Even though there was no war declared between Pakistan and India in early April 1971, India held a number of Pakistani officers, including myself as Prisoners of War (POWs). The soldiers had been handed over by the Bengali element of the Pakistan Army that had revolted in East Pakistan. Beaten and tortured in a cell in the 91 Border Security Force (BSF) Quarter Guard in Agartala, I would have probably died an unknown soldier had it not been for the local Indian Army Brigade Commander who on hearing that there was a Pakistani 'super-commando' (hardly) being brutalised by the BSF acted as soldier should treat a POW, he sent a detachment to “rescue” me.
I was given to believe that I was taken away from the atrocious clutches of the BSF almost at gunpoint and was carried to the Army camp barely conscious. I was patched up and as soon as I was able to stand on my feet, was sent a day or so later to Agartala Jail. Many Pakistani civilians were held in Agartala Jail at that time, some had families with them. They were mostly tea planters from adjacent Sylhet District. Among the dozen or so Pakistani officers, one was of Bangladeshi origin, Capt Amin Ahmad Chaudhry, wrongly suspected of being a Pakistani intelligence operative.
I was kept isolated from the other Pakistanis in Agartala Jail but was extremely lucky to fall under the “care” of a fellow inmate who happened to be a Naxalite leader, called Majumdar. The Naxalite leader may have been technically in custody but the way he roamed around, he had the run of the jail. Before April 1971 I had never heard of a Naxalite, over the next two weeks I got a personal tutorial of their aims and objectives from someone who cheerfully informed me that he had committed 17 murders (When I got back to Pakistan and told those who were de-briefing me about “Naxalites”, they brushed it aside as a figment of my imagination). As to his privileged status in jail, Majumdar said pointedly that the jail warden had a family to worry about. The Naxalite chief had a very simple attitude towards life. If somebody attempts to hurt you, just hurt him right back, but so hard that he can never hurt you again. He was very well informed, the jailers outdoing themselves to keep in his favour. Days before we were shifted from Agartala, he told me confidently that we would be taken either to Fort William in Calcutta or to some location very near that. Along with several other officers and other ranks (ORs) we were air-lifted by an Indian Air Force (IAF) Dakota to Panagarh (on the Bengal-Behar Border) a hundred or so miles west of Calcutta. Established in Nissan Huts of World War 2 vintage. Panagarh Army Base was a huge Army depot. The POW camp was set up by 430 Field Company of 203 Army Engineer Regt (possibly Madras Sappers & Miners) under the direct supervision of Artilleryman Brig Coelho, the local Station Commander. The camp Commandant Maj.
RS Uppal had Capt Singh and Lt Richard Scott to help him. Because the countries were not at war we were served with detention papers for legal incarceration under something possibly called the “Maintenance of Internal Security Act” (MISA). From 25 May 1971 to 16 July 1971, I was incarcerated in Panagarh. Nobody declared us to the Red Cross as per the Geneva Convention. We were informed by Brig Coelho, and reminded umpteen times at the drop of a hat by Uppal and his lot, that since we were not at war we were not POWs and thus did not exist. . I found out later in Pakistan that we were “missing, believed killed”. That did not explain why the Indian Army was holding us as prisoners. The conditions were not comfortable but then one does not expect a POW camp to be a five-star hotel; the south Indian food was Army standard issue and palatable.
The interrogations were long but were not brutal of the BSF-kind. Interrogations, isolations, mental games, etc, those are all part of one's existence as a POW and we went through the whole gamut. Amin Ahmad Chaudhry was eventually cleared by the Indians and went to join the newly-formed 'Mukti Bahini' under the control of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. ‘Ho Chi', as I have always called him, eventually rose to the rank of Major General in the Bangladesh Army. He commanded an infantry Division and (irony of ironies) became the Director General Forces Intelligence (DGFI) before retiring as an Ambassador. Even today he remains a good friend. We were subjected to extensive interrogation, some of it extremely sophisticated, mainly by someone from Research and Analytical Wing (RAW) called “Maj. Malhotra”. He claimed to have taken part in the 1965 War with 16 Delhi Cavalry (Hodson's House). Since I knew a little bit about what had happened to 16 Punjab at Dograi village in 1965, his account gelled. In a strained environment such as a POW camp, it is relatively easy to create tension among the inmates.
Malhotra almost managed to do just that. I decided I had no option but to escape. Some of us, led by Maj.... Sadiq Nawaz, had starting working on a escape plan within days of reaching Panagarh, Malhotra's machinations delayed our plans to an extent. His innuendoes made us worry about possible informers amongst ourselves. The only way to escape was to somehow maneuver myself into solitary confinement. By the simple expedient of calling Lt Scott ‘Scotty”, I managed to arouse Uppal's ire enough to get myself where I wanted to be. I had respect for the way Uppal treated us as POWs (unlike Capt Chatterjee from the Rajput Regiment who was probably Coelho's staff officer in the Station HQ).
Very much out of character he blew his top and said he would break me and send me out of the camp on my knees. He was right, I did go out of the camp on my knees but on my own terms. On 16 July 1971, one day before my father's 50th birthday and two days before my 25th, I broke out of solitary confinement and out of the POW camp, “Sadiq Nawaz's Express” was on its way. Instead of heading to Bihar, I headed east towards Calcutta, making it into the city in the late afternoon of 17 July 1971.
Without a penny on me, I walked around the city barefoot before breaking into the American Consulate General on Harrington Street in the early evening and asking for political asylum as an allied soldier from CENTO and SEATO. There was curfew at night in Calcutta. US Marine Sgt. Frank Adair (who remains my friend even today) saved my life. The US Marine Detachment chipped in for a small cake for my birthday on 18 July 1971. Four days later, but in far better shape physically, with new clothes on my back and some money in my pocket, I was on the run again.
With my photographs on display at the railway station and bus stops, the only way out of Calcutta was by air, I took an Indian Airlines Flight from Dum Dum Airport to New Delhi. It is easy to talk about it now; at that time my stomach was so tight with fear I could not swallow the ice-cream in the airport restaurant. After a few days in the city, I went to Agra by road. By this time I was armed, with a husband-wife couple (Ram Das and Moni) as my immediate companions and at some distance Mehr Khan and Nabi Baksh as an armed escort (which the couple were not aware of). From there on it was “run silent, run deep”, by train to Kanpur and Lucknow till the Nepalese border at Bhairhawa. From Kathmandu, where I stayed for nearly 10 days, I went by air to Rangoon and Bangkok on 13 August 1971, before reaching Dacca on Aug 17, 1971. In Indian custody for a total of 99 days, I had made it out of the POW camp on exactly the 100th day, thus becoming the first Pakistani POW to successfully escape from an Indian POW camp. The elongated period of interrogation/de-briefing lasted 84 days, my Punjabi father-Bengali mother combination in the 1971 environment and rather blunt views as to what was happening in East Pakistan unfortunately made me somewhat of an anti-hero. Even my poor father was pressed into trying to get me to change my stance so that I could get a medal. If it meant betraying my mother's people, I did not want it. My father agreed with me and went back to West Pakistan.
I was finally posted back to West Pakistan on Nov 12, 1971 and opted out of Army Aviation by choice. On request for an infantry unit, I was posted to 44 Punjab (now 4 Sindh) on Nov 27, 1971, joining them in the field near Rahimyar Khan. On the morning of Dec 3, 1971, war broke out and we were moved on Dec 10, 1971 by train and road to Umerkot in the Thar Desert.
As the sun came out on Dec 13, 1971, while commanding a rifle company on Sanohi Ridge near Chor I was given “battlefield promotion” to the rank of Major by my twice decorated Commanding Officer, Lt Col (later Brig) Mohammad Taj, SJ & Bar. My rifle company was re-named by Col Taj as “Sehgal Company”, soldiers will understand why one is proud that the name still stands today. After staying out in the field throughout 1972 and than taking extensive part in Balochistan operations against Baloch rebels in 1973, I left the Army on Jan 25, 1974.
A plan seldom materializes according to the script worked out by the planner, though in the end the results may turn out to be just as successful. So many things could have gone wrong.
Far too many mistakes were made by me in the implementation of the plan. I only learnt through experience the many pitfalls that existed. My luck held throughout and somebody up there, namely God, was looking after me. A successful escape was by no means an ideal escape, it had the elements of audacity bordering on stupidity, and yet I was lucky enough to muddle though somehow. At the time of my escape, conditions of war did not exist between Pakistan and India, though it almost amounted to that. Those who escaped or attempted to escape after my successful attempt had an infinitely harder task. They were very brave men. It goes to their credit that many successfully managed to get through.
Though a virtual state of anarchy did exist in West Bengal, and the Army and the Police was deployed for internal security purposes, I had a much fairer chance of getting away. I was a pioneer of sorts, with all the advantages that a pioneer thus enjoys, and all the drawbacks that he has to encounter. There is always the mystery of the unknown. Wavell, taking about instincts, said, “Some people have the irrational tenth like the kingfisher flashing across the surface of a pond”. That particular type of instinct escapes me, but the fact remains that I led with my instincts for some time and was proved correct. Nerves, naturally, are a great problem and utmost confidence is required. Patience is simply a must, I am afraid, my nerves remain on the razor's edge in such circumstances, and I am not a very patient human being. This can be an advantage to a handicap, depending upon how much control one can exercise. Your intelligence must be honed to a purpose, evasion and survival. All of one's faculties must be engaged in observing, assessing, planning and putting the plans to successful implementation. One must be physically alert from any danger and have the ability to make the right response. While remaining calm outward one has to be like a coiled spring. For an infantryman, this will need no elucidation, it is a merely the acid test of the soldier.
A pilot and an infantry soldier makes for a very effective escape combination. Every event and observation referred to inside are entirely personal. I bear malice for none - perhaps at that time except Indians. It is not so now. Before I became a POW in India I regret that I really did not care when others subscribed to Gen Custer's saying, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Looking back, it was very immature and insensitive on my part not to do so. One must stand up and be counted against prejudice bordering on hatred. Having lived on the fail-safe line of the Punjabi-Bengali divide I should have known better! Even then, I gave the devil (at that time) his due wherever he so deserved it. The fact remains there are a lot many good Indians out there and I am proud they consider me a friend. Of particular mention are Rati and Dhruv Sawhney, Princess Jeet and Nand Khemka, Pheroza and Jamshed Godrej, Saurav Adhikari and Madhavi Jha, not to mention Bunty and Pawan Singh Ahluwalia, among a host of others. The thing for soldiers to remember is to never become a prisoner of your enemy and if somehow you do become a prisoner, do not lose your dignity, self-respect and sense of humour.
Some people will ask me if I am ready to go through such an adventure again. My point-blank answer to them will be that I am not. Life is not meant to be lived according to a script, the dangers one has to endure must come as a surprise. People who want to die like heroes are welcome to do so. It must be for a purpose. Failing that, I want to live as a human being. I am sure it is not an original saying. Was I scared? Of course I was! Courage is simply the control of fear, those who profess they have no fear are morons. In the end I must draw a moral from my return from the reaches of oblivion. Freedom from captivity is worth risking one's life for. *Sehgal, a Pak defence analyst is writing a book, Escape from Oblivion, on his experience.