COMMENT: From rage to retrospection —Brigadier Mehboob Qadir - Friday, March 25, 2011

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It was disturbing to see young officers in a state of depression and resignation endlessly brooding over things that they least understood but had to endure 

The year 1972 was about to start. Agra Jail, where we were interned, appeared as if it were located in the middle of the city as there were old multi-storeyed houses and dilapidated looking hotels all around. The sounds and smells of the bazaar, blaring car horns and the heavy drone of bus engines could be heard most of the time. Our barracks had a single heavy iron plate door that could be locked from the outside only. Instead of windows, there were thickly barred man-size openings in the walls. There were two rows of six-feet-long cemented brick beds along the length of the barracks with a gap of two feet each. Towards the wall end, an additional brick line was slammed over these oblongs to serve as pillows. At the end of the barracks, there was a water tap and an open toilet for use in an emergency. A few light bulbs skimmed the ceiling and could be switched on from the outside. Our ‘pillow’ bricks had come off at places where whole families of cockroaches shared sleeping space with us. Repulsively odorous food was brought in filthy open buckets and half-baked and half-burnt bread was kept in a disused sack and doled out through the iron bars into our prisoner food pans. We could not eat to begin with but then got used to it. However, most of us continued to suffer from various stomach infections.

Just one mighty swing of war fortune, a single powerful convulsion of fate turned some of the most fearless fighters and brave soldiers into prisoners of war — virtual nonentities in the scheme of things. From having total command over the lives of those who led in the war, this is an utterly improbable transition. The horrendous fall from command in battle to Agra Jail’s reeking barracks was precipitous, swift and irreversible. It shattered many a strong heart and played havoc with the minds of young officers and raw soldiers. Only an exceptional few could manage to preserve their poise when all around were those who were losing theirs. To be a prisoner of war is never easy. However, despite the overwhelming privation and unmitigated humiliation, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise in some ways.

That forced interregnum provided us time for intense reflection, unlocking unusual and unfamiliar windows into the recesses of the mind. As we began to reach into our souls in earnest, what echoed back was absolutely amazing in content and context. Some of us started to discover ourselves and were visibly disturbed at what was appearing. Subsequent reactions to this onerous discovery were mixed at best. Some sank deeper into the practice of religion, others walked the softer alleys of mysticism for solace. Quite a few tipped over to total disinterest in both as their bitter disappointment grew and overflowed, while some opted for the comparative study of religions and classic literature. There were those who went into a mental tailspin and were seen seeking seclusion for their bruised souls. Many found it difficult to manage what we were beginning to know about ourselves. It felt like moulting, the inevitable pain of crawling out of one’s old self and the anxiety of an uncertain restructuring to come. A gnawing bitterness had settled heavily over the hapless prisoners, only the degree and its effects varied from one to the other. It was disturbing to see young officers in a state of depression and resignation endlessly brooding over things that they least understood but had to endure. One felt very sorry for these young men whose dreams had been mercilessly snatched away by an unforgiving war and their twinkling stars lost in the distant sky. However, this situation dramatically changed in about six months as the natural resilience of the young men overcame the shock and a powerful urge to break free gripped them instead. Senior prisoners underwent a converse transformation. In the beginning, they used to console and counsel, but as time passed their domestic worries overtook them, pushing them into mood swings.

In this suffocating environment of disorientation, tentativeness and disconnection, the International Red Cross appeared as a beacon of hope and longing. For one, they would positively affect the camp administration’s conduct days before their arrival, mainly for fear of earning a bad report, leading to bad international press. This kind of awareness can only be instilled by a leadership that cares for the country’s good image abroad. We still have to learn the art and etiquette of positive and constructive engagement internationally. Courtesy of the Red Cross, we re-established contact back in West Pakistan and would eagerly wait for replies to our letters. Those who would get one would be beside themselves or saddened to learn of some bad news. And those who did not would look miserably crestfallen. They also brought us excellent books to read by writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky, John S Beck, Somerset Maugham, E M Foster, Earnest Hemingway and numerous other world class writers and scholars. It was there that we also had the opportunity to read literature about religions, especially Hinduism, noteworthy being the Bhagavadgita, and research articles by Dr Radhakrishnan, an ex president of India — what a scholar he must have been.

In this process of reformation, the next step was the voluntary demolition of arrogance and false ego. This was a rather difficult step and very few reached this stage of refined self re-definition. However, everyone was magnetised to some extent, depending upon one’s intellectual capacity and power of perseverance in a higher self. Thereafter, came the last and final stage, and the most sublime. Only a very fortunate and truly gifted person can attain that grand pedestal where one metamorphoses into the reflection of total humility, instant empathy and completely selfless concern. However, this is the preserve of sainthood that occurs rarely.

I used to share my brick-bed with Captain Maqbool and Captain Shujaat Latif. Maqbool had joined us wearing a uniform shirt, a short Bengali loincloth and a big wide roll of hospital bandage cloth tucked under his arm. He was also barefooted. We used to wear that bandage bundle as a sheet to protect us, not from the biting cold, but attacking mosquitoes at night. Maqbool was a very strongly built and towering officer whose drill at the PMA used to be a sight to see; he would march like a granite tower. His strange attire was the result of his last battle in East Pakistan. He had been encircled along with a handful of men by the enemy on three sides. On the fourth side was a huge marsh spread over many miles. True to his self, he lifted up a seriously wounded fellow soldier on his back, shed his shoes and trousers and led the rest of his men through that huge marsh at night and brought them all to safety, wading for over 20 km with the wounded soldier on his back. Where would one find such selfless and sterling combat leadership in a war that was already lost? The sad part is that we lost the cream of our young military leadership in a war that could never be won, which everyone, military and political, knew to be so but never cared to avert.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. He can be reached at

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