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Life Lessons

by Altaf Hussain
Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

Illustration by Minhaj Ahmed Rafi

What I learned during Pakistan’s wars.

During my childhood, in the early ’60s, we lived in a small quarter on Karachi’s Jehangir Road, which housed government employees and their families. I remember one incident from those days vividly. In 1964, when Gen. Ayub Khan ‘defeated’ Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah in the presidential elections, Khan’s son Gohar Ayub decided to ‘celebrate’ his father’s victory in the streets of Karachi. That day is etched in my memory.

I was bringing my mother back from my uncle’s house to ours on Jehangir Road. When our rickshaw approached Filmistan Cinema, we found that the traffic had stopped and there was panic and commotion all around us. The rickshaw driver informed us nervously that the Pakhtuns were on the rampage. He told us to get out of the vehicle. I was quite confused but, nevertheless, took my mother’s hand and we got off the rickshaw. On the roads, we saw people carrying guns, rods, and iron bars. We were very scared. The government quarters were close by. To take urgent shelter from the violence, we knocked on several doors closest to us. But the residents were too scared to let us in. Finally, one family finally agreed to take us in until the storm abated.

What was the cause of the commotion that day? The only answer I got was that the Pakhtuns (to which Ayub Khan belonged) had attacked the Mohajirs (to which I belong). I wanted then to know what the Mohajirs had done to incur such wrath. I was told that the Mohajirs were being punished because they had supported Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan in the elections. The treatment meted out to unarmed citizens in Karachi on that occasion is a shameful chapter in our national history. This was the first time that I realized there was a parochial bias in our environment, that there were elements in our society who discriminated against people on the basis of ethnicity. I began noticing that there was constant talk of who was a Sindhi, Punjabi or Pakhtun. Nobody ever called himself a Pakistani.

Many of our neighbors in the government quarters came from different parts of Pakistan and spoke different languages. They included the Bengalis. One evening, when I went to visit a Bengali friend of mine, I found myself in the middle of a passionate discussion among his family and relatives. I couldn’t follow everything they were saying, but the gist of it was that they wanted to break from Pakistan and make a separate Bengali state. I asked these people, “Why do you want to do that? After all, we all made a lot of sacrifices to get Pakistan.” They told me their reasons but I was too young to grasp their meaning fully. Afterwards, I told my Bengali friend, “Do explain to your relatives that we worked very hard to get Pakistan and made many sacrifices. They should not think of breaking away from it.”

I loved Pakistan as a child, and to this day my love remains undiminished and as deep as ever. The blood of our forebears runs in the foundations of this country—a fact nobody can deny. But I am sorry to say that the sacrifices made by Muslims of the minority provinces of British India have never been mentioned or clearly expressed. These people courted death for themselves and their children in order to gain Pakistan, but their selfless contributions are neither remembered nor commemorated. Coming back to the discussion at my Bengali friend’s house, I was then in the sixth or seventh grade and was hardly in a position to convince him or his family to change their views. Then, in 1971, the inevitable happened. East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

My family loved Pakistan with fervor and passion and, from a very tender age, they had inculcated a deep sense of patriotism in me. I remember clearly my feelings in 1965 when Pakistan and India went to war. I was only about 11 at the time, but I was completely emotionally invested in Pakistan’s success against its enemies. I was glued to the radio, anxious to hear news from the front. I wanted desperately to join the Army and fight the war, but, of course, I was too young for that.

During the war, bomb shelters had been dug in various parts of the city, including our neighborhood. War was on every mind, including the children’s. As young boys who wanted to fight but could not, we took instead to playing war. One team was the ‘Pakistan Army’ and the other was the ‘Indian Army.’ We would pretend the bomb shelter was our bunker and we would go into it and the ‘Indian’ team would then attack our ‘Pakistan Army,’ which I was inevitably a part of and which would defend itself strongly. Through these games we were reassuring ourselves that one day, once of age, we could and would defend our Pakistan.

Before the war, I had wanted to be a doctor. But the war changed my thinking. I decided I would join the Army, and I did.

Around 1970, when I was a science student at City College, Gen. Yahya Khan’s government started the National Cadet Service, a mandatory military-service scheme. Every able young man who had matriculated was obliged to put in a year’s military service. Therefore, all colleges began the process of selecting candidates for the first year’s course. I desperately wanted to be selected but knew that I had no sources of recommendation since my family lacked influence. A selection team from the Army came to our college and all candidates, including myself, took an admissions test. When I learned that I had qualified for the National Cadet Service my joy knew no bounds. I took some money from my parents and bought sweets to distribute among my friends in the neighborhood.

Our initial training was done in Karachi Cantonment. A few days later, we were moved to Hyderabad Cantonment. While we were still training there, war broke out in East Pakistan. The news made me restless. I yearned to go to the battlefield and fight for my country. One evening, after a physical-training session, I went to change into my regular clothes. As I was picking up my clothes from my upper bunk bed, I heard loud cries. “Nara-e-Takbir, Allah-o-Akbar!” I knew immediately that the war had also begun on the western front. I ran outside without my kameez. A lot of young trainees were assembled there and they informed me that fighting had indeed begun along the Pakistan-India border. Hearing this, I was immeasurably delighted because I thought we would now definitely be sent to the front. We had spent days and weeks pleading with our Army instructors to forward to the right quarters our request to be sent to the front.

Finally, one night at about 1 a.m., we were ordered to pack our belongings. In accordance with military code, we desisted from trying to find out our destination but we realized that we were being sent to some battlefront. We were put on a train in Hyderabad. The train made frequent stops en route to Karachi in order to avoid aerial bombings that were being carried out by enemy aircraft continuously throughout the night. Consequently, it took us about 15 hours to get from Hyderabad to Karachi. At Karachi Cantonment we were transferred onto trucks which took us to a transit camp nearby. It was only when we arrived there that we got to know that we were being sent to East Pakistan because the weapons we had been trained to use were those for close combat.

Two of our detachments were taken to Keamari, where they boarded a ship for East Pakistan. But they returned after two days because of the Indian naval blockade of East Pakistan. This state of affairs came as a shock to me because I had been under the illusion that my dreams were about to be realized. Karachi was being bombed frequently and oil tankers that were berthed in Keamari had also been targeted, which only made us more livid. Enemy bombers flew low over the sea which was why our radars did not pick them up and they were able to enter the airspace of Karachi.

During this period, the decision was taken to convert the National Cadet Service into the 57 Baloch Regiment. Accordingly, we were given the name of 57 Baloch Regiment, loaded onto trucks, and sent to Sonmiani, a port on the Makran coast near the Balochistan sector, because it was from there that the enemy planes flew into Pakistan’s airspace. On the way to Sonmiani we felt elated once again because we thought that now, at last, we will fight in the war, kill our enemies, and if need be happily give up our own lives for our country.

After our arrival in Sonmiani, we set up camp and started preparations for building our defense. We dug trenches and occupied them, but unfortunately the war ended just a few days later. However, our commander decided that 57 Baloch Regiment, which consisted entirely of cadets whose training had been confined to cantonments and who had not been given any border training, would receive this part of their training in Sonmiani. We became happily engaged in completing our border training in Sonmiani. What is noteworthy about this period is that I experienced a number of occurrences, which were at first incomprehensible to me, but once I understood them, I found them extremely painful.

We were divided into two teams during border training. In night training, we were taught how to attack the enemy and how to defend ourselves when the enemy attacked, as well as how to go into the forests and attack the enemy in its trenches. We noticed that every day we were selected for the team that had to trudge long distances through hills and forests to arrive at the designated trenches that we were supposed to attack. At first we were happy about this because we thought that we were being given tougher training, that those who were made to work harder were expected to perform better. However, we later learned that the treatment we were being meted out was because of a very different line of thought: the sergeant in charge of us used to have those he favored sit in the ditches near the camp and would send the rest of us off on the double along lengthy and difficult routes. Even once we realized this, we did not consider it a great drawback because we thought that the hard work involved would toughen us and make us better soldiers in the long run.

During the training, one exercise involved one team hiding in the ditches and the other demonstrating its ability to attack it from a secret position. A line was drawn near the ditch. If the attacking team crossed it and cried “Charge!,” it won; but if the team hidden in the ditch cried “Halt!” before the attackers crossed the line, it was declared the winning team. One day, we were in the attacking team. We managed to approach the ditch, crawling and without being detected, and I shouted “Charge!” as we crossed the line. But as soon as I said it, the team hidden in the ditch shouted “Halt!”

Our sergeant turned on me and reprimanded me, “Ho! What are you blathering about?”

“Sir, I said ‘Charge!’ first.”

“Who said you were first?”

The sergeant then added something I didn’t at first understand: “Who selected you for the Army? You people from Karachi, living in big cities, drinking tea, wearing teddy trousers, how can you fight a war?”

I was deeply hurt and very angry. “Sir, I had so looked forward to joining the Army but now you ask how anybody from Karachi can fight a war?”

I had joined the Army with great fervor, expectations, hope, and intense passion. My only aim was to die for my country. The sergeant’s words crushed me. I reported the incident to the major, reminding him that superior Army officers who came to lecture us used to say in all their speeches that the Army was an institution where the high and low received the same treatment. I told him what the sergeant had said, I told him about my enthusiasm and expectations, and I told him how I felt about the sergeant’s treatment of us.

The major summoned the sergeant as a result of my complaint, and I happily and impatiently awaited the verdict. The result was unexpected. Instead of punishing the sergeant, I was the one punished—for breach of discipline—and sentenced to a week of “pitthu parade.” Even though my feelings were badly hurt, I did not give up hope. I did not allow myself negative thoughts or a negative attitude. I tried to pacify my wounded sensibilities by telling myself that the sergeant’s views were the views of one individual only, and that if I encountered such views from anyone again, I would try my best to correct them.

During the period of my training, I tried with all sincerity to execute all exercises and assignments responsibly in order to acquire the capability of using this training for the defense of my country, if ever such services were required.

At the same time, I began noticing things I had previously ignored. I became keenly aware that some people were being given preferential treatment. For example, the place where our ration and other items of use were stored was at some distance from the camp and we were always ordered to lug firewood and other stuff from there all the way to our camp. Moreover, the night-pass that we needed to go home for the weekend was also issued on a discriminatory basis. I tried to persuade other Mohajir boys who were with me in the program that we needed to speak about this matter to our officers but, though at first they had agreed with me, fear of the consequences made them change their mind.

This excerpt has been reproduced from Hussain’s My Life’s Journey: The Early Years (1966-1988) with permission from Oxford University Press Pakistan.

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extrovert mim July 6, 2014 - 3:57 pm

Altaf Hussain is the greatest leader of pakistan…He needs to be given an opportunity to rule pakistan….

Akber Ali July 6, 2014 - 5:26 pm

I agreed with Mr.Altaf Hussain cent percent because I face same attitude.I am 5 years elder to Altaf bhai and face same situation.I remember that day when Gauhar Ayub was firing in Liaquat Abad standing on a truck.
Later always find people discriminating against Karachi resident commenting materway,tilyar,hindustani or kale etc.drinking tea and their blood is also like tea.
I left Pakistan in 1975,but still patriot Pakistani and pray for Pakistan.

Shah Hayat Ahmad July 7, 2014 - 5:37 am

Primarily whilst the ethnic divide mustn’t be encouraged or highlighted in the higher aim of forging a stronger national identity what also must also not be overlooked is the fact that the bulk of those whom may be termed ‘Mohajirs’ actually shifted en-masse from a highly developed urban society to a largely under-developed tribal one where there was a need of safety in numbers. This tribal culture and societal ties that manifested in the form of either groups, gangs, biradaris or entire qabeelas was a problem area and a tough concept for those to have comprehended. Having come from a culture where disarmament had come about over a century ago, they shifted to a highly armed society as well.

The upper-class, resourceful or the ‘pur-wasail’ ones of those who did emigrate from India to Pakistan (i.e. the civil servants, politicians, big-businessmen) easily integrated themselves with the remnants of the colonial elite here as well joining either the Conventional or the Functional Muslim Leagues – and later making their way to either the PPP, JI, IJI or later the PML-N. Those who had neither those colonial linkages with the state in whatever form had nothing to fall back upon. With time they found no leaders or overlords left whom to could depend upon in times of peril and they found themselves lacking a tribal culture of safety in numbers when hounded by other pressure groups in their immediate surroundings.

This power vacuum intensified through the decades – this same group of the non-elite education but lacking access to the corridors – had little collective representation of themselves. Firstly that power vacuum was noticed in the universities where APMSO was conceived and eventually under whatever circumstances it evolved into a political party. The end result however was a social contract of then what may have been termed a particular ethnicity which found a collective identity then under the auspices or an umbrella group – guaranteeing safety in numbers.

Altaf Hussain (Altaf Bhai) only spearheaded this bit and thus in effect ended up as the Sardar of the Mohajir Tribes! When in Rome do as Romans do! Faced with a tribal society, the otherwise urbane had no choice but to resort to more tribal means. Ideally concepts of societal development or social constructs flow from the urban to the rural areas but here we had things flowing from the rural to the urban area. Today we see the same in the form of “urban feudals” running amok in the cities. Each individual having accumulated a certain amount of capital moves up to the next step of acquiring an entourage of vehicles and armed guards. Their behavior then too being nothing less than the very same “feudals” whom they otherwise lambast.

Altaf Bhai, with whatever motivation, did manage to give a voice and a form of collective representation to the unrepresented masses, and as a de-facto Sardar of the Tribes in this odd mix of a cosmopolitanly-urbane Educated Tribal Society. It the power of this very same collective representation that compelled the otherwise ruling elite to visit a tiny 120-sq. yard dwelling in an otherwise non-upscale neighbourhood of the city each time a government were to be formed.

The trials and tribulations of those who lived in the same government quarters and colonies would be incomprehensible to the elite who have otherwise grown up in the lap of luxury in a world separated greatly from theirs. The ghetto and the suburbs just don’t mix. The drawing rooms of the elite would be hard-pressed to understand the structures of the Galli-Mohallas or their problems.

A more democratic notion of representation of the people, by the people was thus born! Nothing short of a revolution in the politics of Pakistan. A model however that is yet to be replicated but given successive democratic terms we just about might see that happen for the people too. Democracy being an iterative process each subsequent government would yield a better mix of candidates being nominated for and winning elections. Each time around we would see candidates who are a lot more representative of the constituencies they represent. The policy of reconciliation that was brought about in effect during the previous government showed just that. Representation of the people was duly recognized.

The lessons learnt by Altaf Bhai, President Zardari and all democrats over time were tough ones indeed. However to overcome decades of misunderstandings political leadership had to mountains indeed – move towards reconciliation – forging a national identity and consensus whilst recognizing individual differences among communities and their sense of identity. Narrowing it down to the otherwise ethnic diversity Sindh itself when we have Baloch (or Barochki Speaking Sindhis); Saraeki Speaking Sindhis it’s only through the same sense of collective identity that we see Urdu Speaking Sindhis acknowledged duly – this being something that would have been otherwise impossible without the efforts of a few men and mainly one man who forged all those Urdu Speaks together (despite their own divisions i.e. Avadhi, Hyderabadi, Bihari etc) giving them collective representation and then the efforts of leaders like the late Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto who worked towards reconciliation, Altaf Bhai and President Zardari who carried that to higher plinth and despite provocation upon provocation by forces who did not wish to see this through they exercised utmost restraint and swallowed many bitter pills to give us the democratic set up we see today and a better future for our children tomorrow.

Jawed Khan July 11, 2014 - 12:08 am

Great and comprehensive essay on Pakistan’s journey towards a nation. We believe, one day, we all learn the theory of co-existence and shall practice it in letter and spirit make this part of the world a happier and prosperous place to live together in harmony.

salman July 7, 2014 - 12:53 pm

he is one of the most true leader……….

Shabbir A.Khan July 8, 2014 - 11:47 pm

Great Leader, Only Altaf Hussain are the modern, liberal, secular leader, and the first leader to raise voice against terrorism and Talibanisation in the Pakistan

Musab July 9, 2014 - 1:03 am

Altaf Hussain is the one, who has strong stance against Taliban, which is the biggest problem of Pakistan now

Arshad Butt July 9, 2014 - 1:31 pm

He is the only leader who can safe Pakistan.

Zubair Ahmed (@szam912) July 9, 2014 - 2:17 pm

Altaf Hussain is the only visionary leader in Pakistan who foresees the circumstances to come and may affect the life of common people. What ever he said always proved later by time.

Danish Jilani July 9, 2014 - 5:51 pm

The True Leader

Usman Ahmad July 9, 2014 - 7:14 pm

everyone…..be silent…and just pray that Pakistan not handed over the murderers of Dr. Imran Farooq to Scotland yard. anyway money laundering case is enough to prove every Pakistani the true face of Altaf. Long Live Pakistan. Go down the murderer of innocent Pakistanis.

Babar July 10, 2014 - 3:26 am

Iron-Man Altaf Hussain is the great leader. He is the only hope for Pakistan’s progress.

Wajahat Saleem July 11, 2014 - 7:10 pm

One Man ARMY…
Long Live Altaf Hussain Bhai….

najam July 13, 2014 - 6:56 pm

The life journey of Altaf Hussain is the evidence / prove that he is from grass root level and real leader of Poor peoples.God Bless Her

Mona Towfik July 15, 2014 - 11:42 am

12 May

RIASAT September 14, 2014 - 11:59 pm

ALTAF HUSSAIN The True Leadership Treasure

I went on search to be a leader,
Searching high and low above the meter,

I spoke with authority that I remember,
All would follow, all but one member,

“Why should I trust you?’ the one did ask,
“What have you done to achieve the task?”

I thought long and hard of what I did wrong,
Then I rolled up my sleeves and worked right along,

Shoulder to shoulder we got things done,
We worked side by side, all were one,

A mate of mine stumbled, I stooped to assist,
My hand he did grab, a smile did persist,

One was lost, didn’t know what to do,
I showed him how, the ropes, something new

I praised them one and all for their work,
All were unique, but I encouraged each quirk,

When the task was done, one did shout
“You’re a great leader!” they all turned about,

“Without you there to support our plight,
Lost would we be with no end in sight”,

I learned that day that I lead best,
When I get off my butt and help the rest,

To lead by example is the true treasure,
The secret of leadership, in one simple measure.


Asim Khan September 25, 2014 - 1:05 am

great man

kavindu kavishan February 1, 2020 - 10:54 pm

what about general yahiya khan?


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