At 11:28 sharp on 4th December 1971, the civilian truck bearing me in the garb of a truck cleaner stopped at the gate barrier of an Air Force Station deep in the Eastern front. Twelve civilian trucks, carrying armaments enough to devastate half a country hidden behind hay stacks, that had kept safe distances between each other through the long and tedious travel were now lining up, one by one, behind us as if on a parade. It was biting cold, and my shoes felt wet as though they had been through a puddle, my left leg had nearly gone to sleep. I was wearing greasy civilian clothes and a lose jute jacket against the cold. The driver beside me was better equipped against the damp Eastern winter. My apparel could not have fooled anyone if we had been molested in the deep jungles on the way. I had a loaded Sten gun slung on my shoulder with spare magazines on my side and a revolver under the jacket.
The lone Defence Security Corps guard, alerted by the sound of the trucks, stood ready to challenge. An aircraftsman on unwilling guard duty stood by his side – his rifle, an ancient 303, pointing at me. He left the challenging norm to the professional DSC guard.
“Halt,” the guard shouted. “Chaar kadam peeche chalo”. Go back by four steps.
I did. He was following the procedure.
“Pay book neeche dalo,” he said. Air Force people did not carry pay books for identity. But I knew what he meant. I dropped my identity card in front of him.
The guard bent down, rifle loosely held by his side, and picked up the card as I stood patiently till he laboriously read the English words in the identity card in a faint torchlight. All electric lights had been turned off, wartime procedure, and one had to depend on skylights. Probably out of pride, he didn’t seek the help of the young airman. The situation was funny. He was carrying another antique 303. If he cocked the rifle, I did not hear the double-click. I had this loaded automatic machine, magazine in place, ready to fire, my finger on the trigger. The young airman had probably never handled a rifle after his training days.
I whispered in his ears the password that was given to me on the way at Gohati. (Now Guwahati).
The guard strained his eyes at his watch and gave up. “Term kya hai?”, he asked. “What is the time?”.
‘Gyarah-Bathees,” I said. Eleven Thirty-two.
“Accha hua. Barah baje password badal jata. Agar aap yahi bolte tho aap ko hamein goli maarna padta,” he said, in good cheer. Good. At twelve the password would change. Then we would have had to shoot you.
“Haan ji, Mein ne choodi pehani hai. ,” I said, just as cheerfully, quoting the Punjabi phrase of taunt: Yes and I am wearing bangles. In those days, only women wore bangles. Women with bangles signified cowardice. Maybe the Queen of Jhansi who bravely fought the British didn’t wear bangles.
I walked into the guardroom, where a young Corporal with the tell-tale white cross-belt of a policeman had evidently woken up from sleep and stood up. He picked up his white peak-cap and put it on.
“Sergeant Biswanath? We were expecting you, Sarge”, he said peevishly.
“How do you know I am Sergeant Viswanathan? You didn’t check my identity.”
“The guard checked it.”
“ How do you know that? Corporal, you were sleeping on duty, in war time. However, we will deal with that later. Call the orderly officer. These trucks cannot wait outside.”
As the police Corporal, his hand shaking, picked up the telephone and was trying to get the orderly officer through a sleeping telephone exchange, I noticed the man in the corner, in a black jersey over summer uniform. His shoulders were hunched forward, chin tucked over his chest against the cold. The sleeves of his jersey concealed his rank.
It took me some time to recognize the face in the near-dark room. Hussein. Just as thin and wiry as twelve years before. The best football forward in the training school, later the best in the Air Force. Nearly every goal scored by the trainee team against the staff team in the station, against civilian teams in Bangalore, bore the footmarks of Aircraftsman Class 2 Under Training Hussein of the WOMII squad. Later, Hussein’s name appeared off-and-on in Station Routine Orders for his achievements in Inter-command, Inter-services and national tournaments.
“What are you doing here, Hussein?” I asked.
He looked up. “” Viswanathan. Sorry, Sarge. I lost my identity card, yaar. I reported the matter from Gohati by telephone. I was told to report to the guard room here. I‘ve been standing here in the cold for the last three hours. This chap says he has no information and won’t let me in.”
“Don’t say chap, bloody, ” said the officious police Corporal, who had just put down the phone. “Say Koppal, and don’t say yaar to Sergeant”.
In the Indian Air Force, they called a Corporal Koppal in a poor imitation of the RAF way of pronouncing the word with the r’s ever so faintly.
“How dare you, “ I challenged, “To talk like that to a Senior NCO, Sergeant Hussein?”
Hussein should have got his SNCO status six months before me.
“Vishu, I am not Sergeant. I flunked the bloody sergeant’s education test three times. Too busy with football.”
“You, don’t say bloody Sergeant Education Test,” said the Corporal in fake service pride, probably to please me so I won’t report him. “Sarge, this Muslim has come without an identity card. He is a bloody spy.”
“Don’t say bloody,” I repeated after him. “I know this NCO. He was a trainee in a senior batch. If you look through your old Station Routine orders you will find his name for winning matches for the Air Force in Inter-services. He is not a sergeant because he was spending time bringing credit to the service through sports.”
Losing an identity card, whatever one’s rank, that too in wartime, was a serious crime. If the card landed up in the hands of an enemy agent, the results could be disastrous. Hussein, despite his achievements in sports, wouldn’t escape punishment. That was no reason why an acting-unpaid Corporal should be insulting him and making him stand and shiver in a corner of the open guard room.
The Orderly Officer
, a young Flight Lieutenant, drove up in his official jeep. He rushed in, and I greeted him with a good evening.
“Good evening, Sergeant. My, what disguise. Ridiculous. You can put down the Sten gun now, please. I am glad you came through the jungles in one piece. Too risky. The armament officer was waiting for you till half an hour ago. He and his fitter-armourers are on the way. After they have come you can go to the Senior’s mess and change into some decent clothes. They are keeping your dinner waiting”.
I will have my dinner, I mused with some feeling of guilt, but Hussein, the ace sportsman and senior to me in service, will go hungry.
The officer turned to the standing policeman. “Cor’pral, check the truck numbers and let them in one by one. They can line up inside close to the runway and not out in the open till the Armament officer decides what to do. Please also bring the Sergeant’s luggage.“
The officer turned to Hussein. “What happened to your bloody identity card?”
“I am on temporary duty here to repair one of your DF ground equipment, Sir. I was told that your equipment is down and this is an emergency. I caught the first train, and travelled third class because there was no place in second class, squeezing myself between civilians. I lost my trunk between Barrackpore and Gohati. It was stolen at some station in between. The identity card was in the trunk. “
“How do we know that you are the Hussein who has come to repair the DF equipment? You could be anyone who stole Hussein’s identity. Maybe you have come to blast the damned thing.”
“If I stole Hussein’s identity, I would be holding his identity card, Sir,” Hussein pleaded.
“Don’t argue with an officer,” said the officious police Corporal, acting unpaid, who had just returned after passing the instructions to the head driver. The airman on guard duty reluctantly brought my luggage.
“I know this Corporal Hussein, Sir,” I intervened. “He was one batch senior to me in the wireless training centre. Any footballer worth his name in this Station would be able to identify him.”
“Sarge, I believe you. There is a war on. The enemy is pounding us on the Western Front. What they are doing to their own people in East Pakistan I don’t need to tell you. If this airman lost his identity card so carelessly, sleeping on the train when a war is on and losing his identity card, he will be severely punished. The card should have been on his person, not in a bloody trunk. The Civilians in the train could have been East Pakistan refugees, among them spies. How do you know that he has not changed since you met him last in the training centre? They are brainwashing our people all the time. You have come in with valuable top-secret property, that’s all I know. I don’t even know what it is, because I don’t need to know. You might know it because somebody up there trusts you enough to escort it all the way here. That’s how we work in the service. Know only what you need to know.”
He had probably learnt those words in the officers’ training college. The need-to-know principle, always valid, but not too relevant to the occasion. If he really meant what he said, he should not have mentioned in the presence of a person whom he suspected to be a spy that I had brought in the top secret property.
“How can I trust this man, without even an identity card with a photo, to enter this field station? How can you tell he has not turned a spy?”
“Spies carry identity cards and don’t lose them on the way. Pakistan won’t engage Hussein for spying. They would know that a Muslim would be the first suspect,” I said.
The Corporal didn’t tell me not to argue with an officer. He was busy worrying whether I would report that he was asleep on duty at a time like this.
“I have a simple test, Sir”, Said a Police Flight Sergeant who had just walked in, in uniform, but his head in a non-regulation monkey cap against the cold. Evidently, the corporal had called him for help.
After saluting the officer, the Flight Sergeant braced up as if to fire a telling shot.
“Let me ask him this one question, Sir: Corporal Hussein, do you or do you not hate Pakistan?”
Hussein looked up at him and appeared to hesitate.
“One word. Do you or don’t you hate Pakistan – a Muslim Country?”
Hussein had obviously chosen his answer. He said:
“Flight, If you are asking me if I hate Pakistan because it is a Muslim country, no, I don’t. If you are asking me if I will fight it because it is an enemy of India, my Country, yes, I will fight it, and, Inshallah, I will fight Pakistan to my death.”
The words have no relevance today, yet I remember Corporal Hussein not for his football skills, not for being my senior and yet bearing a junior rank because he flunked Sergeant’s education tests several times, but for those words.