Qais Hussain’s touching letter of condolence is not without precedent. As is now well-known, Hussain, a former fighter pilot of the Pakistan Air Force, shot down an Indian civilian plane over the Rann of Kutch in 1965. He had believed it was on a spy mission.
A half-century on, Hussain made contact with the family of Jahangir Engineer, the Indian pilot killed that day, and apologised. He also expressed his regrets to the family of Balwantrai Mehta, the then Gujarat chief minister and Engineer’s passenger.
In 2003, this writer had a remarkable interview with Brigadier ML Khetrapal, World War II veteran, descended from an officer in Ranjit Singh’s army, and father of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal.
Young Arun was killed on December 16, 1971, at the Battle of Basantar. Ranged against each other were the 17 Poona Horse and 13 Lancers, tank regiments fighting for control of the Jammu-Pathankot road.
At a critical stage it came down to three Poona Horse tanks taking on 14 Pakistani ones. Ten of the invaders were put out of operation but so were two Indian tanks. It was now down to one Indian tank, that of Khetrapal, targeted by four Pakistanis. Only 21, Khetrapal showed astounding courage. His tank was hit, he was wounded and yet he fought on. He won the day but lost his life, becoming the youngest recipient of the Param Vir Chakra.
The twist in the tale occurred in 2001. The senior Khetrapal, then 81, sought to travel to Sargodha for ‘one last look’ at the city of his birth. His host in Lahore was one Brigadier KM Nasir, a friend’s friend. Nasir and his family were extremely hospitable.
On Khetrapal’s final night in Nasir’s house, the host invited his guest for an after-dinner chat. He said he had been there at the Battle of Bade Pind, which Indians call the Battle of Basantar: “We were soldiers unknown to each other, fighting for the safety and honour of our respective countries. I regret to have to tell you that your son died at my hands.”
The confession left the two brigadiers with a strange mix of emotions. Khetrapal returned to India but was unable to tell his wife that his gracious host, who had sent so many gifts, was also their son’s killer.
Looking back, Khetrapal felt no anger for Nasir, whom he called “a hero of Pakistan.” “I’m an old soldier,” he said, “I know the feeling. It’s a will to dominate on the field.”
Nasir spoke similarly, “In battle you don’t see faces or people. You only see the tank… Arun Khetrapal was singularly responsible for our failure that day. He was a very brave boy.”
Poignantly, the Poona Horse and the Lancers had an old relationship. In 1947, a Sikh squadron of the Lancers had been transferred to the Poona Horse and a Muslim squadron of the Poona Horse had moved to the Lancers. At Basantar/Bade Pind, Indian and Pakistani soldiers fought their old regiments.
Wistful as these stories are, do they speak of Pakistan’s past more than its present? Both Hussain and Nasir belong to an old school of the Pakistani military. They were recruited in the 1950s or 1960s, before the Zia-ul Haq era, before young officers were taught to think of themselves as holy warriors in uniform.
The tragedy is not just that Jahangir Engineer and Arun Khetrapal are dead. It is that the gallant Qais Hussain and KM Nasir are probably part of a dying breed.
(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal)