Home Opinion Op-Ed A giant among men bravest of the brave: Brigadier Muhammad Taj

A giant among men bravest of the brave: Brigadier Muhammad Taj

The life and principles of a war hero, a true patriot who defended his motherland with his life. The inspiring war stories from his life are narrated by Ikram Sehgal who had the honor of serving under the man himself

Muhammad Taj

Brig Muhammad Taj SJ & Bar died peacefully in CMH, Rawalpindi on Sep 16, 2019, in the early hours of the morning. He was buried the same day in his native village Dewal Sharif, his Soyem is today. While I personally along with all the officers and men of 44 Punjab (now 4 Sindh) grieve for him, I must pen down some notes about this giant among men, bravest of the brave soldiers of the Pakistan Army.

To quote from my forthcoming book being published by the Oxford University Press (OUP), “Blood over Shades of Green”, “Because of the impending war (Nov 1971), I requested a posting to an infantry unit, preferably 19 Punjab, my father’s original unit. I got lucky, very, very lucky in getting 44 Punjab. This unit had a core of 19 Punjabis but when I heard the name of the CO, Lt Col (later Brig) Muhammad Taj, SJ (and later Bar), I had grave apprehension, there was a general perception that he did not like Bengalis, I was half-Bengali. At 7 pm on Nov 27, 1971, I got off the train at Rahimyar Khan Railway Station and was received by Second Lieutenant Hanif Butt, ‘Singhwala’ as I immediately called him because the lump on his forehead was very visible under his helmet; he had a wonderful smile that came through despite his huge mustache.

The battalion was concentrated in Tarinda; I was asked to see the CO immediately in his office dug-out. Taj lived up to his reputation. As far as he was concerned I was a ‘Bengali’ and he would shoot me personally if I made a wrong move. He was going to give me D Company, he called ‘Delta’ as ‘Deserter’ because it had 25 men ‘absent without leave’; his logic dictated I was just the right man to command it.

My Senior JCO, Subedar Muhammad Khan, well briefed by the Subedar Major (SM), acted defiant and dismissive, as JCOs (Junior Commissioned Officers) are apt to do in such circumstances. I told him that I did not need him and he should report to the CO. Muhammad Khan hung around till the late evening, and when I had finished interviewing each and every soldier in my company, he came to me and said he had made a mistake and would never repeat it. He never did! In fact, he refused to serve further after I was dismissed from service (no reasons given under Pakistan Army Act (PAA) 2 years later, giving up his chance to become the SM.

Maj Hamid Niaz gave us a mug of tea, cheerfully telling us that we might as well drink it as we were certainly going to be ‘Shaheed’ shortly.

I was lucky to be in the company of wonderful rank and file in 44 Punjab, three of them stood out head and shoulders, Capt (later Maj) Tariq Naseer, Capt (later Maj Gen) Fahim Akhtar Khan and 2/Lt (Later Maj) Hanif Butt. On Dec 3, 1971, war broke out, as part of 60 Brigade and 33 Division we were supposed to strike deep into the Indian desert, aiming for Jaisalmer. As it turned out this was a pipedream, we ended up being force-marched south by trucks and train without air cover till we reached Mirpurkhas. The Indians were threatening to take Chor and Umerkot, and thus enter the ‘green belt’. We moved forward by foot under incessant air attacks to reinforce 55 Brigade of 18 Div at Umerkot and Chor, we found the units of 55 Brigade in shambles. While on the move short of Umerkot 44 Punjab brought down two Indian fighter jets, probably SU-7s, by concentrated machine-gun fire, on Dec 12, 1971. My company got one!

By the time we reached the gun position of the Battery of 40 Field Regiment (being commanded by Maj (later Maj Gen) Hamid Niaz, also an Aviator) near Chor, they were virtually firing over open sights without any infantry on the ridges in front of them. Contrary to all teaching, we had our ‘Orders (O) Group’ in the gun position and two companies formed up at midnight facing Sanohi Ridge where the enemy was believed to be.

Maj Hamid Niaz gave us a mug of tea, cheerfully telling us that we might as well drink it as we were certainly going to be ‘Shaheed’ shortly. At about five-thirty in the morning of Dec 13, 1971, while the guns were still booming, Col Taj came up to Sanohi Ridge and gave me ‘battlefield promotion’ to the rank of Major, taking the crowns off his own shoulders and putting them on mine. I can never forget the sun coming up on that day. To me, this remains the most coveted moment. He immediately renamed Delta Company as ‘Sehgal Company’, (I am proud that this Company still carries my name 48 years later) – 4 Sindh has a Board with brass lettering, even though no one seems to know why this unique honor was bestowed.

Taj was wonderful to be with during the war, sometimes insufferable during peace. After Dec 13, 1971, he looked after me like his own son. I can never repay the debt of gratitude I owe him and Maj Gen (later Gen) Iqbal Khan, who became my GOC (he was Director Military Intelligence) in late December 1971. Soon after the war a Desert Battle School was opened up in Umerkot and Maj (later Brig) ‘Lala’ Farooq was made the Commandant; I was made the Chief Instructor (CI).

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This School has now a permanent place in Chor, which has become a full-fledged cantonment. I was being treated for heat exhaustion in the Main Dressing Station (MDS) at Dhoro Naro in July 1972 when Taj reclaimed me (as usual without permission from the CO of the MDS, who promptly charged me with desertion) for Internal Security (IS) duties in Hyderabad. We remained on IS duties during the language disturbances for months, my company looking after Jamshoro and Kotri on direct instructions from President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

To quote Maj Gen (Retd) Fahim Akhtar Khan, “Brig Taj, SJ & Bar died yesterday and was buried in his native village- Upper Deval Sharif, Tehsil Murree with full military honors. It was a real big Jinaza, where people from far off places had come to bid farewell to the legendary soldier. Brig Taj, May Allah Pak bless his soul, was our Commanding Officer (44 Punjab & later re-designated as 4 Sind Regt) during 1971 War and also while the unit was employed on Counter Insurgency Ops in Baluchistan ( Marri-Bugti Area).

Having personally served in the army for almost 38 hrs & having had the opportunity to come across numerous COs while in service but frankly found none comparable to his abilities. Was head & shoulders above all those with whom I happen to interact during my service. Was the bravest & most possessive of his command. The subordinates under him would feel most secure & untouchable. He was the most honest, upright & fearless and would expect the same from his subordinates.

It is seldom in military history that a force as small as sixteen men not only knocked out two tanks but also repulsed a counter-attack supported by tanks and two Infantry Companies.

Anyone who spoke the truth would getaway for any mistake/ fault committed intentionally/ unintentionally. The formation would always pick up our unit for the most difficult assignments primarily because of the confidence he enjoyed with his superiors. It is very rare the one would come across an individual who would always excel in crisis situations. Brig Taj had proved that in the 1965 War, East Pakistan Operations, 1971 War, Baluchistan Counter Insurgency Operation & even while he was in command of Brigade. May Allah Bless his soul & grant him the highest place in Jannah Aameen,” unquote.

In the words of Brig Taj himself in an interview with Defence Journal (DJ) in September 2002, to quote, “I belong to Dhund tribe, a dominant tribe of Murree Tehsil, which owes its origin to the dynasty of Hazrat Abbass (RA), the uncle of prophet Muhammad (PBUH). It is because of this linkage that more people from this area use the word Abbassi with their name. I completed my primary education in the village school and later joined the middle school, OSIA, in a nearby village, which has the distinction of representing today the highest female literacy rate in the entire country. This distinction of OSIA has been certified by the education department. I passed my matriculation examination from Government High School, Murree in 1944. Those were very difficult days as far as traveling is concerned. Boys from Dewal daily walked more than 20 miles to and from the High School in Murree city.

Most of my close classmates and friends at school ultimately joined the army and attained distinguished positions. They included Major General Muhammad Riaz Khan, Air Commodore Khaqan Abbassi, Col. Saleh and Col. Hafiz. (Late) Khaqan Abbassi entered politics in 1985, won the general elections and became Minister for Production in the Cabinet of Muhammad Khan Junejo. He turned out to be a political leader of great qualities of both head and heart. He reached the highest point politically in this entire mountain range of Murree, Kotli Sattian and Kahuta and stood far ahead of his more professional rivals. His political career was cut short in the Ojhri Camp blast on April 10, 1988, when a flying missile struck his moving car and killed him on the spot. Apart from being an irreparable personal loss, the death of Khaqan Abbassi shocked the whole country and deprived the hill folk of an able leader.

I joined OTS in 1949 our Platoon Commander was a British Captain. I had gone from the army, faced no adjustment problem. I passed out as one of the top cadets.

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I joined the 7th Battalion of 1st Punjab Regiment. Some of my elders from the village had also served in this regiment. It was considered a very good battalion of the regiment and I wanted to be molded into a better officer.

When I joined the unit Lt. Iqbal, Lt. Osman and Lt. Nadir were already there. Lt. Sohrab and myself joined the unit from the OTS. Unfortunately, Lt. Iqbal was killed in an ambush while serving with Zhob Militia. Osman, Nadir, and Sohrab left the army as Majors.

On September 6 as Indo-Pak war broke out, my unit was directed to reach the border of Khokhara Par in Tharparkar district. The entire population from Karachi to every nook and corner of Sindh was deeply motivated and united to defend the country against Indian onslaught. This gave a big boost to the morale of the army and they were ready to shed their last drop of blood for the safety and security of the country. I was given the assignment to recapture ranger post-Shakarbu about sixteen miles from Khokhara Par, which had earlier been occupied by the Indian army.

My force included a rifle company and a section of mortar guns. My company reached the outskirts of Shakarbu by first light on an attacking day and carried out the operation successfully. The Indian fled away, leaving some dead, and the post was recaptured. On reaching the post, I noticed some activity at Kharin Post on the Indian side of the border, I immediately planned an attack with a mobile force consisting of about sixteen men with MGs and RRs. The post was captured without any opposition. Soon thereof, I sighted two enemy tanks advancing rapidly towards the post with two rifle companies. We immediately opened fire with machine guns.

L/ Naik Khushi Muhammad, Commander RR, knocked out one tank and rendered the other dysfunctional. The advancing Indian elements were engaged by me with a mortar and machine-gun fire, which forced it to withdraw leaving behind a number of dead bodies and the wreckage of two tanks. I and L/ Naik Khushi Muhammad were awarded SJ and TJ respectively for this performance. It is seldom in military history that a force as small as sixteen men not only knocked out two tanks but also repulsed a counter-attack supported by tanks and two Infantry Companies.

This was a great setback to the Pakistan army and its subsequent operations were adversely affected. I was ordered to move to Hyderabad sector to reinforce 55 Brigade which was deployed at Chor and was facing problems.

On handing over Shakarbu Post to Rangers, I joined the Battalion for Dali operation. My company was to lead the advance and establish a firm base on high ground in the rear of the enemy. We established the firm base and A and C companies were launched to capture Dali. Two available air sorties performed dare devil-attacking feats; the base commander Air Cdr M. K. Abbassi was himself flying one of the aircraft.

Air action not only destroyed the enemy ammunition train but also enemy men and equipment were shelled resulting in heavy casualties. By dusk, attack began with thunderous ‘NARAS’. The result was a complete success. Dali was cleared next day again with the help of D company, which had earlier successfully repulsed an enemy counter attack from the direction of Jasso – JoPar. D Company assaulted with RRs and MGs with one shout “Get out of the trenches otherwise you will be butchered” the enemy men surrendered and seven officers, 12 JCO’s and a number of ORs were taken prisoners. They belonged to 5 Maratha and 17 Madras.

Here 18 Punjab captured three tanks also which were in subsequent operation used against Indian army. This action will go down as one of the finest operations ever fought by a Battalion. Next to attract attention of 18 Punjab was Kalran-Ka-Talao. Here Indians had earlier occupied a number of Rangers Post, 18 Punjab was to recapture Kalran-Ka-Talao, hardly Battalion reached the concentration area, Indians attacked Ranger Post, again D company from a flank moved forward and engaged the assaulting troops effectively, inflicting very heavy casualties. The attack was crushed and enemy escaped leaving behind their dead and wounded.

Taj

3 Garhwals, that led the advance were licking their wounds for the remaining period of war and never dared to challenge Pakistani troops again. These were the achievement in 1965 war of a battalion that fought against two brigades of Indian army advancing along Gadra-Chachro axis

In my opinion, this war was primarily fought by the officers of the ranks of Lt. Col. and below. They created history and proved to the world that how well-trained and motivated they were and how they repulsed aggression by an army three times bigger in equipment and human resources. I regret to say that generalship failed us in this war otherwise the history of Pakistan would have been much different.

On December 4, when Indo-Pak war in East Pakistan spilled out we were deployed near Rahimyar Khan as part of 2 Corps. We heard the bad news of the debacle of 18 Division and I was ordered to go to Sadiqabad and get further orders from 18 Division Rear Headquarters. I went there and found the Headquarters in utter confusion.

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Soon after I met Lt. Col. Akram Syed who had returned from the front lines. He was cursing everybody around and what appeared from his utterances was that 18 Division operation was complete failure. This was a great setback to the Pakistan army and its subsequent operations were adversely affected. I was ordered to move to Hyderabad sector to reinforce 55 Brigade which was deployed at Chor and was facing problems. We moved by train to Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas.

The enemy air was extremely active and all our movements were confined tonight except for the move by road to Ghotki. Next morning the battalion moved short of Umarkot and stayed undercover during day time. I went forward and met Lt. Gen. K. M. Azhar, then Governor of NWFP, near Chor. He briefed us on the situation. In the meantime HQ 60 Brigade and GOC 33 Division also moved  to this area as the situation here was deteriorating. I took an instant decision and moved my battalion during daylight despite air superiority of the enemy.

44 Punjab moved forward despite continuous air attacks on the single road upto Umarkot and then from Umarkot towards Chor. I left Umarkot with my ‘R’ group to contact Commander 55 Brigade to get further briefing. On my way I met Gen Naseer who was going to the hospital. He told me that due to intensive enemy air action Gen. Azhar and his ADC, Major (Now Brigadier) Shafqat Cheema and he himself were badly wounded and that I must reach the Brigade HQ immediately, on reaching HQ, I met Gen. Azhar and inquired about his condition. He was really badly wounded but refused to be evacuated to hospital.

Taj

He ordered me to deploy my battalion in a defensive position along Sanohi ridge and hold it at all costs. In my battalion there were some officers from East Pakistan who could not be relied upon. Sanohi ridge was an important tactical feature and I wanted to deploy there the best of my men. Captain Ikram Sehgal had joined us on 27 Nov 1971 a few days earlier. I happened to know this young officer from my Dacca days. He was a dedicated professional soldier and reliable. I decided to deploy his company at Sanohi ridge. Later, we were also ordered to be ready to recapture 200r, a hill feature in the area. Captain Sehgal and Captain Fahim (Now Maj. General) were specially selected to command the assaulting companies. Capt. Naseer Ahmed Tariq and Lt. Hanif Butt volunteered to go with the assaulting companies. They were daring officers of the battalion known for their grit and popularity.

I have commanded two Brigades and five Battalions of the Pakistan Army at various times, in peace and war but not seen the equal of such officers who literally laughed in the face of certain death. As they prepared for battle their high morale enthused the whole battalion with great elan and spirit. This assault, however, was not launched for certain logistical reasons. The enemy air actions continued and the battalion had the proud privilege of shooting down two SU-7s. It was on Sanohi Ridge in the desert that Captain Sehgal was promoted to the rank of Major, under the peculiar circumstances prevailing at that time where no Major’s crescent and star was available, I took off my crescent and star and fixed them on the shoulder of Major Sehgal.

I also re-named Delta Company as “Sehgal Company” after its Company Commander. (Thirty years later on installation of Maj Gen Fahim as Colonel of the Battalion recently in Okara Cantonment in early April, I was pleasantly surprised to hear full-throated slogans of “Sehgal Company” Zindabad). The battalion continued to stay in the area and effectively checked further advance of enemy forces.

Quite dramatic, unabashed showmanship perhaps, but invaluable in raising the morale of troops on the receiving end of continuous Indian air attacks.

Second SJ was awarded to me in recognition of my performances in Dacca during military action and subsequent march to Rajshahi, fighting a number of battles en route. This also included crossing of Brahmaputra under dire circumstances and capturing Nagarbari. A number of battles were fought against Mukti Bahini and the defected EPR Rangers.

The crossing of Brahmaputra was so rapid and swift that even our adversary, one Indian General appreciated this operation in one of their books on East Pakistan War.

44 Punjab performed well under most adverse air situations and moved swiftly to strengthen defences at Chor. I was lucky to have a team of motivated, efficient and reliable officers. I have already named a few of them. I am in constant touch with them particularly Maj. (Retd) Ikram Sehgal, Maj. Gen. Fahim, Captain (Retd) Tariq and Brigadier Iftikhar Mehdi. These officers spent some of their younger days with me when I, too, was not that old. I always considered them as my family members and this relationship will, Inshallah, continue as long as I live”, unquote.

Gen Ziaul Haq followed double standards throughout his tenure. He said one thing and did quite the opposite to remain in power. The Afghan war, however, provided him with opportunities to prolong his rule. Zia deliberately promoted relatively spineless people in order to strengthen his grip on the army. This is precisely what every military dictator would do to strengthen his position.

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After retirement from the army and a short stint as DG, Murree Kahuta Development Authority (MKDA), I opened a hotel to earn my bread and butter. Once being one of them, prominent members of the hotel community, which constitutes the largest segment of local trade and business, often came to meet me and talked of various problems facing their profession. They persuaded me to accept the Presidentship of their union which I resisted with all the force at my command but finally I had this post virtually thrust on me. It was in this capacity that I came close to other trade, political, religious and social organization who vehemently opposed the arbitrary increase in toll tax in the summer of 1998.

Unfortunately, despite being a popular tourist centre, Murree has always been burdened with a nagging variety of road taxes including toll tax and parking fees. What is more, the officials increased the existing taxes and revived new ones simply with a wave of hand in total disregard of public opinions. In 1998, the toll tax at four posts, encircling the municipality and was increased from an average of Rs. 7 per vehicle to Rs. 50. This was an unprecedented measure anywhere in the country and caused immediate reactions among transporters, the touring public and other segments of local population. Though the local population is exempt from toll tax on private vehicles, it is not always easy to secure an exemptions permit.

We tried our best to sort out this issue amicably with the local administration but to no avail. The officials told us that the increase in toll tax was ordered by no less an authority than Mian Shabaz Sharif, the then Chief Minister of Punjab, and he wanted full compliance with his order. We tried to meet the Chief Minister during his frequent visits to Murree but nobody let us go near him.

Taj

This unreasonable stand was a perfect reason for trouble. The situation started warming and one-day complete wheel-jam hartal was observed from Chattar to Kohala which continued for about two weeks. For two weeks, the roads remained deserted, the markets closed and the area under extreme turmoil. This was most difficult period for the common man who could not buy anything, including food item but that is precisely the hartals are aimed at. The event was widely publicized in the press and virtually shook the provincial government which finally conceded to sit with the leaders of the agitation on the negotiating table to settle the issue.

I had the privilege to lead this discussion. It was great experience and I learnt for the first time that a motivated and well-led civil population is no less than a trained army provided the cause is just and the target aimed at is correct,” unquote.

I quote from DJ September 2002, “Lt Col Taj was CO 44 Punjab (now 4 Sindh) during the 1971 war. Just consider only the events leading upto battle. As my company gave a canopy of machine gun fire over a train burning from end to end carrying Guides Cav tanks at Daharki Railway Station on 10 December 1971, he stood defiantly on the road only 200 yards away, arms akimbo flatly refusing to take cover till the Indian aircraft had been driven away and the cavalrymen ran to their tanks shackled on the MBFRs and started the engines, making a sharp right swivel to break the chains, letting the tanks fall sideways down the dusty embankment and putting out the fire.

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Now that I call courage! “Don’t be late” Taj growled with pride at the bravery of Guides Cavalry, “Tell Ayub (the Guides Cav CO) we have an appointment with the Indians you better not miss!” Or pummelling Sep Yaqub (now a PIA Security Guard in Karachi) and giving him a bear embrace for shooting down an SU-7 which crashed and exploded only a few hundred yards away a mile or so short of Umerkot.

Try and recapture the elan he would instil in the sub-units of 45 Punjab and 46 Baluch as they fanned out left and right of us, “Good hunting, tell the Indians Taj is here”. Quite dramatic, unabashed showmanship perhaps, but invaluable in raising the morale of troops on the receiving end of continuous Indian air attacks. And on Sanohi Ridge, the guns of 26 Field and 40 Field on the reverse slope booming away, exhorting 44 Punjab to take 199r and 200r, two sandy dunes occupied by the Indians in the proximity of Chor, “Is there a better day to be Shaheed than today, is there a better way to be shaheed than with a bullet in your chest?” he would ask anyone who would listen.

And during the O (Orders) Group with Maj Gen Naseer, GOC 33 Div, sitting with his knee cap shot up and Lt Gen. K.M. Azhar, Governor NWFP, also wounded looking on, “Hamid (we were assembled in the Gun Position of a Battery of 40 Field) will give us something to eat, we won’t become Shaheed on an empty stomach!” Maj (later Lt Gen) Hamid Niaz gave us a banquet of sukhi roti and dal, a very hot mug of gunner’s tea and sent us off with a tearful embrace into the darkness to what he thought was certain death.

Lt Col Taj was decorated with Sitara-e-Jurat for bravery in 1965 and then again in 1971. One cannot recapture in one article Taj’s actual war exploits, only how we were deeply motivated, (individually, as a unit and even as a formation) during desperate times by this man’s presence, how he lifted our spirits in an environment only someone who has been in a battle situation can empathize with.

This Army and this country owes a debt of gratitude to the Tajs of Pakistan, a hundred, maybe a thousand Tajs were seen up and down the line thus exhorting their sub-units, units and formations from Kashmir to Kutch in both the wars. They blunted the brunt of the enemy’s threat, asked for no quarter and gave none,” unquote.

How can those who have never smelt cordite under the stress of battle understand and appreciate heroes like Brig Taj?

Ikram Sehgal, author of “Escape from Oblivion”, is Pakistani defence analyst and security expert. He is a regular contributor of articles in newspapers that include: The News and the Urdu daily Jang. The article was first published in Daily Times and has been republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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