The Omitted Nishan E Haider

I stood in the mess of Azad Kashmir Regimental Center in Attock staring at a life-size portrait in confusion. Confusion it was, for by that time I should have been aware of something the brass plate on the photograph claimed. It said that Azad Kashmir Regiment had their own Nishan e Haider. I had no idea what it was talking about!

The year was 1998, we were final term cadets about to be graduated from Pakistan Military Academy as officers commissioned in Pakistan Army. The heroics of Captain Karnal Sher Khan and Havildar Lalik Jan were still a year and a half away. The coveted image of our celebrated heroes that always graced the limelight around Defence Day was always the same since my childhood. Sketches / portraits of 8 heavenly figures clad in Khaki superimposed on that green ribboned gun metal award, the epitome of bravery and self sacrifice, the Nishan e Haider. It had always stayed the same since my first memory of it, 7 army men and a fighter pilot, the youngest of them all and a childhood hero of everyone. During PMA training came a clarity of understanding and I could further distinguish the army men into 4 being from Punjab Regiment, 2 from Frontier Force and one from Armoured Corps. The revelation on that quiet afternoon in Attock that there was a Nishan e Haider from Azad Kashmir regiment was a startling one. The real shocker was I couldn’t even recognize the soldier in the portrait.

The Vow taken at Attock

It was a surprise to know that Naik Saif Ali Janjua Shaheed was indeed officially recognized as one of the recipients of the highest award of gallantry. A bigger surprise was to discover why he was omitted from the regular Nishan e Haider awardees. Convenient knowledge and criminal neglect was the answer. Due to his gallant actions Naik Saif Ali Janjua of 18 Azad Kashmir Regiment was conferred with Hilal e Kashmir by the Government of Azad Kashmir. Hilal e Kashmir was constituted as the highest gallantry award in Azad Kashmir. In 1995, through a gazetted notification, Government of Pakistan officially recognized Hilal e Kashmir as the equivalent of Nishan e Haider extending the list of the awardees to nine in total. This list was further expanded in 1999 when Captain Karnal Sher Khan Shaheed and Havildar Lalak Jan Shaheed earned Nishan e Haider. Dear reader, in our list of eleven gallants, Naik Saif Ali Janjua is the 9th recipient of the award.

With media becoming more aware, a present day viewer finds Naik Saif gracing the picture of Nishan e Haider recipients. The situation back in 1998 was quite different and that explains my initial shock upon first seeing Naik Saif Ali’s portrait in AK Regimental Center. Having recovered from the initial shock, I made a vow that I would find more about the lesser known soldier and along with other Nishan e Haider winners, will one day pay a visit to Naik Saif Ali’s resting place. Little did I know that it would take me another 14 years, a company of two selfless friends and an eighteen hour long adventurous drive to one of the remote corners of Azad Kashmir.

During active service I was never posted to Azad Kashmir. Of all these years whenever it was time to serve ‘operational area’, Military Secretary branch chose to send me to Himalayas instead. It was only after voluntary retirement, that I stepped into Azad Kashmir. These were mostly business trips frequented towards Kohala – Muzaffarabad and Rawalakot – Bagh. Then came a trip that stood out from the rest, for it was undertaken down south-east towards the district of Kotli and took us to the remote hamlet of Fatehpur Thakiala, A.K.A Nakyal right on the line of control between India and Pakistan. It was a personal trip over the weekend, carefully planned in the company of two very dear friends. Kaboom and Ladla were my companions on the vintage Honda City ride.

Ladla & Kaboom | Friends & Companions

Post retirement I was living ‘happily ever after’ in Chaklala, Gracy Lines to be precise. It was there that my evenings crossed the fringe of solitude and came across a few junior acquaintances. Qasim Ali Raja, A.K.A Ladla reported as a continuing student of BBA to learn the tips and tricks from the ‘Master of the Trade’ for I was the only successful MBA in the neighborhood. Qasim’s BBA was in suspended animation as he was much into the training at Islamabad Flying Club. At a crucial stage in life, when one has to tackle the obstacles of graduation and internship, Qasim had the luxury of time and resources to rear the richly hobby of flying, all at the expense of his father’s monies. For that he ought to be that ‘spoiled brat’ of the house, hence came Raja Ji’s nickname with us, Ladla. Next came Kaboom, a jolly good, happy go lucky Flight Lieutenant from Pakistan Air Force. On a bright sunny day, with maximum visibility and ideal breeze you could expect anything from Afraz. He would leave the aircraft on tarmac with keys in ignition, engine running at idle, parking brakes not applied and head to base mess to gobble a paratha anda breakfast. It would be during that peaceful tea sipping ritual that he would realize of his blunder, Kaboom!

It was in the company of Ladla and Kaboom that a successful short distance trip to Nishan e Haider abode of Sawar Muhammad Hussain Shaheed had concluded successfully. The first outing would soon pave the way for another, this time a long distance endeavor across the inter-state boundary, putting to real test our night driving skills through the mountains of Azad Kashmir and taking us well within the confines of the infamous Line of Control. The caveat, our military host at the culmination of our long journey was to ditch us in the middle of the night and we would end up in hot pursuit by an intelligence detachment of our very own army. But, that part of the story we shall cover in a bit.

Project Nakyal and Back

That fine weekend in November of 2012 we planned to visit Nakyal, where Naik Saif Ali Janjua of AK Regiment, our 9th Nishan e Haider slept in his eternal abode. The place I had taken a vow to visit in that balmy afternoon at AK Regimental Center, more than a decade ago. The plan was to drive, drive a lot in fact, taking the route Rawalpindi – Dina – Mangla – Mirpur – Kotli and eventually reach Nakyal. Google maps would show a distance of 261 kms with an estimated one way driving time of 6 hours and 30 minutes. What google does not take into account is the road conditions in these areas and the numerous security bottlenecks setup at every other district and provincial boundary. In this drive there was additional element of border customs as well as we were to cross over the boundary of Azad Kashmir. To tackle this security and immigration apparatus, Kaboom had a plan.

As we drifted past Mangla Cantonment and took on the Mirpur bridge the entry point into Azad Kashmir a Punjab Police Official indicated our vintage Honda City ride to halt. Kaboom, my second seater, took his head out and greeted the constable and while pointing towards the back seat said, “yaar gari mein Raja Saab hein”. Ladla A.K.A Qasim Ali Raja, sat on the back seat sporting Ray Ban blacks and was about to lose cover by his shocked looks when we got an affirmatory nod from the police constable followed by a fast track exit from the checkpoint. Next in line was Azad Jammu and Kashmir Police. Kaboom was ready with credentials, Ladla was shushed to stay camouflaged behind the Ray Bans and we got a clean chit again, all of it Raja Saab kay sir sadqay! Both me and Kaboom were much amused on the recently discovered love for ‘Raja Saab’ among the rank and file of Punjab and AJK Police alike. They didn’t bother to ask much about the identity of Raja Saab and we did not feel obliged to reveal more than what we said. The one person not impressed in this episode was Ladla. In fact, he wore a ‘shit in pants’ look on his face till the time we did not clear Mirpur and took the road to Kotli via Gulpur.

We got the first touch of Kashmir mountains on the Kotli Road. The road becomes much trickier after Gulpur as Poonch River becomes your companion and stays up until Kotli. We arrived in Kotli after sunset and headed straight for Brigade Officers Mess where we got served with a scrumptious dinner. A little after 8 PM, with a reflexes redux, thanks to a subtle dose of tea, we took our leave. Just outside of Kotli as one bids farewell to Poonch river, they get presented with the zig-zag winding route, a tiny infinite snake that leads straight to the narrow top of a hill and it stays exactly on top from one hill to another. On that moonless night as our car followed the thin snake’s trail our both flanks were pitched dark due to sheer fall of ridge line. This was a difficult drive that kept us awake and on toes. What made it fun was the noble purpose behind our visit and a company of very kind friends. To bring home our point of the tricky drive to my readers of this post, here’s a short video clip of a Google Earth tour of the road from Kotli to Nakyal, the one we followed during dark hours on the night between November 17 – 18 in 2012.

At the Doorstep of Naik Saif Ali Shaheed

It was almost midnight as we arrived at the gracefully simple tomb. A white grave under a white canopy. A guard detachment from local Mujahid Battalion stood at a distance keeping a watch as three of us offered a salute and I said in my heart, “Naik Saif Ali, I am here at your doorstep. I have kept my promise.” We offered Fateha and said a prayer for the gallant soldier who had sacrificed his life while battling an attack by 4 Madras Regiment on his outpost established on the conical hilltop of Pir Kalewa.

The white canopy on top of the marble grave
Portrait of the soldier and a brief account of battle actions.
The headstone

The gravestone when read, reveals a few references of interest:

Naik Saif Ali Janjua Shaheed
Hilal e Kashmir equivalent to Nishan e Haider
Son of Malik Muhammad Masoom Khan
Unit: 18 Azad Kashmir Regiment
Born: 23 April 1923
Date of Shahadat: 26 October 1948
Place of Shahadat: Pir Kalewa (Mendhar Sector)

The gravestone of Naik Saif Ali Janjua mentions the place of shahadat as Pir Kalewa in Mendhar Sector. This was the area between Poonch and Rajouri and this, dear reader, takes us back to the Poonch Uprising of 1947. That year, in the month of September local Muslims and those of surrounding areas, a sizable number among them veterans of World War 2 started an armed struggle against the forces of Maharaja of Kashmir. Later assisted by tribal faction from Pakistan this Azad Militia established its control in an area from Poonch in the north to Rajouri in the south. The Poonch itself was put under siege that continued well into the summer of 1948. As Indians recuperated for their well planned summer offensive, Pakistani leadership and military on the other side displayed a criminal neglect and disinterest. Pakistan regular armed forces miserably failed to timely support the Kashmir exploits by various Azad Militias. It was around May 1948 that after a lot of delay and indecisiveness first regular troops from Pakistan Army (101 Brigade) started pouring into the valley. A delayed response with insufficient force was to result in the loss of some vital objectives of the likes of Poonch and Zujila Pass to India. It’s a tale of failed political leadership and an unwilling military commander and is beyond the scope of this post. Let’s return to our area of interest between Rajouri and Poonch where Indians launched a major link up operation by end October 1948 and where on Pir Kalewa Ridge dominating the Rajouri Bowl our valiant Naik Saif Ali commanded a platoon locality of 18 Azad Kashmir Regiment. He would soon face an attack by 4 Madras of 5 Indian Infantry Brigade. Before we further talk of the battle actions, here is a video tour of prominent landmarks in the area, to help familiarize the readers of this post of the places we shall mention in the subsequent paragraphs.

The Battle Actions

The Poonch Garrison was under siege for one full year when Indian forces finally launched Operation Easy in October 8, 1948. The town of Naushera had always been with Indians and was now to serve as a launchpad for an offensive aimed north through Rajouri, Mendhar, Bhimber Gali for an eventual link up with the force in Poonch. Of the three brigades advancing up north, It was 5 Brigade tasked to secure the Pir Kalewa ridge line. 4 Madras of 5 Indian Brigade was tasked to capture the dominating feature Point 6650, the Pir Kalewa Ridge. The attack came on the night between October 26 -27 and 4 Madras was supported by armour, the 37 mm guns of Indian Stuarts.

Naik Saif Ali Janjua was Platoon Commander of the 18 AK Regiment’s post on Pir Kalewa. Being a platoon commander at the rank of Naik was itself an honour for Saif Ali, who had unmatched dedication and a meritorious service from the past. Saif Ali had served with Royal Engineers during World War II. Post retirement he came back to Kashmir to his hometown Nakyal and is said to have significantly contributed in the establishment of indigenous Azad Militia. He became part of the force that was initially titled Sher-e-Riasti Battalion. Naik Saif Ali had displayed undaunted courage and valour during various battle tasks in the ongoing Azad Kashmir war and had earned the position of Platoon Commander at a significant post of Pir Kalewa that effectively dominated Rajouri.

The platoon at Pir Kalewa took on the attacking elements of 4 Madras with courage and their commander Naik Saif was steadfast in repulsing the initial assault. During the battle he was seriously injured in chest by the splinters of an enemy artillery shell, but his determination never wavered. He continued to lead his troops in defending the ridge and his platoon beat back another assaulting wave frustrating 4 Madras. Naik Saif Ali later embraced shahadat due to the severity of chest wound. It was the night of October 26. The position at Pir Kalewa fell to enemy on October 28th, 1948. Naik Saif Ali died fighting from a post from where he had refused to be evacuated after being critically injured by an artillery shell. The Defence Council of Azad Jammu and Kashmir in an announcement on March 14th, the next year, awarded Naik Saif Ali with Hilal e Kashmir, the highest gallantry award in Azad Kashmir. Government of Pakistan acknowledging the valour and gallant sacrifice of Naik Saif Ali issued a gazetted notification on November 30th, 1995 declaring Hilal e Kashmir to be equivalent to Nishan e Haider, the highest gallantry award for Pakistan Armed Forces. In November 95, Naik Saif Ali became our 9th Nishan e Haider, but owing to some mysterious circumstances stayed omitted from the regular mention and media coverage of other Nishan e Haider recipients. In 1999, after Kargil War, two more soldiers Captain Karnal Sher Khan Shaheed and Havildar Lalik Jan Shaheed joined the ‘Club of the Elite’ taking the total count of Nishan e Haider to eleven. It was then we also saw Naik Saif Ali’s inclusion into the Nishan e Haider awardees both in print and electronic media. Every year when a proud nation remembers its martyrs, a small contingent from Azad Kashmir Regiment visits this modest grave in Nakyal and offers a salute with full military honors to Naik Saif Ali Shaheed, our Nishan e Haider from the Kashmir War of 1947 – 48.

Our story, dear reader, does not end here.

The Impotent Commander at Nakyal

During our visit to the gallant soldier’s grave, a few lines above I had mentioned about a Mujahid Battalion detachment standing on guard as we prayed. They were there on purpose, sent by the CO of the Muhahid Battalion, the only military force in Nakyal to keep us ‘in watch’. We utilized their presence to our advantage as our soldier got a full ‘Guard of Honour’ that night as we offered a salute. The force then followed us to ensure that we have exited the confines of Nakyal with our direction towards Kotli and not ‘the other way round.’ They had their reasons.

I had coordinated this Nakyal trip through Brigade Major at Kotli and subsequent arrangement of the visit was finalized with the Adjutant of Mujahid Battalion at Nakyal. Kaboom and Ladla were my guests on this trip. As it happened, adjutant was on leave the day we visited, but he maintains that he had tasked his back up with the trip details. Our sole intention of visiting Nakyal was to pay homage to our war hero, Naik Saif Ali. Owing to long travel time from Rawalpindi we had arranged an overnight stay at the Mujahid Battalion. We arrived at the unit near midnight and were greeted by a group of officers including Second in Command of the battalion. Having offered us tea and after a few questions regarding our intention of visiting Nakyal, they declared that as per their CO’s directive we were not welcome in the unit and that we had to leave. I asked to meet the CO in person but was declined. I could see a few apologetic faces in the Officers Mess but that did not help me calm down. In most hostile of gestures I was being refused a reserved stay in a military establishment, even worst was the fact that they had nothing to explain. To top it all the mysterious Commanding Officer had refused to come out of his hiding. The humiliation I felt that night in front of my guests is a different story. They, both Kaboom and Ladla were the people of nerve and announced, “Sir, let’s drive back, to Rawalpindi”. But this was not to happen without completing our sole aim of visiting Nakyal. We left Officers Mess and stopped at the unit gate to obtain directions to the tomb of Naik Saif Ali Janjua. There I noticed the small detachment in a vehicle following us. We let them at our tail, stopped at the tomb, had the detachment pay their respect for the shaheed along with us and waved them good bye as we left Nakyal.

What I believe happened that night was the absurd outcome of baseless suspicion, some melodramatic exercise of caution and a mean attitude that unfortunately is a characteristic curse of artillery commanders (this comes from me having been a ‘brother gunner officer’ myself). Visiting a grave as a sole reason for the long drive we took from Rawalpindi was something too much to digest for our hosts. Commanding Officer’s super senses must have lured him into a fallacy that we were into some ‘underhand’ business common in border areas. So our unilaterally cautious and an impotent commander decided to duck down and stay away from the affair. He did not come forward to investigate and make arrests, instead decided to stay within the safe confines of his ‘command’. Anything happening (if there was anything to happen) beyond the boundaries of his area of interest was kosher for him to plead his ignorance. What an inadequate, discourteous son of **** he must have been! It was a blessing that we avoided him that night. The course of events on our way back were to unfold more surprises to us, the pleasant kind.

Interstellar at Pir Lasura Park

Both Kaboom and Ladla took the unexpected turn of events even more unexpectedly. They were resolute and calm and even had sense of humor to exhibit, their trolling would come later. But on that night, rather early morning of November 18th, 2012 as we exited Nakyal, we were in light mood and happy. We had decided to drive straight back to Rawalpindi. With no hurry to reach the destination we focused more on the route and the associated pleasures of driving on top of mountains under a clear starlit sky. We stopped and got out of the car to get a better view. From the top of the cliff we were driving, across the infinite abyss of darkness we could see the glittering lights of scattered dwellings on steep slopes. These felt like stars just across, we could reach in a leap and touch with our hands. There, while looking across as we extended our gaze upwards it met with a complementing sight. Across the infinite abyss of dark sky we saw stars and galaxies, just across within easy reach, we could reach in a leap and touch with our hands. Three souls trapped in the heavenly infinity of the the glittering lights of Pir Lasura and the infinite glitter of galaxies up in the heavens. The experience, dear reader, was beyond words.

Later into the driving we decided to take the shortcut from Gulpur via Khauta to reach Rawalpindi. In the twisted maze of Kotli – Kahuta road, doused in the laziness that seeps in after extended driving, as we saw the landscape reveal itself in the pre-dawn light there was one melody that kept us going. Our new found love was “Pardesi Dhola” re-sung by Humaira Channa. In the melodious notes of this song that played on infinite loop we finally reached Khanna Pul. There on a wayside hotel, the traditional breakfast of lachhay daar paratha and lassi followed by a subtle dose of doodh patti were the befitting notes to end an eventful journey. There was a lot to revere and get back to, one incident in particular.

Earlier in the night while driving from Nakyal as we hit the road junction we had no idea where we were on the map. Standing well inside Kotli as we stopped and asked a suspicious looking bike riding duo that ‘how far is Kotli from here’ we ended up in a hot pursuit by our intelligence detachment stationed there. This tale, dear reader, we shall leave for another occasion and for now I invite your good self to enjoy the Humaira Channa’s rendition of ‘Pardesi Dhola’, a melody that kept us going on that eventful night…

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