Pakistan in 1942. His father and my grandfather was a farmer and a cleric. They were a family of patriotic Pakistanis with three out of four brothers having served in Pakistan Armed Forces.
At the time of growing up, propaganda by Hindu Bengali elite was already poisoning the minds of East Pakistani youth. Machinations of vested interests were being churned to alienate brothers. Bengali youth was being brainwashed towards Bengali nationalism and against their West Pakistani brothers.
Living in the proximity of Comilla Cantonment, he got inclined towards Pakistaniyat against the odds. He broke the chains of propaganda and in the quest for serving his country, he left the serene rivers, evergreen farmlands of East Pakistan and joined Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). It was tough being in PMA, being so far away from home. From cuisine to scenery, everything was different. He performed well and passed out in October 1966 and joined 3 (SP) Medium Regiment Artillery stationed at 1 Armoured Division, Multan. 
When he was promoted to the rank of Captain, my father’s elder brother, a retired officer from Pakistan Army got in touch with a respectable Urdu speaking family who migrated from Hyderabad Deccan, India to East Pakistan at the time of independence. It was an uncommon match as my parents got married in 1969. Still they were an ideal couple, a handsome officer married to an Urdu speaking lady. Life was full of joy and camaraderie with friends and unit officers–hunting trips and picnics with tombola and barbecue, the typical Army life of the sixties. Pakistan was doing well economically, but the enemy was constantly at work to create a divide between brothers. The rise of Hindu Bengali nationalism gave way to mistrust and monumental blunders. 
Prelude to 1971 War
Pakistan was a dream actualized by a thought which emanated from Dacca in 1906 and became the voice of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, who gave their tears and blood to make it true in 1947. In the human domain, East Pakistani blood flowed red for their West Pakistani brothers. They lived together, bled together in 1948 and 1965 Wars and kept the Pakistani flag fluttering high.
I will not get in the political dimensions of the alienation, but from 1947 to 1971, in a short span of 24 years, huge mistakes were made and conspiracies were hatched to undo what Quaid-e-Azam prophesized that no power on earth can undo. To put things in perspective, both Bengali and Urdu speaking populations in East Pakistan faced bloody riots and massacres. Blood-chilling atrocities took place. Entire families were decimated and household destroyed. A situation was created in which guns were turned towards each other, a quandary which one does not even wish for his enemies.
1971 War: The Great Divider
It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of ideological confusion faced by Pakistani soldiers in 1971 War. I used to think about it during my own commands, incidentally both in the operational areas. The military mind cannot fathom the challenges of leading troops fractured from within. From the perspective of East Pakistani military personnel before and during the conflict, like the complete Army, they must have faced an utter predicament. It must have been a nightmare, brothers pitched against brothers, and unit officers thinking along the lines of “us and them”. The rumours and resultant infighting, mistrust and breakdown of discipline is mind-boggling. While describing the ordeal of departing East Pakistanis, the verses by Naseer Turabi may shed some insight:

The Dilemma
The ever-bleeding thorn of the fall of Dacca (now Dhaka) will always remain in the heart of every patriotic Pakistani, but at that time of madness, understanding the truth, holding on to your core beliefs and coming out from the fog of divide must have been a miracle for my father. Everyone was shocked, with melted hearts and eyes shedding tears of blood, wondering what lay ahead. He, too, must have been faced by a dilemma–on the one side, he had his parents, ancestral soil, lineage and blood and on the other side, there was his loyalty to Pakistan.
My Father’s Decision–Pakistan First
My father fought 1971 War in Rahim Yar Khan Sector. At the tragic culmination of war, a large number of East Pakistani military personnel found themselves at the western front. A parade was held in Rahim Yar Khan for all East Pakistani personnel in the sector. Approximately 1100 East Pakistani personnel were assembled. The atmosphere was sombre, as if everyone had lost their mother. People were shocked. There was disbelief in the eyes of soldiers as the story of war on the Eastern front reached the Western front. The sham propaganda of war atrocities was at its zenith. Nobody knew what the next breath would bring. East Pakistani personnel were being labelled as traitors. There was a mixture of extreme rage and mistrust leading to despondency. 
According to the terms of war cessation, East Pakistani personnel were to be repatriated to Bangladesh. The orders were read out to the assembled soldiers. All 1100 present opted to return to Bangladesh, except my father who was the only East Pakistani who volunteered to stay in Pakistan. Angry sentiments amongst East Pakistani personnel were so high that mob lynching may have happened to my father. Sensing that, senior officers presiding over the parade ordered Military Police to escort him out of the assembly and him along with my mother were immediately moved to Artillery Centre Campbellpur (Attock).
Years later, when he was asked about the reasons for his decision, he said that for him, Pakistan came first before his ancestral land and blood relations. He knew that he was taking a monumental decision, which would define him and his family till their graves. But he had broken free from the false bravado of Bengali nationalism and he was a true Pakistani to the bone. The oath taken on his Passing Out Parade in October 1966 at PMA Kakul pledged him to remain loyal to the Pakistani flag and being an honorable officer wearing the uniform of Pakistan Army, he could never rescind his loyalty to Pakistan and his oath. 
Heartache of the Decision and the Embrace by Pakistani Brothers
Although it was an extremely patriotic and motivated decision, the heartache of leaving his parents and the soil followed, but he was a strong man. He never voiced a second thought and remained steadfast even while facing the vagaries of life.
We were a peculiar family with whom ordinary people were not able to relate. Our story is known to a very few close friends–only those who have the insight and wisdom to fathom the background and consequences of our lifelong struggle. Many a times, we were viewed with mistrust overall or labelled as the ones who broke away, whereas we are the ones who stayed and bore the loneliness of the decision.
We were taken care by our chosen family, i.e., ‘the Pakistan Army’. In 1978, my father met General Zia-ul-Haq, who embraced him and asked what he can do for us. We were given air tickets to visit Bangladesh as it used to be before 1971, kind courtesy of their Chief of the Army Staff. 
Finally Together and Fading Away 
Time is a phenomenon which passes and for old soldiers, they do not die, they fade away. The same happened with my father who served his Army from the valleys of Azad Kashmir to the deserts of Cholistan. He donned off his uniform as a Major in 1987 and slowly faded away. 
My father, Major Haroon, died on a cold January night of 2011 to finally unite with his parents whom he left at the altar of his decision in 1971. During his prolonged illness, I felt his soul yearning to return to his soil in Comilla. It was sad to hear the calls for his mother in his mother tongue, Bengali, being an indicator that his parents were waiting for him in heaven and his lonely soul was now eager to go back to the place of its origin. 
For me, it was painful to see such a strong man to become frail. The thing which eventually weighed heavy on him was the natural yearning to go back to his soil in his older years. My elder sister visited our ancestral graveyard in Comilla. It was described as a serene and peaceful place where all of our paternal family is resting eternally, sans one son who rests in Army graveyard in Pakistan, a consequence of his principled decision.
Remembering My Father
As a soldier, I remember my father in terms of his decisions and paths. Out of numerous professions, I chose the noblest of all by serving in Pakistan Army. When I was in PMA, whenever I used to pass Tariq Company, I visualized my father in Tariq Company lines being far away from his village, Laksham in Comilla.
On commissioning, I joined 1 Armoured Division in 1996 just like my father. He was always supportive and encouraging me to confidently make my decisions. He told me to grow intellectually and think big. I remember when I was doing staff course in Quetta, one bright and sunny day I drove him around Staff College and even with his deteriorated health, I felt the warmth of his happiness upon my success in profession.
After his passing away, as I grew in profession, I could relate more often with his life. While planning operations in Jandool Valley commanding my Armoured Regiment or carrying out IBOs (Intelligence Based Operations) during FC command in South Waziristan, he was constantly in my thoughts keeping my compass straight and my senses sharpened. 
Sometimes, I feel the burden of his decision when my children ask me where our village is, as all their friends have their villages somewhere. Then I describe my father’s village to them, across the lands and rivers, a village far far away. 
Challenges, Opportunities and My Thoughts on the Great Sons of Pakistan
I always believe that challenges are opportunities provided to us to make us stronger. 1971 was a challenge thrown at us from within and outside. Irrespective of the outcome at that point in time, there are lessons to be learned and ways to go forward. 
I believe that we, Pakistanis are created to be a great beacon of hope and strength for all our friends, allies and a formidable equalizer for our foes. We need to learn lessons from our past, shun away our small introvert and divergent thoughts, synergize as a nation to realize our potential of greatness and rise up to meet our destiny. The path to greatness lies above caste, creed and sub-national inclinations. Greatness can only be achieved by upright people with a staunch belief in the veracity of their cause. We need to harness the potential of true believers. They might be in minority, but they are a precious commodity.
The story of my father, Major Haroon, has been narrated to make the present generation grasp the sacrifices made for the honor of Pakistan. There are still unmarked graves of Pakistani soldiers in the battlefields of forgotten wars. There are still children of fathers and wives of husbands waiting for the return of those buried in unmarked graves. I have the honor to have the acquaintance of some of these families. They are proud people who shed their tears in silence. True patriotic Pakistanis from all spectrums of language and ethnic backgrounds have bled together for the greatness of our land, so we shall salute all our great sons who nurtured this soil, truly to be called great sons of Pakistan.


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