How prisoner of war Maj. Hamir Singh managed to hold his own in a Pakistani prison. An Extract
A few days later the camp commandant Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Latif Malik visited Hamir.
‘Hello, Major, I am Colonel Malik. How are you?’
‘Hello, sir. I am perfectly alright,’ Hamir replied.
‘You are the one from 14 Grenadiers, isn’t it?’ Malik asked.
‘Yes, sir, that’s correct.’
‘We have some of your men here at Lyallpur too. They want to meet you,’ Malik informed him.
‘Really, sir? I would love to meet them, if you permit,’ Hamir requested.
‘You know, Major, today is Friday.’
‘I am afraid I don’t know that, sir, I have no idea what day it is!’ Hamir really had no idea.
‘Being a Friday, we have the Jummah namaz at 1 pm,’ Malik continued. ‘Your men insist you should join them.’
Hamir smiled. The men of Charlie Company must have learnt that he had reached Lyallpur. As their company commander, Hamir usually joined their Friday prayers. If they knew he was present at Lyallpur they would expect him to join the Jummah namaz.
‘Would you like to join them?’ Malik inquired.
‘Yes, of course!’ Hamir replied.
‘Are you quite sure?’
‘Absolutely, sir, why do you ask?’
‘Because you are a Hindu?’ Malik remarked.
‘Sir, for my company I am a Muslim,’ Hamir replied. ‘It’s a tradition in our army. Every company commander follows the religion of his command. I command Muslim men and it’s my duty to join them for namaz.’
‘Really! This I got to see!’ he said in disbelief.
‘You will only be able to if you allow me to join my men.’
‘OK, let me see what I can do.’
Malik left the room looking pretty amused. At about twenty past twelve another officer, Major Sher Jaman, arrived at Hamir’s cell.
‘I believe you want to join the Jummah namaz,’ he remarked.
‘Yes, that’s correct.’
‘OK. Then come with me.’
Hamir accompanied the major to the mosque which was within the jail premises. As they arrived at the mosque Hamir removed his shoes and headed in the direction of the water tank. He washed his face, hands, elbows, head and his feet, right up to his ankles. He then rinsed his mouth.
From a distance, out of Hamir’s view, a group of inquisitive officers were keenly observing the Indian Hindu company commander.
As the call for prayer was announced Hamir joined in like any devout Muslim, bowing and prostrating himself, immaculately following the rules of prayer. To any bystander he would appear a regular Muslim.
Colonel Malik, and Majors Khwaja and Sher Jaman watched amazed. For them it was an unbelievable spectacle.
As soon as the prayer finished Hamir’s men rushed to meet him. They were delighted to see him alive and crowded around him excitedly.
His men had last seen him grappling bare-handed with the enemy. Since he wasn’t with them at the POW camp they had assumed he had died in battle. Though they had heard rumours that Hamir had arrived at Lyallpur they refused to believe them until they saw him with their own eyes.
There was lots of excited conversation; Hamir had much catching up to do. He was keen to know what had transpired after his capture. As a result, although the prayers had finished quite some time back the men stood chatting with their company commander. Sher Jaman, who allowed the conversation, waited patiently, watching them closely. Finally, as it was getting late he decided to intervene. He walked up to Hamir and politely requested him to return to his cell.
The Pakistani officers’ respect for Hamir grew considerably consequent to what they had seen during the Jummah namaz. As they left the mosque Hamir was guided to a new cell in the section of the prison where all the other officers were housed.
Hamir’s solitary confinement at Lyallpur Central Jail ended on 7 July 1972.
As Hamir arrived at the army officers’ enclosure he found six officers waiting for him. They wore the standard POW clothing—a grey shirt and a matching salwar of the same colour.
Before Hamir, Captain Fardun Dastoor was the seniormost among the six POWs housed at Lyallpur. The other five were Captain Anil Athale (the next seniormost), Lieutenant Ganga Ram Chaudhary, Captain Mehrotra, Lieutenant A.G.J. Sweetens and Lieutenant Vijender Singh Gurung.
The officers introduced themselves to Hamir. He hadn’t known the officers earlier. Most of them had earned their commission when Hamir was in Nigeria. The only officer he had met earlier was Ganga Ram Chaudhary, whom he had met at CMH, Rawalpindi.
While they met Hamir noticed that a white cross had been marked on the back of every prisoner’s shirt. He was informed that the sole purpose of this was to help in aiming at a prisoner attempting to escape.
The Indian POWs were kept at four different locations in the prison. The army officers were kept in a separate section which consisted of a large barrack partitioned into seven parts for the officers. A second section consisted of four double-storey barracks in which all soldiers, except Muslims, were housed. Each double-storey barrack had approximately 140 soldiers living in them. The third section consisted of approximately forty Muslim soldiers who were kept away from men of other religions.
The stated Pakistani reason for this was their special dietary preferences and need for prayer. The more plausible reason, however, was that it would facilitate attempts to indoctrinate them.
The air force officers’ block was located approximately 100 yards away from the army officers’ block. It consisted of two long barracks, one behind the other and a patch of open space in between. Each barrack was further partitioned into several separate cells, exactly similar in design to the one where Hamir had been lodged while in solitary confinement at Lyallpur.
The entire block was enclosed by a perimeter wall. There was only a single gate to enter the enclosed area of each block. This was always kept locked. Since the single gate and perimeter walls provided adequate security the doors of individual cells were left open by day.
The prisoners were free to intermingle within the confines of the enclosed portion of each block. This was welcome as officers could spend time talking to each other during the morning hours.
Since there were fewer officers than cells available in each enclosure, vacant cells were utilized as baths or toilets. Some of the vacant cells were also occupied by fellow Indian soldiers who were nominated to help in administration.
Though squat toilets were available in each cell, officers used only the squat toilets of the vacant cells at the extremity of each barrack.
The space between the barracks was used for activities such as badminton or volleyball. A part of the area was also converted into a kitchen garden.
Keeping an eagle eye on them were armed guards perched high on specially constructed watch towers overlooking the entire block. At night searchlights would flood the entire complex.
Other than the living areas the POWs were permitted to carry out physical activity of limited duration within their respective enclosures.
There was a mosque on campus for the Muslim POWs to offer their prayers. The POWs were provided newspapers and magazines to read.
Communication between Indian POWs located in separate enclosures was clandestinely carried out by the soldiers who were tasked to deliver food. They were very suitable for courier duties as they were allowed access to all sections of the prison complex.
Being the seniormost Hamir was allowed some privileges. He had a soldier of his company with him at all times. The soldier would help Hamir with his physiotherapy and other administrative tasks.
A few days in the POW camp is all it took Hamir to sense that all was not well among the officers. Either due to boredom or their psychological state, officers would often quarrel among themselves. Matters came to a head one day when a messenger conveyed that there had been a major fight in one of the barracks. It was time to take the bull by the horns.
A gurdwara function had been organized for the following Sunday. All soldiers would be required to attend the event. In his capacity as seniormost officer Hamir decided to use the occasion to interact with the men.
As soon as the gurdwara prayers ended Hamir began interacting with the soldiers. He met them individually, inquiring about their general well-being, quality of food, cleanliness of toilets and the administrative difficulties that they had been facing.
The sense he got from the interaction was that the main issue was lack of physical activity. Except for thirty-odd minutes of perfunctory PT, they were not allowed to play football, volleyball or engage in any other recreational exercise. To make matters worse there was just one volleyball court, hence only very few men got the opportunity to play.
Major Khwaja, who was on duty, had been watching while
Hamir interacted with the men. The post-prayer interaction had almost turned into a Sainik Sammelan. He seemed worried with what Hamir was doing.
‘Major Hamir, it’s time for the men to return to their barracks,’ Khwaja remarked.
‘Please wait, Major, I need some more time. I need to know how they are!’ Hamir replied.
‘Their well-being is our responsibility, please don’t worry! As it is you’ve had enough time,’ he added impatiently.
‘Major Khwaja, I am sure you are aware of the Geneva Conventions. If not, I suggest you take a look at them. As the seniormost Indian officer here I am entitled to seek the welfare of the POWs!’ Hamir didn’t really know whether there was any such provision in the Geneva Conventions but his confidence convinced Khwaja that he was probably right.
‘Major, you don’t need to teach me about the Geneva Conventions,’ said Khwaja curtly.
‘Then how is it that you are not allowing us adequate exercise?’ Hamir asked.
‘Of course we are allowing that! Don’t you have PT every morning?’
‘PT? For your information it’s just thirty minutes of lollygagging!’ Hamir had turned combative. ‘Why don’t you allow us to play football? Why aren’t there adequate volleyball courts? Do you think one court is enough for 600 soldiers?’
‘We can’t allow gathering in large numbers, it’s a security issue!’ Khwaja replied.
‘Security, my foot! You are just denying us our rights. If you can’t handle us please take me to the Camp Commandant. I would like an audience with him!’ Hamir was livid.
‘OK. If that’s what you want I will convey it to him. But please ask your men to disperse. I have had enough of this,’ Khwaja declared.
Meanwhile, observing the heated argument, an alert had been sounded. All guards were at stand-to, aiming their weapons aggressively towards the POWs gathered there. Hamir realized that it was time to step back from the confrontation. He had achieved the desired effect.
The Indian soldiers had witnessed the argument too. As they dispersed they seemed happy that someone had finally taken up cudgels on their behalf.
‘Ab humare Major sahab ne sambhal liya hai. Kuch na kuch achha nateeja to niklega!’ they said. Now that our Major has taken charge there will be a positive outcome for sure!
The very next day Hamir was summoned to the camp commandant’s office. As soon as he entered, Lieutenant Colonel Malik, who had been busy studying files, looked up and greeted him.
‘Good morning, Hamir. I believe you have some issues,’ he said sternly.
‘Good morning, sir. Yes, you are right. I do have some issues. Kindly give me a patient hearing,’ Hamir replied.
‘Go ahead, Major, tell me,’ Malik was all ears.
‘Sir, all I ask is what constitutes our rights as per the Geneva Conventions.’
‘OK, go on.’
‘Sir, my men aren’t getting adequate exercise. With the limited exercise they seem restless. We need to be allowed to play football and volleyball,’ Hamir pleaded. ‘There aren’t adequate volleyball courts. It would be wonderful if we could have one in each block. We will prepare the fields, we just need the equipment.’
‘OK, I will try,’ Malik replied.
‘Great, sir. If we have adequate fields then we will like to conduct inter-block matches. That will lighten up the atmosphere… And, sir, I have another request.’
‘And what’s that?’ Malik said, exasperated.
‘I am told we have only a gurdwara function every Sunday. Why not a mandir function?’
‘The mandir function is organized once a month,’ Malik said.
‘Sir, I would like to request you to organize mandir and gurdwara functions on alternate Sundays. All of us will attend both these events irrespective of our religion.’
‘That shouldn’t be a problem, I will see to it.’
‘And my final request, sir…’ Hamir was stretching his luck now.
‘Achha bhai, go ahead, yeh bhi bata do!’ Malik smiled. Go ahead, might as well tell me that too!
‘Sir, we would like our Muslim boys to live with us. In the Indian Army we don’t believe in divisions based on religion or caste.’
‘See, Hamir, this is something I can’t promise. It’s beyond me. Orders are from higher HQ. I will try, but no promises,’ Malik replied, sounding embarrassed.
‘I am sure if you try hard enough you will succeed, sir.’ Now Hamir was smiling. Malik laughed loudly. When Hamir left the commandant’s office he was reasonably confident that his requests would be accepted.
Malik was true to his word. Except the request to shift the Muslim soldiers all other requests were met. Hamir shared the good news with the soldiers after the mandir parade the next Sunday morning. They were delighted; finally some of their long-standing demands had been met.
The men spent the next few days and weeks preparing fields and organizing teams. Contestants began practising seriously for the forthcoming inter-block football and volleyball tournaments.
To Hamir’s relief quarrels and petty arguments became rare as the men expended all their energy and angst on the sports field.
An avid sportsman, Hamir himself became a regular on the field. The atmosphere in the camp became better now that there was something for every soldier to look forward to, either as a spectator, cheerleader or player.
POW 1971: A SOLDIER’S ACCOUNT OF THE HEROIC BATTLE OF DARUCHHIAN
Major General Vijay Singh
Speaking Tiger Books, 2021, Pg 251, Rs 499