The Making of the Concourse

In October this year, the surviving members of the 39 PMA Long Course celebrated the golden jubilee of their graduation. Fifty two years back we entered the Academy as a disorderly and disconnected bunch and by the time we passed out, we had developed a strong bond of camaraderie, which has prevailed throughout the years. This article encapsulates our two years at the Academy with its toil, sweat, and humor and the mentors, who guided us through these formative years.
The heavy demand of officers after the 1965 Pak-Indo War was initially met through a number of War Courses (short service commissions); jestingly referred to as the ‘Noor Jehan’s Commissions’ after the famous singer whose patriotic songs inspired the nation in 1965. When the authorities decided to recommence with the regular courses they selected applicants of a War Course and inducted them as the 38th PMA in March 1966. Had this not been the case 39th PMA would have been the first regular course after the war. By army standards, it was a huge course of 242 cadets; more than twice the intake of regular courses prior to 1965. To manage this large number of cadets, it was initially split into A Course and B Course each with a separate Term Commander.

The cadets arrived from all over the country, including 26 from East Pakistan, who paid a grand sum of Rs. 213/- for an airline ticket from Dacca to Rawalpindi via Lahore. Most were educated in private institutions and government colleges, some in public schools and a large number from cadet colleges, which had been established as feeder institutions for the Military Academy. Sharifuddin, Shahedul Anam, Moazzem and Shamsul Huda had been educated in Cadet College Faujdarhat in Chittagong. Pervez Khan, Iftikhar Ur Rehman, Iqbal Tajwar and Ali Sher were together at Hasan Abdal and Kamal Alvi and Mustansar Billah at Petaro. Shoaib Dogar, Jamil Khalid, Talat Omar, Qazi Tariq and Abdullah Kiyani arrived from Military College Jhelum. Ali Hamid, Munir Hafiez, Javed Ashraf (who subsequently represented the army in hockey), and the two brothers Zafar and Zia (nicknamed senior and junior ‘Crow’)” were together at Burn Hall; and Pervez Ahmed, Najam, Tahir Shehzad and Ikram joined from Gordon College, Rawalpindi.
Many of the entrants had close family links with the army, four of whom were the sons of generals: Khalid Masud (who sadly sought an early retirement), Iftikhar Ur Rehman (who received the Sword of Honour), the author and Tariq Rahim, who was selected for Sandhurst and after a promising start in the army, opted for the Foreign Service. Unfortunately he was murdered by Al-Zulfiqar (a terrorist group in 1980s) during the hijacking of a PIA plane. Adding to the number were 26 Naval Cadets (including three from East Pakistan) who spent a term at PMA. Amongst them were Faisal, Hafiez and Shahid Farooq (who retired as a Rear Admiral) from West Pakistan, and from the Eastern Wing came Sahabuddin, Alam, and Mujtaba, who made two stars and rose to command the Bangladesh Navy.


On entering the gates of the Academy on November 19, 1966 the aspirants were directed to the mess of Khalid Company to be enrolled, allotted a Gentlemen Cadet (GC) number (which they remembered all their life) and assigned a platoon. Much to his discomfort, Muhiuddin from East Pakistan was told by the flamboyant Captain G. S. Cheema (who subsequently became a defence minister), that beards were a strict ‘No! No!’ and he had to shave in the lawn before entering the mess. Apart from 38th PMA, only the 8th War Course was undergoing training at Kakul. The others were with the 2nd Pakistan Battalion at Tobe Camp, half a mile away. With the 8th occupying the accommodation of Salahuddin Company, all the platoons of 39th PMA were initially grouped into three companies – Khalid, Qasim and Tariq. The accommodation much varied. The lucky cadets of Tariq and Qasim Company occupied two modern centrally heated four-storied blocks. Two more were under construction but till then, Salahuddin Company (which was re-raised in the Second Term after 8th War Course left) was housed in a fairly comfortable single story barracks of stone, but Khalid Company as well as Aurangzeb, (which was also raised six months later), were in the ancient Nissan Huts. They were relics of the time when Kakul housed the school of the Army Service Corps prior to Independence and was infested with rats that nibbled the clothes of the cadets. Constructed of wood (soaked in oil to resist rot), they were a serious fire hazard and was burnt to cinders in 20 minutes in spite of the best efforts of over a 100 cadets and staff to douse the blaze.
New buildings including a battalion mess were replacing the old ones but there were still plenty of rolling grassy spaces surrounded by hedges, and the pine and chinars added character. The 1st Pakistan Battalion was very compact. The PMA gate was just ahead of the drill square, the quarter guard, one mile track and the hockey ground, everything else was within an unguarded fence that kept out only the cows and had plenty of holes for bold cadets to escape to town. Kakul was four kilometres from Abbottabad and not a part of the town, since the spaces in-between were sparsely urbanized and fields and orchards irrigated by water channels stretched in a wide swathe from Nawan Shehr till the Mansehra Road and beyond. The location was ideal for introducing the cadets to map reading, field craft and minor tactics and during its first term, 39th PMA spent some cold winter nights on patrolling and navigation in the beautiful valley of Abbottabad.

Once the 8th War Course passed out, there were only the cadets of 38th to rag and boss the 39th. Since 38th was only into its second term, 39th was managed by its platoon corporals who were upgraded to sergeants in the next term. They were the bane of the platoon but also a buffer against ragging that could interfere with the academy routine. The lingua franca at the academy was English but the syntax would have made Shakespeare squirm in his grave and was a source of amusement e.g., Sports Sergeant to Cadet: “Is the size of your football boots half-past-six or half-past-seven?” Announcement at a company fall-in: “Anybody lost keys. Collect me.” A senior calling the cadets: “Both of you three come here.” By the time 38th PMA reached their final term, the cadets of the first three regular courses at PMA after the war (38th, 39th and 40th PMA), developed a close bond that has prevailed long after their service.
The first few weeks were a whirlwind and set the tempo for the next two years. The PMA road with its steep incline was the main artery and either by design or default, the Drill Square and the area for physical training was at the bottom end and the classrooms at the top. Throughout the morning, the road reverberated with the tramp of ammunition boots; their thick leather soles lined with 13 iron-studs and iron plates on the heel and toe. The soles were periodically checked (like the hooves of horses and mules), and a missing plate or stud was punishable by an extra drill. As the sole wore thin and incessant banging of the feet pushed the nails in further, they caused painful blisters that set the feet on fire. All movement along the road and elsewhere in the Academy was under the vigilant eyes of the drill staff, who were very strict in their dealings with the cadets, but sadly most lacked a sense of humour. They were commanded by Subedar Major (SM) Rafiullah, who was a breed apart. He had a powerful stocky build, a booming voice and the uncanny ability to spot the mistake of a single cadet amongst 400 on the drill square. He herded the cadets on a Triumph motorcycle and in the first few weeks some of the more naïve thought he was the commandant. His stern exterior was tempered by a twinkle in his eyes and a sense of compassion. He was certainly the best Drill SM at PMA, and the Drill Square fittingly bears his name.

By the end of the first term, most cadets had been graced with nicknames. The author was ‘Ducky’ because he was heavy around the hips. Ashraf was named ‘Stone Crusher’ by his platoon commander because of his huge physique and equally big jaw. Zafar aka ‘Tich’ was short in height; Aitizaz aka ‘Sleeping Pill’ and Arshad aka ‘Sleeping Beauty’ slept in class with their eyes wide open, and Zafar aka ‘Anna’ (Blind) wore big glasses. Khaleque was asked to name his girlfriend by a senior cadet and not having any, he named the singer Noor Jehan and it stuck as his nickname. Siddique frequently complained about the lack of hot water and was nicknamed ‘Geyser’ and Mumtaz aka ‘Boana’ (Dwarf) had a disproportionately big head. Nicknames helped in differentiating between cadets with the same first name e.g., there was Pervaiz aka ‘Put Put’ (because he talked too much and too fast), Pervez aka ‘Tabla’ (Drum) played a beat on a tabletop while singing, and Pervez aka ‘Dracula’ who distantly resembled Christopher Lee, who played the character in the movies.
Amongst the officers who trained the course, some left a more lasting impression. In its two years at the academy, 39th PMA changed three term commanders. S.R. Kallue, Probyn’s Horse, a clear headed officer of few words who remained a godfather to a number of cadets of 39th PMA. He was greatly respected in the army and retired as a Lieutenant General. Muhammad Taj Abbasi, 18th Punjab, was a strict disciplinarian with a dry sense of humour, who addressed every cadet as ‘Johnny’. GC Azmat (nicknamed ‘Thatha’ because of his slight stammer) could not swim and with everyone looking on, Taj made him climb the diving board and told him “Jump Johnny”. After much hesitation (and wearing a dungaree and boots but no life vest), Azmat made the ‘leap of death’ and frantically splashed across to the shallow end. “Johnny, are you alright?”, asked Taj. “Y-y-y-yes sir”, stammered Azmat gasping for breath. “Good”, says Taj. “Do it again Johnny”. Taj was replaced by Akram Hussain Syed, 15th Lancers, whose arrival from Tobe Camp was like a breath of fresh air. Six foot tall, fair and exceedingly good looking, he was an aristocrat both in bearing and style. Six years earlier he was the adjutant at the academy and was one of the finest figures on horseback that the Drill Square had ever witnessed.

Many of the officers had been in combat during the 1965 War. Akram Sayed had been with 15th Lancers at Khem Karan and Muhammad Taj in Thar desert, where he had earned a Sitara-i-Jurat (He was awarded a Bar to his SJ in the 1971 War). Farooq aka ‘Lala’ who had infiltrated with the SSG into Kashmir also earned a SJ. There was yet another recipient of a SJ in the academy i.e., Captain Quais the medical officer who was convinced that every cadet who came to the sick room was a dodger. One of the most likable platoon commanders was A. R. Siddique, an Urdu speaker who was fondly referred to as Nawab Sahib. The cadets relished the crisp sense of humor of Sheikh Nusratullah, 13th Lancers, and were awed by G. M. (Ghulam Muhammad) with his chin-in, chest-out military bearing. Commissioned from Sandhurst he had an enviable career, retiring as a Lieutenant General. Ahmed Kamal, the Battalion Adjutant also retired as a three star. Amongst the officers from East Pakistan were Ziaur Rahman with a stern demeanor (who was President of Bangladesh from 1977 till he was assassinated in 1981), and Ali Ahmed, in charge of physical training. The cadets gave Khattak, the Weapon Training Officer (WTO) some hair-raising moments on the firing range. One of the GCs without any warning got up from the firing point, picked his LMG and started walking towards the WTO. “What is the problem?,” Khattak asked in alarm. “Sir! My LMG is jammed,” replied the cadet pointing the loaded weapon straight towards the WTO. With a forced calm Khattak told the GC to point the barrel towards the butt, place the LMG on the ground and step aside. He then grabbed a stone and chased after the GC shouting, “You stupid idiot. You want to make my wife a widow?”
Some of the officers from the Education Corps like Maj Wanchoo provided soft touch to the discipline in the academy. He shuffled (more than walked) with his peak cap cocked at a jaunty angle, passing humorous comments which were freely reciprocated. “Dodger!” he remarked as the author who was the Battalion Sergeant Major (BSM) in the final term marched past him. “Same to you sir,” replied the BSM with a crisp salute. Captain Saeed who taught English was a lot more flamboyant but Wasiq who taught History in a deep resonating voice was greatly respected. Unlike many other instructors from the Education Corps, he always held the attention of the cadets in the classroom.

The arrival of the course at PMA coincided with the posting-in of the new commandant, Major General Aboobaker Osman Mitha, who had a tremendous impact on the academy and on 39th PMA. He possessed remarkable leadership qualities that endeared him to the cadets and being the pioneer of the SSG, he competed with the cadets in pushups. By the time 39th passed out, its members had many a tale about Mitha that echoed his upfront style and sense of humour. During Exercise QIADAT (north of Mansehra), on a pitch dark and miserably wet night, the path finders were guiding their platoon through a maze of terraced fields when they suddenly tumbled 20 feet down. As they struggled to their feet, another figure plummeted down and in the light of the stars to their astonishment, they recognized the commandant. Mitha gestured to them to remain silent and watched with amusement as the platoon commander followed by the rest landed in a melee of cadets, rifles, steel helmets, water bottles and small packs. The next morning a group of cadets were drying off in the sun when one of them enquired, “I wonder where the commandant is?” “He is probably having a glass of whiskey,” remarked another disparagingly. From the other side of the bushes came the amused voice of Mitha, “You rascals! I am still with you”.
Mitha’s foremost aim was to mentally and physically harden the cadets. He introduced Exercise INITIATIVE (later renamed as YARMUK) in which as the name implied, platoons operated independently (with little supervision), carrying out patrolling, raids and ambushes. They carried their dry rations and cooked their own food. Needless to say, after a week of some inedible cuisine (except for boiled rice and parathas which sustained the cadets till the Ghee ran out), the meals back in the cadets mess appeared delicious. Mitha ruled that the cadets would march back from every major exercise and in the final term, 39th marched 26 kilometres from the north of Mansehra to the academy. Physically fit by now, many of the cadets ran the distance because the course had been granted a long weekend as a reward for their performance during the final exercise. He also ruled that on return from field exercises, the cadets would be put through half-an-hour in the Drill Square to impress on them that they were back in the Academy. He also inculcated man-management in the cadets by making the under officers counsel the cadets in their company who had problems.

With the return of the Regular Courses to PMA, the clubs were revived in which the cadets keenly participated. Aminuddin Haider aka ‘De Gaulle’, a member of the History Club wrote an excellent article on ‘The Possibility of a Muslim Commonwealth’. The Polo Club was revived after a decade of neglect by Major Akram Syed and GC Cheema took to the game like fish to water, which earned him the Silver Spurs and the nickname of ‘JUO Polio’. The Dramatics Club staged ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to the great delight of the Academy. One of the lead roles was played by Amiruddin Sheikh (Meeru), who spoke excellent English but his application for a transfer to the Graduate Course was rejected because he had passed his FA with a 3rd Division. Mitha introduced some innovative ideas on training and one that had a far-reaching impact was what came to be known in the army as ‘adventure courses’. New clubs were introduced whose activities were more military in nature, like parachuting and judo (both of which drew a large number), as well as scuba diving and gliding. Cadets who qualified were permitted to wear insignias on their uniform.
Of all the physical activities carried out by the cadets, the most demanding was the ‘One Mile’. Most cadets dreaded it in the First Term except for athletes like Tajwar, Mulazim and Saleem (nickednamed ‘Banda’ because that is how he referred to himself) and Pervez aka ‘Put Put’ who was awarded the PT Medal. Gloom descended on the course with the announcement that they would be running the mile the next day. In earlier times it was a driving track and the coarse gravel jabbed at the feet through the thin soles of the PT shoes. The worst part was the incline over the last few hundred yards when those ahead were straining to get full marks and the ones at the rear were struggling not to fail. No cadet who entered PMA can forget the distant cry by the PT Staff of “Ten, ten, ten….. Nine, nine, nine”, urging the laboring runners to ‘speed up’. Sadly, during the first term Nasir Hafiez expired while running the One Mile. Tough as the mile was, the major test of endurance was the ‘9 Mile Course’ from the PMA gate to Burn Hall, down the gradual slope of the Mansehra Road to the Supply Point, onto Nawan Shehr and back via the Ilyasi Mosque. Some ran (and walked) in groups chatting and cribbing, and the loners were either those who got left way behind or the long distance runners, who were well ahead of the pack.

In the second term, there were a lot of changes in the course. The 26 Naval Cadets departed and 17 cadets opted to transfer to the 3rd Graduate Course, which passed out with the 38th but with the same seniority as 39th. They included, Rizwan (who retired as a Major General), Aziz-ur-Rehman (who also retired as a two star from the Bangladesh Army), Hafiez, Zahid Salaam and Zahiruddin Qadri. PAF cadets who could not make the flying grade were given the option to join the army and 39th received Khursheed, Hassan Zaheer, Iftikhar, Waheed Sheikh and Shafquat Haroon. Shujaullah Tarar, also from the PAF, joined the 38th but passed out with 39th. As 39th progressed through to the final term, the link between its members strengthened. Unlike some other military academies, PMA had no formalized honor code but 39th had developed a strong bond of peer loyalty. A cadet passed a remark about the instructor and when the class was asked to name the cadet, none snitched. Some GCs volunteered their names but Akram Sayed was not to be fooled and punished the entire course. 39th PMA may well have been the only course which in its final term was collectively (from the BSUO to the last GC) awarded one extra drill.
39th PMA passed out on October 19, 1968 with an antedate of seniority over the 10th War Course. Two and a half years later, the army was fighting a full-scale insurgency in East Pakistan that led to the 1971 War. Many of its 179 members were in combat, some commanding squadrons and companies with fewer than three years of service and upheld the name and honour of the course. Arif Saeed, 3rd Punjab and Hassan Zaheer, 26th Cavalry were awarded posthumous SJs. The other recipients of SJs were Naveed Rasul with 4th Punjab at Chhamb, Talat Omar who fought alongside Maj Shabbir Sharif, Nishan-e-Haider in the brilliant action by 6th FF at Sulemanki, and Ahsan Siddique with 31st Baloch in another brilliant action in East Pakistan at Jamalpur. Two members of the 39th met a tragic death in East Pakistan: Shafquat Haroon, a lovable person who joined 39th from the PAF Academy but passed out with 38th, and Akhtar Qureshi, who was nicknamed ‘Commando’ because he was super fit. Many of the members of the Concourse (a name that members of the 39th PMA selected for themselves), did exceedingly well during their military career. A record number of 32 were promoted Brigadiers and nine attained the rank of Generals. Asif Hayat and Ziaul Hassan who transferred to the police in the 1970s also made the grade of Inspector Generals. So would have Sakhi Tareen, if he had not perished in an accident on the Karakoram Highway. And last but not the least, Ashraf Khan retired from the Civil Service as a Grade 22 officer.

The Concourse has collectively mourned the loss of their comrades, celebrated their successes, reveled in the birth and marriages of their children, and held many get-togethers in the major cities. Kamal Alvi was the life and soul of the Concourse and as its secretary for many years, kept a close track of all its members, updated their record of promotions/postings, contacts, etc. He organized the major get-togethers at Rawalpindi including one in which the Concourse enjoyed the participation of the members and their wives from Bangladesh. His untimely death was a great shock and the Concourse misses him terribly. Many others have sadly left for their heavenly abode but the spirit of the Concourse is carried on by its surviving members and an emerging friendship between its next generations.

This was visibly demonstrated in the golden jubilee that the Concourse celebrated in Abbottabad during a beautiful autumn weekend on October 20, 2018, exactly 50 years after being commissioned. Simultaneously on October 20, 2018 the East Pakistani (Bangladeshi) members of 39th PMA had gathered over dinner at Dacca to celebrate the golden jubilee, military camaraderie is way above any other and never dies. The celebration was very well attended by 38 members of the course, their wives and children and it was very moving to have some of the deceased members of the Concourse represented by their offsprings like the daughter and son-in-law of Kamal Alvi, the wife and son of Aminuddin Haider, the sons of Ashraf Khan (who came all the way from Quetta) and Mujeeb Bakhtiar and the nephew of Akhtar Qureshi. The highlight was a memorable morning spent at the Pakistan Military Academy that commenced with a tree plantation ceremony. This was followed by a march into the Drill Square by the ‘old cadets’ under the firm but respectable control of the drill staff whose commands like “Join your heels saheb; Shout one, two, three, one; Saheb! Upar dekhen;” brought back a flood of memories. The spectacle of 38 retired (and in many cases overweight) officers marching out-of-step may have been amusing to the families looking on but it was taken very seriously by the veterans of 39th who from the day they entered the gates of PMA, were conditioned to respect the sanctity of the Drill Square. A drive through the academy which is four times larger than when 39th passed out, was followed by a pilgrimage to the Ingall Hall and a cheerful walk down the PMA road still lined with pine trees. It was pleasing to see that the academy has retained some of the buildings that were there even before 39th arrived in PMA. An extremely pleasant and surprising encounter was with Ayub, one of the last surviving old timers, who had worked with the photographer Nawab when our course was at PMA. Currently looking after the PMA Museum, he has an uncanny memory for names and academy numbers of the cadets of our era. Any name we took from our course (and there were over 200 who joined), and he would unhesitatingly state his academy number. The course gave him a standing ovation.
We are grateful to the Baloch and especially the Frontier Force Regiment Centres for hosting our stay in their excellent guest rooms and for allowing us to use their messes. Finally the Concourse greatly appreciates the hard work by the President of the Committee, Lieutenant General Munir Hafiez, Colonel Aftab Butt (Course Secretary), and members of the committee Brigadier Tariq Qazi, Colonel Javed Akhtar and Major Ikram for their selfless effort in organizing the golden jubilee. The Concourse departed from Abbottabad with a warm feeling of renewed association both with the members and their families and with PMA, their alma mater.

Time stops for no one and coincidently, while 39th PMA Long Course celebrates its golden jubilee, the 139th PMA Long Course will be passing out in April 2019.

The writer is a former Major General of Pakistan Army. Besides his illustrious military career, he raised the Defence Export Promotion Organisation (DEPO). He is the author of  ‘At the Forward Edge of Battle – History of the Pakistan Armoured Corps’ and ‘Forged in the Furnace of Battle – 26 Cavalry, Chammb 1971’.
E-mail: [email protected]

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