Raja Ehsan Aziz - Much has appeared in the press by way of befitting tribute to M. M. Alam, the national hero who departed on March 18, 2013. Yet much remains to be done in building an authentic account on his life, especially the post-retirement phase, scattered in bits and pieces of often incomplete, incorrect and misplaced information. Thus in his otherwise generous tribute (Dawn, 23 March) Air Marshal (r) Ayaz recalls a “starving” Alam – causing undue anguish to many readers. Others have described him as a Bengali, when he was actually Urdu-speaking Bihari. His forefathers settled in Calcutta from Patna, the family migrated to East Pakistan in August 1947, and then to Karachi in the wake of 1971 upheaval.   Alam’s life of trials and tribulations on the ground was no less momentous than his feat in the air. Mapping it out is an impossible task for any one person, especially in the absence of a spouse since he remained a bachelor all his life. Let me try filling in with the little that I know based on our close association over the last three decades.

Back in 1984, I was busy with Afghanistan-related research and advocacy besides teaching IR in Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. A fresh KU graduate and volunteer with us named Rafiq Afghan (now heading the Daily Ummat), told me one day of meeting M. M. Alam in Karachi, mostly confined to his home under self-imposed seclusion, reading books and papers, and quite informed on the ongoing Soviet-Afghan war. We felt the need to activate this national asset rather than let him be wasted away, so decided to invite him over to Islamabad. Alam had turned down lucrative offers from within the country and abroad. There was nothing we could offer except spending some time with us in our voluntary pursuits. It was an impromptu initiative, nothing planned.

Rafiq managed to persuade Alam to join us in Islamabad, and a few days late I was delighted to received Alam escorted by Rafiq straight from the airport. M. M. Alam sported a beard, wore shalwar-kameez, Chitrali cap and Kohati chappal, a dress he proudly adopted for the rest of his life---often to the dismay of not just Air Marshal (r) Ayaz but other ex-seniors used to necktie and suits, as I recall Alam’s brief encounter with ex-Air Chief Nur Khan in a hotel lobby after a seminar.

M. M. Alam chose to stay with his caring elder most sister Noushaba, an educationist and her husband Mr. Abdul Wahab, a civil servant who retired as Additional Secretary Interior and settled in Islamabad, instead of a guesthouse lodging arranged for him. His mundane needs were bare minimum, routinely fasting most of the time, besides Ramadan. He ate very little, to the concern of his sister then and younger brother Dr. Zobair Alam attending him bed-ridden in Karachi until his demise. His generosity thrived even during the long period without pension money. He did not hesitate in giving away even essential personal effects to needy people around. For instance, a woolen shawl that I brought to protect him against biting cold was gone the next day. I found him totally detached from worldly possessions and quick at un-encumbering himself from anything he had, a rare quality in times of limitless greed.

M. M. Alam’s later years in service culminating in his retirement in 1982 marked his battles on the ground following the 1965 battles in the air. Alam was deeply committed and virtually ‘wedded’ to the air force, willing to go a long way to defend what he believed to be in its best interest. An ex-subordinate of his told me that Alam worked till late night but ordered all air-conditioners and extra lights put off at 2.00 p.m., reflective of his mindset. His equation with his own Air Chief Anwar Shamim remained less than cordial and at times defying accepted norms of compliance and discipline.  Thus in a briefing to Gen. Zia-ul-Haq by Air Chief Marshal Anwar Shamim on different options and choice of aircraft with upcoming revival of ties with the US, as narrated by M. M. Alam himself, he got up at the end to oppose his own Chief and assert, “Sir, we should go for nothing less than F-16s which would serve our needs for the next 20-30 years”. A visibly enraged Zia left the briefing before an embarrassed Air Chief after throwing his folder on the table and telling, “Gentlemen, I don’t think you have done your homework properly”. There are surely persons still around to confirm or correct this narration. The air force later got the F-16s but lost M. M. Alam!

Alam did not take his retirement lying, but ‘fought back’ with a final petition to Gen. Zia (to which I am privy) detailing how the air force was being run at the time (virtual charge sheet against his Chief) and his career cut short through denial of base command, etc. Pending receipt of reply which never came, he did not consider himself retired and therefore refused to accept pension. Gen. Zia offered an aggrieved Alam diplomatic posting out to Australia or chair of the Institute of Strategic Studies, but Alam stuck to his gun on the retirement issue and turned down those offers. Alam could dare do things out of patriotic impulse which the system would not have normally tolerated. After all, he was an acclaimed war hero. But Gen. Zia-ul-Haq had been sufficiently ‘poisoned’ against an outspoken Alam to let him be retired.

Moving to Islamabad marked the dawn of a new phase in Alam’s life. He gave some really good talks at the Quaid-i-Azam University and other institutions on security issues, airpower in modern warfare, etc and accompanied me to my monthly briefings on the Afghan war at the Institute of Strategic Studies where the late Brig. (r) Noor Hussain was delighted to receive him. They both shared memories of Bengal. Alam was not just a soldier but a formidable scholar and intellectual, always open to rational discussion and debate.

Not content in being an armchair analyst like many other scholars and experts around, he wished to go inside Afghanistan, participate and experience the war including massive use of Soviet airpower on lightly armed resistance. We therefore arranged with Hizb-e-Islami for his trip deep across the war zone and to participate in a major Mujahideen attack on Bagram airbase, just as important to the Soviets then as it is to the Americans now.  It required extra-ordinary courage and conviction to think of embarking on such a mission at the age of fifty, along with battle hardened Mujahideen less than half his age. Alam was lightly built fighter pilot and not some stout ex-infantry man—who too would have found it very difficult at that age. He undertook rigorous walking on Margalla tracks and built the stamina and strength needed for this mission. 

We drove along with Alam to the Hizb headquarters beyond Peshawar where Gulbadin Hikmatyar received us and greeted Alam. Hikmatyar presented him with a Russian pistol for his personal defence and hosted him at their guesthouse, where his winter clothing including heavy boots were arranged and we bade him Khuda Hafiz. He drove to Parachinar to join his group for the long onward journey across snow-clad mountains mostly on foot and sometimes on horseback.

They crossed the Azro heights in Logar province, evading landmines, and fending off ground fire, helicopter gunship attacks and even aerial bombardment. They had to cross three other provinces to get near Bagram airbase. Alam remained in high spirits and physically fit experiencing this war, witnessing destruction at every step, overcoming engagements on the way. Every moment of this journey involved the ultimate risk. Halfway down, Alam slipped on icy rocks which badly fractured his left arm besides external injuries. First aid was provided, but his condition required proper hospital care. He had to reluctantly part with his group and return to Peshawar.  While still recovering in Peshawar with his plastered arm, Director NIPA/Rural Academy Mr. Abdullah (later retired as Chief Secretary NWFP) came to know of Alam’s presence, invited him to stay at the Academy, and arranged a series of his lectures with officers under training. He also spoke at the Peshawar University.  Although Alam’s final mission to Bagram was aborted by his injury, he saw ample action (both ground and air) on the way to comprehend firsthand the dynamic of the ongoing war and return doubly convinced that the Soviets could not win and the Afghans were destined to prevail despite massive use of airpower.

With tempo of the Afghan war turning against the Soviets, Alam returned to Karachi and later landed in Panjsher towards the end of the Soviet occupation. I was out of the country and lost contact with him for some time. One day his brother-in-law Mr. Wahab called me telling that Alam had gone to Afghanistan with no trace and his aged mother was missing him badly. I was clueless too until one afternoon Alam rang my bell. He had just returned from Panjsher after spending eleven months in the Hindukush. The importance of Alam’s stay as a guest of Ahmad Shah Masood was more inspirational than operational. Masood called on Alam off and on, addressing him as General. Alam led an ultra-simple rural life in Panjsher was he relished, spending his time mostly reading and praying. He would be up pre-dawn for tahajad and often perform ablution by melting a block of snow outside, so not to bother his hosts too early for warm water.

Alam was a bit disoriented on return to Islamabad after eleven months, straight down from the wilderness of the Hindukush mountains, an altogether different world. The journey back home was exhausting and, meanwhile, some local addresses had changed, including mine. This might have led Alam to knock at Air Marshal (r) Ayaz’s door past mid-night, though I am still at a loss to understand what really happened and why? His sister’s home remained his regular local residence and they anxiously awaited his return. My own doors were always open to him, besides my car at his disposal.

Alam was a highly self-respecting man who led a life of utmost dignity and self-esteem. He was very candid and informal with trusted friends and could possibly take liberty in odd situations. Perhaps he erred in his judgment in knocking at the wrong door. Anyway, it was good that he came back and saw his ailing mother in Islamabad at his sister’s place. He returned to Karachi but flew back soon when her condition worsened. She passed away in November 1989 with Alam on her bedside, and was buried in Islamabad.

Alam suddenly left for Karachi in 1993 and stayed there for some time before returning to the ATW Mess. He wrote me twice that he had packed up and ready to leave for Afghanistan, in the midst of post-Najib civil war. But this trip did not materialize.

While staying at the ATW Mess, his relations with successive Air Chiefs remained cordial. He paid courtesy call on every new Air Chief and offered his services in any capacity needed. There were occasions for formal interaction with serving officers. He once visited the Staff College in Karachi for a talk in 2000. He was presented with an F-16 model which he gifted to my youngest son with his signature and designation including ‘retired’ in bracket, indicating that his retirement related bitterness had dissipated over time.  An exclusive two-bed room guesthouse was built and tastefully furnished in the middle of the ATW Mess lawn to accommodate Alam and his large collection of books and papers. This guesthouse was inaugurated by Air Cdr (retired) M. M. Alam himself on January 22, 2002, as inscribed on the marble slab outside. Apart from this gesture by Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, he also managed to convince Alam to finally accept his pension.

He moved into this guesthouse and lived here until around 2005-2006, when ‘advised’ to temporarily shift to Faisal airbase Karachi, leaving his books and papers securely locked. He was equally well looked after in Karachi, though planned returning to Chaklala but ‘advised’ each time to wait for some time! In due course, he got adjusted and settled down in Faisal (Room 201), as prospects of his returning to Chaklala faded away. With his books lying in Chaklala, he built a fresh pile of classics in Karachi, which he critically read and would often discuss with me over the phone. We kept at least once a week tele-contact throughout. His would be among the finest of private collections in social sciences and related disciplines anywhere. Destiny had him re-locate back to Karachi, from where I made him move to Islamabad in 1984!

Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise and part of the divine plan. Karachi deserved its share of hosting Alam, where his family – eleven brothers and sisters and the youngest being 8 years old when their father passed away – grew up. The family balance of 2 brothers & 3 sisters in Karachi versus 2 sisters in Islamabad/ Rawapindi weighed in favour of Karachi. His two brothers and one sister are settled abroad. It fell upon his younger brother Dr. Zobair Alam to attend to Alam during his repeated hospitalization in the his last 18 months, besides all the care and affection extended by his personal attendants, the Faisal base hospital and PNS Shifa.

Alam had significantly recovered and returned to the base hospital. I called him four times in March on a new cell number on which he had resumed limited contact with family members. The first three calls were brief since he spoke with a heavy voice and I didn’t wish to strain him. My last exchange with him was five days before his demise. He sounded remarkably re-energized, in high spirits with his usual wits and humour. We spoke for good half hour, discussed his possible visit to Chaklala later that spring, fate of his books and his brilliant handwritten papers that I offered to get composed and published (as M. M. Alam Papers) . When I told Alam of a posting on the net that he was turned out of the staff course on the third day for supposed lack of writing skills, he responded with a big laugh, “yes, they wanted to cut short my career…”

Little did I know that this was our parting exchange! His condition suddenly deteriorated three days later, he was put on the ventilator, and he breathed last at 5.30 a.m. the following morning. May Allah bless him with eternal peace and lasting abode in Heaven. Although M. M. Alam has left this world and the wasted years of his post-1965 life could not come back, successive Air Chiefs starting with Air Chief Marshal Hakimullah and continuing with incumbent Air Chief Tahir Rafique Butt played their part in sustaining a unique relationship with an extra-ordinary man till the very end. While Allah alone is now the ultimate judge of any un-redressed wrongs, excesses and grievances involving the late M. M. Alam, Air Chief Shamim and Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, subsequent care and honour extended to this great man deserves our due appreciation.  n

The writer is an Islamabad-based retired professor and independent consultant with many years of field experience in Afghanistan. Email: reaziz@gmail.com