general mitha -- khalid hasan
A soldier’s life
How many people in Pakistan have read, I have been wondering since I put down what to my surprise turned out to be an “unputdownable” book, the late Maj Gen AO Mitha’s posthumously published autobiography, Unlikely Beginnings. Not many, one should presume, barring some in the army who knew the general, the man who raised the Special Service Group (SSG) in the 1960s. From the anonymity in which, he believed, such a special force must remain, it has since become something of a public spectacle and a showpiece, guarding important generals, including Gen Pervez Musharraf, and showing off on Republic Day parades, running on the double, knees kicked high up to the chin, with the men, a good many of them bearded, screaming “Haq Haq”. One does hope it is not a reference to Gen Zia-ul-Haq. The SSG also puts up a show of daredevilry for important visitors admitted to the Attock Fort. Why? I do not know and one shouldn’t even ask in a country where army messes are now rented out as shadi ghars for people to celebrate their weddings.
Gen Mitha was born to an affluent and politically influential Memon family in Bombay in 1923. His grandfather was a knight and important enough to have the viceroy of India accept a dinner invitation from him at the Taj. Mitha grew up in Bombay and the chapter devoted to his childhood and early years and how the joint family system, presided over by an imperious grandfather and an omnipresent, all-powerful grandmother who inspected her married daughters-in-law’s separate living quarters for any signs of undusted furniture, deserves to be included in a sociology textbook.
Mitha was a defiant young man and to his grandfather’s shock and anger rejected the career in business that had been chosen for him. He also rejected the bride that had been earmarked for him. He decided that he was going to find a career in the army. Accordingly, after finishing high school he joined a pre-cadet academy, and was selected for a commission in the British Indian army. He passed out of the Indian Military Academy, Dehra Dun, in 1942 and daredevil that he was, volunteered for the Parachute Regiment. He served in Burma and was dropped behind Japanese lines for high-risk operations. What I found somewhat shocking – because I had always thought otherwise – was the blatant racism that British officers practised against their Indian colleagues. If there were ten officers in a mess, two of them British, they would see to it that they had little, if anything, to do with their Indian counterparts. Thousands of Indians laid down their lives in the two Great Wars which had nothing to do with them. One can only speculate what would have happened if the Allies had lost the war and Subhas Chandar Bose’s Indian National Army, which contained many Muslims, had found the future of post-British India in its hands. It is one of those great unknowables about which we can only hazard a guess.
Mitha opted for Pakistan in 1947 even after his parents, who had first decided to go to Pakistan, changed their minds. Just around that time, he fell in love with Indu, daughter of Prof Chatterji of Government College, who had grown up in Lahore, but had since moved to Delhi. That it was not just puppy love but something more lasting was proved by Mitha’s perseverance, and four years after the young lovers’ separation Indu, against the wishes of her family, came over to Karachi and they were married. He remained in love with her till the end of his life. They had three wonderful daughters, two of them highly talented classical dancers.
Mitha describes the GHQ in Rawalpindi of the early days of Pakistan in graphic detail, with junior officers using wooden packing cases for desks and chairs and bringing their own pencils to work. Toilet paper that the British used to call “bog paper” was used to write on, as ordinary paper was just not available. “When I see the offices in GHQ today, with wall-to-wall carpeting, panelled walls and full air conditioning, I wonder how and why this desire for luxurious working conditions has crept in,” he wrote with some sadness. In 1953-54 officers above the rank of lieutenant-colonel were asked if Pakistan should accept US military aid. Mitha suggested that Pakistan should not, because aid would prevent the country from developing its own arms industry and leave it at the mercy of the Americans. It will also develop a “beggar mentality”, he predicted presciently.
This wise advice was, of course, ignored. The SSG was set up at the suggestion of the Americans as a force that would operate against the Russians if they overran West Pakistan. Cherat was chosen as the highly restricted site where the commandos were to be trained and based. The trainers were mostly Americans from the CIA, who came with their families, setting up a little America with all its gadgetry and attendant luxuries. Mitha’s sole instruction to his handpicked Pakistani officers was: “Be proud of your poverty.” He remained head of the SSG for six years and it was an SSG detachment that buried him with fullhonours, sounding the last post as it lowered this soldier’s soldier in his grave four years ago.
Gen Mitha was retired when he was just over 48 years old because Gen Gul Hasan added his name to a list of officers whose retirements were announced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in his first speech as president on December 20, 1971. It was a most treacherous blow as Mitha was too good a soldier and too reverent of tradition and rules to have had any Bonapartist ambitions. He had no hand in the officers’ “revolt” at Gujranwala and the hooting down of Gen Hamid at a GHQ meeting, events that, ironically, pushed out Yahya. In fact, it was Gul Hasan himself who was Bonapartist, something Bhutto always knew. He only used Gul Hasan.
According to Gen Mitha, it was Gul Hasan who saved Brig Zia-ul-Haq, as he then was, from being sacked. Zia was in Jordan. The year was 1971. Gen Yahya received a signal from Maj Gen Nawazish, the head of the Pakistan military mission in Amman, asking that Zia be court-martialled for disobeying GHQ orders by commanding a Jordanian armour division against the Palestinians in which thousands were slaughtered. That ignominious event is known as Operation Black September. It was Gul Hasan who interceded for Zia and had Yahya let him off. Mitha was treated very badly. His Hilal-i-Jurat was withdrawn in February 1972, something that also appears to have been Gul Hasan’s handiwork. He remained under surveillance through the Bhutto years. All doors of employment were closed on him and had it not been for the generosity of a friend living abroad, who asked Mitha to manage his farm for him, he would have been on the street.
After he died, one of his friends wrote to his wife, “At the end of a tumultuous life, all he wanted was a room to sleep in, one to write and eat in – a space to walk, reflect and gaze across the fields to the distant hills.” That is not a bad epitaph for a soldier.