16th December, 1997: it was a bitter murky night at Lahore. I, a newly promoted Major, was taking my Squadron convoy from Nowshera to the far off town of Bahawalpur. Lahore happened to be on the midway. In order to avoid the hazard of driving in the fog, I decided to pull over and have a night sojourn at the Lahore Cantonment. The first place striking my mind was 32 Cavalry located at a convenient corner of Lahore Cantonment. Since December is the month of collective outdoor field exercises, cantonments all over the country are mostly empty except for a few personnel meant for the guard duties.
Inside the 32 Cavalry Mess, there was no one to greet me except for a vintage mess waiter and a cook. Gaunt and haggard, the two living relics were left behind benevolently by the officers of the Regiment in order to save them from the rigours of the field besides, to look after the Mess. After exchange of a few pleasantries, they asked me if I wanted to have a dinner. Five hundred kms of drive over the long road, I was craving for a warm and cozy dinner followed by a hot pot of tea. I didn’t waste time inquiring over the menu. What else it could be than chicken curry and potato cutlets followed by a bowl of egg pudding –the culinary specialties our cooks had so much mastery over, specially, when time was not at your side –I thought. And so it was; chicken curry and potato cutlets – cooked to perfection. During the course of my initial years in Armoured Corps, I, like many other armour officers, had developed this curious ritual of having a round of the mess inspecting the its silver, the centerpiece, the portraits on the walls, the souvenirs on the cornices and on the fireplace in a manner much like that of a tourist visiting a museum. But on that day I was dead tired. After having my dinner I slumped on the sofa. While I was still sipping on my tea in a dark anteroom barely lit by the two side table lamps, I had no idea when I dozed off in the same state. It must have been a short drift. But while it last, during those brief moments I felt like as if I was not alone in the room, a subtle yet astute presence of sorts of someone pervaded in the room; perhaps a smart youthful Lieutenant in a crisp uniform. I felt as if I had asked him the typical stereotype about the place he belonged to? And he, reply with an equal seriousness, “Pakistan.” And then, on observing my dumbfounded expression, added with a smirk, “Isn’t that enough?”
The subliminal presence of the young officer – though mostly muted, remained there for some moments and then left, in synchrony as I opened my eyes. I didn’t bother much, nor did I remember the face of the gentleman. I knew it was normal for one to conk out after a fatiguing day.
It had been indeed a debilitating journey. The convoy move, restrained by the usual military SOPs, was more of a lumbering alongside the fast moving vehicles, all the way to Lahore. Without wasting a minute, I wanted to retire to the guestroom, when the corner of my eye caught the attention of the portraits of the officers hung in the anteroom. The spectacle of a portrait of one Lieutenant Anwer Saeed Butt halted my feet. Without any delay I called the old waiter and as my eyes still riveted on the portrait asked about the Officer. The old fellow told me that the portrait in front of us was of Lieutenant Anwer Saeed who was killed in the 1971 war in then East Pakistan. The next thing he told was no less a bombshell that virtually knocked me down. What he started narrating was not only unpalatable to normal thinking but too grotesque to believe. According to him the officer had often been seen roaming in the mess. He further informed that this had been earlier witnessed by many including a few officers. He then ushered me to a corner where displayed in a fragile glass frame was a war medal. It was a Sitar-e-Jurrat (the third highest gallantry award after Nishan-e-Haider). Studying the medal closely, I observed that the medal was an original one and not a replica. This was staggering since original war decorations are normally kept by the next of kin. Curiosity started to stir my brain and I wanted to scrutinize more. But since there was no officer available I thought it fit to stop right there and retire to the guestroom.
PORTRAIT OF LT ANWAR SAEED BUTT (SJ)
The next day I resumed the usual business. The convoy reached Bahawalpur but the story of Lt Anwer remained shelved in my mind. The winter collective training busied us for more than two month, during which I didn’t get an opportunity to interact with any 32 Cavalry officer. On our return to the Cantonment I contacted many officers of the Regiment to establish the veracity of the story. The officers not only affirmed that (the fact of witnessing his being inside the mess) but also revealed that one of the officer had had a conversation with him as well (owing to the sanctity and decorum of the deceased officer I chose not to dwell upon).The poignant facts revealed not only pained me but were highly mystifying.
PSS 11454 2/Lt Anwer Saeed Butt was commissioned on 6th September 1969 through PMA War Course and joined 32 Cavalry at Sialkot. Later, the officer was posted as Troop Leader in the newly raised 3rd Independent Armoured squadron located at Jessore, East Pakistan. Like that of the officer himself, very scant details are available about the action he fought. The Squadron was part of the Division Reserve of 9 Division. In October 1971 while defending the vital fortress of Jessore against a heavy enemy attack under a favourable air superiority, the Troop leader lost two of his three tanks. Instead of carrying out a tactical withdrawal to the comparative safety of the rear position, he, with his lone tank held his ground and began to engage enemy tanks at his own. In the ensuing battle the officer knocked down 5 enemy tanks. The disarray created in the adversary sudsided only when he was seen slumping forward, critically wounded, after his tank was hit too. An enemy party led by a Major rushed towards the burning tank to capture him alive, but the officer resisted the ignominy of captivity, shooting the Major to death with his service pistol before laying down his own life. He was awarded post humously Sitara- e-Jurrat.
ORIGINAL SITARA –E- JURAT AS DISPLAYED IN THE MESS OF 32 CAVALRY
The Officer had lost his parents when he was a child and did not have any blood relative who supported him in his life. Being an orphan there was no one to claim his award, though the authorities at the Central Record Office as well as the Regiment did try to locate one albeit, apocryphal uncle, the only one mentioned in his documents. He was however, never traced. It is assumed that the same was either fictitious or false. It was a period of turmoil –real bad times befalling the country. After the dust of war settled, another attempt was made by the Regiment to look for a possible kin, but to avail. The award therefore, and the ascribed benefits remained unclaimed for a long time. Since the officer had no relative and the only family he had was 32 Cavalry, a case was taken up to get the possession of the medal by the unit during the command of then, Commandant of 32 Cavalry Lt Col Naveed Akbar Khan in 1986. The award now lies with the Regiment as a prestigious memento. Who was Lieutenant Anwer Saeed Butt? We still do not know but isn’t it enough that he sacrificed his youth for the defence of this country.
A SHERMAN TANK IN ACTION
The story reminded me of another young unsung fallen officer; one Captain Ahsan Malik, a brave son of the soil who commanded a Force at ‘Koman Bridge’ near a place called ‘Hilli’ and whose name remained engraved on the heart and mind of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army till he breathed his last (Karan Thapar’s interview with FM Sam Manekshaw on BBCTV dated 28 July 1999). According to him Capt Ahsan Malik was one young officer who completely exhausted him despite having military preponderance. His three concerted attacks to gain the vital location were ruthlessly repulsed before the Captain could finally be brought to a still. He further revealed that after the war was over the first thing which he did on reaching his office was to write a letter to the Pakistan Army in which he recommended them to give the highest gallantry award to this Officer. During the course of interview, despite prodding by Karan Thapar the FM refused to pass any derogatory remarks on the Pakistan Army and kept repeating “It fought very gallantly, but they had no choice…. They were operating a thousand mile away from their base…. Besides, we were able to build a huge numerical superiority against them".
The purpose of narrating these two stories is neither to eulogize Pakistan Army nor to put a justification of any sort, but to realize as to how easy it is for us to label our Army as a “Defeated Army”. These Officers are not the only two to fall but the list comprises hundreds of such souls whose bodies were lost on the same soil they pledged to defend.
As a child I vividly remember singing a poem in the morning assembly in our school and which I never understood then:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns! He said:
Into the Valley of Death
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Their’s not to make reply,
Their’s not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of death
Rode the six hundred.
In later years I found out that the poem was written by Alfred Tennyson to glorify the charge of the British Light Brigade against the Russians during the battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. It was the result of a miscommunication at the top level in such a way that the Brigade attempted a much more difficult objective resulted in massacre of the entire force believed to be 600. The poem is still sung to glorify the fallen heroes who carried out their orders knowing well that they stood no chance.
Today I ponder that if I could sing a poem meant to glorify a fallen British Brigade which dates back to 1854, what prevents me to acknowledge the sacrifices of my own. Our soldiers, both officers and men fought valiantly even in the jaws of heavy odds. They carried out their orders with unswerving courage and steadfastness without thinking of their own lives and despite the fact that they knew well that someone at the top had blundered somewhere.