A Nishan e Haider at Kala Pul, A Grave that got moved, and a Monument that never existed
Air was stale and the night was warm and muggy. Having walked a distance our shoes wore layers of fine dust that much resembled sand. It was almost midnight and we were roaming inside Pakistan Air Force Base Masroor right on the brink of Karachi shoreline. It was my second day in Karachi as I was visiting Pakistan after the lapse of 4 years. Before landing at Jinnah Terminal I had alerted a selective group of very dear friends from Pakistan Air Force (PAF). They were my companions from the days I took on early retirement from Army and made Chaklala my home during my first employment in private sector. Since 2012 this ‘Havabaaz Group’ has been a random hangout of ‘the pilot guys’. With their leader strictly being a non-pilot the group was a mix of functional and non-functional pilots, active as well as bed-sick pilots, pilots flying aerodromes and UAVs and those flying absolutely nothing. During 2012 – 2015 this group was my extra-curricular abode, a life to stretch out and indulge in some vahiyaat ventures, few celebrated hangouts and hangovers, a place to exercise authority and shun logic. This group dear reader, was everything to me. In 2015 they assembled in Karachi to bid me a collective farewell at Jinnah Terminal. On that September morning of 2018 as I returned on a short vacation, upon touch down at Karachi International it was only this Havabaaz Group who knew of my coordinates.
On my second evening in Karachi, Rashid Minhas (the beloved title of Rehman Arshad) along with Chota Shirazi another friend from the group voluntarily opted to fly a Karachi bound sortie as Captain and First Officer respectively, all of this just for a meet up. Having landed at PAF Base Masroor they were available for the night and awaited ‘further orders’. Rizwan, my younger brother immediately arranged a ride and I headed to Masroor in almost no time. Of all the options available to us from the assorted menu of Karachi’s night life, we settled for something simple and different. A working dinner off the regular menu of Base Masroor Officers Mess, it was subtly changed to a karahi + daal combo from a dhaba style hotel inside base confines, smoking Gold Leaf and, taking a stroll to Base Graveyard.
Alam e Masroor : Seeking a Grave
On a muggy stale night, with our shoes wearing thick layer of fine dust we were greeted by the gateway to Alam e Masroor, a small graveyard with handful of graves of Shuhada of Base Masroor. We were surprised to discover the grave of Air Commodore (Retired) Muhammad Mahmud Alam, SJ and Bar. The legendary M.M.Alam of 65 war fame and a very fine officer. We said our prayers and offered a tribute to a legend who now sleeps in a tiny piece of land in PAF Base Masroor. Although by accident, I met Wing Commander Khurram Samad Shaheed, my senior from Pakistan Steel Cadet College and a valiant Air Force Officer who embraced shahadat in a Mirage crash during a routine training flight on 3 June 2014. Here I shall take my readers back to the main story and the reason behind our visit to Alam e Masroor. It was linked to a PAF T-33 aircraft crash 48 years ago, on Friday August 20th 1971. No, we were not there to pay homage to Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas who we knew was buried in Karachi but not at PAF Base Masroor.
A City Secret at Kala Pul Graveyard
While driving on Main Korangi Road towards FTC Flyover, having crossed Kala Pul there’s a Canteen Stores Department (CSD) outlet on the left hand side. Beside CSD, an insignificant, easy to miss road leads to an unexpected destination, a Fauji Qabrastan (Army Graveyard). Located on the outback of Sharae Faisal’s famous Gora Qabrastan (Christian Graveyard) this relatively small graveyard hosts Mirza Abul Hasan Isphahani, a close associate of Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and our third Governor General Ghulam Muhammad Malik. A wall of average man’s height runs towards east and north and separates Army Graveyard from Christian Cemetery. Along the northern wall we come across another grave of significance. Covered under a simple canopy our Air Force brave-heart, Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas Shaheed, Nihshan e Haider rests here in eternal peace.
The headstone on Rashid’s grave has, inscribed on it an Urdu quadruplet that translates to:
A Defector in Making
On Aug 20th 1971, Rashid did not fly solo. Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Mati ur Rahman was his companion, in fact a hijacker, our defector from the verse copied above. We Pakistanis don’t know much about Mohammed Matiur Rahman . Some scattered bits of biography on the internet tell us that he was born in Feb 1945 in Dhaka. A total of 11 siblings, they hailed from a middle class family. Having passed PAF Public School Sargodha’s entrance exam for grade 7 he moved to West Pakistan in 1956. In 1961 He joined PAF’s 36th GDP at Risalpur as cadet. Mati was a smart student and a good swimmer, athlete and sportsman. He was commissioned into Pakistan Air Force as a Pilot Officer in 1963. As a fighter pilot he stayed stationed at Peshawar and Sargodha. As a Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman also served as a Qualified Flying Instructor at Pakistan Air Force Academy, a prestigious appointment indeed. In 1971 he was posted as instructor in No.2 Squadron at PAF Base Masroor and it stayed as such till the month of March, when he along with other fellow Bengali officers were grounded. The decision was taken at the time when Pakistan Army launched a major counter insurgency offensive, Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan. A Mukti Bahini website claims that Matiur Rahman spent early months of 1971 (Jan – Apr) in Dhaka while on leave and during that time was actively involved in some guerrilla activities conducted by Bengali insurgents. He later joined back from leave with a deliberate plan to defect. It’s hard to independently verify these claims, but the mere fact that the Bengali pilots were grounded in West Pakistan was enough to raise apprehensions. A prejudicial move like this was enough to hurt the Bengali sentiment particularly the officers at base Masrur who all of a sudden found them operationally downgraded without a fault of their own. In circumstances like this, our man Flt Lt Matiur Rahman, who was a distinguished pilot, a flying instructor and a veteran of 1965 war, if decided to defect, there were reasons behind it.
The plan to defect was brewing and it was to materialise in the hands of Matiur Rahman who though grounded still enjoyed a privileged position of Ground Safety Officer that gave him access to the tarmac at Base Masroor.
On August 20th, 1971 Rashid Minhas on his second solo flight, a few minutes before taking off alerted Air Traffic Control (ATC) through radio that his plane was being hijacked. ATC while trying to make a sense of it got visually alerted as post take off the aircraft took a non standard turn and then disappeared off the radar. Nothing was known of T-33 till a telephone call from Shah Bandar Police Station informed of the crash near India – Pakistan border and reported that ‘aircrew’ did not survive. The base rescue and search helicopter recovered two bodies, that of Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas and Flt Lt Matiur Rahman. Base authorities discovered that Matiur’s family had evaded to Indian High Commission the night before who were brought back to the base after delivering the news on Matiur’s fate. The next day on Aug 21, 1971 our presumed hijacker cum defector was buried in a graveyard at PAF Base Masroor.
The Curious Case of Bir Sreshtho
On that muggy and stale night at Base Masroor we could not find a burial evidence for Flt Lt Matiur Rahman at Shuhada Graveyard. He was most likely buried in another graveyard at some distance away reserved for burials by civilian employees of the base. I said burial evidence as we knew that having been buried at Base Masroor for quite sometime, Matiur’s grave was not there anymore. Back in 2006 as a diplomatic goodwill gesture Pakistan nodded to a Bangladesh Government’s request to move Flt Lt Matiur Rahman’s remains to his native country.
Shifting of Matiur Rahman’s remains to Banladesh in 2006. The pictures are frame stills from a video documentary on Matiur Rahman on YouTube
While Pakistan announced Nishan e Haider, the highest gallantry award for Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas on Aug 29, Bangladesh after their independence recognized the brave action of Flt Lt Matiur Rahman honouring him with Bir Sreshtho on 15 December 1973. Bir Sreshtho is the Nishan e Haider equivalent in Bangladesh Armed Forces. The remains of their hero arrived home in Jun 2006, 35 years after his initial burial in a PAF Air Base. The coffin draped in Bangladesh flag was kept at National Parade Square in Dhaka for people to pay tributes and later reburied with full state honors in Martyred Intellectuals’ Graveyard Mirpur.
“Bluebird-166 is Hijacked”
It is pertinent here to stop and for more clarity take my readers to the happenings of Aug 20th 1971, at PAF Base Masroor. Rashid Minhas was on his second solo mission on T-33 trainer aircraft. While leaving for take off scheduled at 1130 hours, he stopped to share a few sips of cold drink with his course mate Pilot Officer Tariq Qureshi and that was the last they saw him. An initial call “Bluebird-166 is hijacked” received at ATC at 1127 hours and followed by two more “166 is hijacked” a few seconds apart was the last they heard of Minhas. Bluebird-166 was his call sign. Around noon a call came from Shah Bandar Police Station informing of the crash nearby and the fatalities. What happened in between is not factually known and is established based on the findings of a Court of Inquiry that was convened to investigate the crash but then hurriedly scraped after the announcement of the award of Nishan e Haider. These details come to us from Kaiser Tufail, who has covered the incident with detail and precision on his blog. I shall cover the a summary of key points and refer my readers to this very informative blog-post for exploring the details of the incident that resulted in the first and only award of Nishan e Haider to Pakistan Air Force.
As Rashid taxied towards runway, at a location obscured from ATC Matiur managed to stop and sneak / force his way into the rear seat of the aircraft. Matiur Rahman’s influential position as Chief Safety Officer, an open canopy while taxiing (a routine practice at T-33) and a replica pistol (discovered at the crash site) is thought to have facilitated this move.
Matiur forced himself on the back seat without a parachute (the back seat was not prepared being a solo mission) and was not strapped possibly due to the urgency in getting airborne.
Matiur Rahman is believed to have flown the aircraft at low height at treetop level, the reason for not being picked up by radar. Two F-86 pairs were scrambled to follow T-33 within stipulated time but it was unreal for them to catch up due to the reaction time involved and the short distance to Indian border.
Later in the flight it’s believed there was a struggle between the two pilots to control the aircraft. This is based on the erratic flying pattern close to the time of crash as reported by witnesses on ground.
During the final moments of the flight, Rashid is believed to have actuated the canopy opening lever, probably to throw an unstrapped rear instructor out of the aircraft. The released canopy flew just inches above and struck the elevator (concluded from a dent on the tail plane with a corresponding scratch on canopy). This resulted in a nose down attitude at low height. Rashid must have yanked aircraft up for that vital lift and it resulted in a stall (based on eyewitness accounts of aircraft pulling up and aircraft flaps found in down position). The aircraft could not recover from the stall and crashed on a flat attitude.
Both the ejection seats were thrown out on impact. Rashid’s body was found strapped to the seat 100 yards ahead of the wreckage. Matiur’s body was found further ahead clear of ejection seat reason being he was not strapped to his seat.
Operating canopy lever was an unusual move. A standard ejection sequence or just a canopy jettison (canopy rocketed up thus clearing the aircraft by a margin) would have achieved the same result but with a lifeline for Minhas. Perhaps he focused more on saving the aircraft, perhaps he did what naturally came to him in the nick of time, sacrificing his life in the line of duty.
Discovering ‘The Site’ : A Quest
At the tender age of 20, Rashid Minhas became the very first and the youngest recipient of nation’s highest gallantry award, Nishan e Haider. He became an Air Force sensation, a childhood hero for us kids growing up back in late 80s. Shahzad Khalil took it to next level in his teleplay Rashid Minhas. Telecast on PTV during 80s, it had a lasting imprint That last minute flight sequence is powerful in itself as it gave a visual to my imagination of ‘The Site’. A visual that was to stay with me all these years.
The next landmark on our quest was the location where it all happened. A trainee pilot shunning his instructor with some instinctive, out of the book moves, to foil his daring and again out of the book action. It all happened in the same instance at the same geographical coordinates. Two soldiers meeting their end, one with shattered dreams, other attaining glory. It would take another 35 years and transportation of remains to a different now independent country for the former to attain the same level of honour and respect.
What we knew of the crash site was that it was near the Indian border, probably somewhere near Shah Bandar, from the police station of which the news of the crash was received. Kaiser Tufail in his blog (of which we talked a few paragraphs before) gives us some information based on “officially recorded bits of evidence” but does not specify if that includes the C of I findings. While in Karachi last year, I had tasked Rahman Arshad, a well-groomed pilot with functional liaisons to check if we could access the inquiry report. Unfortunately, there is no public or internal access and that includes men in uniform. Another document that ended up being classified as ‘National Secret’ for no obvious reason. Back to Kaiser’s blog and we are told that crash site was a ‘soft muddy terrain at the mouth of Indus River, just 32 nautical miles short of the border.” We also come to know that the wreckage was located at a “distance of 64 nautical miles from Masroor, on a heading of 130 degrees.” This was vital piece of information for a map plotting exercise and I did turn to my aviator friends seeking their help. They came up with aviation maps with their amazingly confusing lines and diagrams, leaving me with quite a bit of work to decode these colorful vectors into layman google maps. Soon we had a map with distances and travel times. The other bit was to plan the itinerary and seek a travel companion within the narrow margin of three days as I was flying back at the end of my vacation. Rizwan, my younger brother came to my rescue. He was equally inspired of our Air Force hero and decided to accompany me (drive me will be a more accurate description).
The Journey Begins
The big day was October 4, 2018. Rizwan had taken a day off and in the morning after dropping the kids at school we left Gulshan e Hadeed. This trip was inspired by our attachment to a childhood hero and the love of that sparsely populated stretch of Indus wetland on the brink of Arabian Sea. Then there was the visual of ‘the site’ I carried from Nishan e Haider teleplay on Rashid Minhas. We knew there was no memorial or monument to mark the place and I had a fair idea that in the absence of any ground clue, a search based on map data would be an equivalent of searching a needle in haystack. There still was a ray of hope.
In an insignificant place as we were out to explore, a very significant event had occurred 47 years ago in 1971. An air force plane crashed and the pilot was decorated at the national level. The incident must still be drilled in the memories of the people who were alive back then. In my wildest of imaginations I was looking to bump in to some kid from the group playing outdoor who witnessed that erratic flight as the pilots fought for control exactly as televised by Shahzad Khalil in that last minute of flight sequence in his teleplay Nishan e Haider.
Having crossed Sajawal and after a brief stopover for a cup of tea at a Pakistan Navy outpost, we set our bearing for Chuhar Jamali. The landscape changes significantly as this is the area of Indus Basin in the very neighborhood of the great river opening it’s tidal mouth to Arabian Sea. Scattered patches of cultivation greet you where water table permits. The landscape opens wide up and the line of sight all around enjoys the freedom of reaching up to and meeting horizon, unhinged and unrestricted.
A Dergah : A lead to Goth Ahmed Shah
Having crossed Chuhar Jamali, as we were around 15 kms short of Shah Bandar we took a westward turn and took on the Canal Road. The road eventually transitioned to a kacha fair weather track and we thanked our stars that it was indeed fair weather as we neared the widening span of Indus. Then as one encounters an oasis in the midst of the desert we came across Dergah Elahi Bakhsh Mendharo. This was a finely built shrine and mosque complex that appeared so out of context as if someone had actually picked those structures from somewhere else and just placed there in the middle of nowhere. Elahi Bakhsh Mendharo turned out to be a saint from modern times as the Dergah was recently built after his death in the year 2012. We stopped to join Zuhar prayer and it was there we met with imam masjid. He exactly knew what were looking for and had a fair idea where to send us. Two well oriented and able bodied guides joined us to take us from Dergah. Our destination was Goth Ahmed Shah and were to ply on a narrow shingled track for a good about 6 kms.
Goth Ahmed Shah was a modest dwelling of a couple of households. A few mud brick ovens to burn firewood into coal dotted the ground in front of us. The existing autaaq (sitting room) was literally in rags, but a wooden cabin that was once an NGO run school (now dysfunctional) came to our rescue. We were offered seats and a word was sent for Ali Muhammad Shah and Mithan Shah were the sons of Ahmed Shah. The duo of Syed brothers now was running the affairs of the goth. Ali Muhammad Shah was our man, a humble, kind hearted and down to earth host who welcomed us to his village with a smile. Born in 1958, he was a young lad in 1971 when he saw the aircraft crash. The memory was still fresh with him. The day was Friday, Ali and his friends were out hunting rabbits …..
Here dear reader, I spared a time to reflect on what I just heard. I was in audience with one of the kids whose outdoor sport was interrupted by an aircraft flying erratic and dangerously slow. In that wooden cabin of Goth Ahmed Shah, that flight sequence from the teleplay came flooding back …
Dear reader, it’s the story of Ali Muhammad Shah, so let’s hear it in his words:
It was interesting that Ali Muhammad referred to our characters as Rashid and Bengali. He came to know of the identities and the story due to subsequent visits primarily by PAF Officers of the site with Ali being the conducting officer cum guide every time. As per him Air Force officers turn up once in a while looking for the site and he shows them around. Together we walked some distance to reach the actual crash site. Ali was well versed with the area and showed us around with almost pin point accuracy. We visited the place where the aircraft had crashed, another location a little ahead where Matiur Rahman’s body was found and eventually that place had housed the bodies of both Rashid and Maitur and the recovered items from the wreckage until lifted by rescue and search teams. There was a reason behind this precision in marking the spots. As per Ali Ahmed, the place of impact was a soft muddy terrain with water table relatively high. The aircraft upon impact had sunk in to the ground almost in a nose down position and that had created a size-able groove deep into the ground, that had stayed as the wreckage was lifted. During later years as the waters receded towards the shore, the place became dry with impact groove turning into an almost permanent feature. It was fairly recent that the area had gradually gone flat again with the trace of that depression getting lost to the forces of time.
On Aug 20th 1971, two pilots met their end while trying to control an aircraft. A novice on his second solo flight desperate to prevent a hijacking, a disgruntled instructor equally desperate to defect and fly across the border. Both were awarded the highest gallantry awards by their governments. Air bases were named after them in both Pakistan and Bangladesh. The suburb of Goth Ahmed Shah pictured above, the place we visited that day bears witness to the tale of glory and honor inscribed through blood and sacrifice. It’s ironic that the place is devoid a monument to commemorate the solo Nishan e Haider of PAF. It’s equally ironic that Rashid’s aircraft having salvaged from the crash site was left to rot in the junkyard of PAF Base Masroor form where it eventually got scrapped.
Lest we forget ….