Top army officers in the early decades of India and Pakistan as nation-states were among a group of tightly-knit cadets trained together at Sandhurst following a selection process based on shared features
Indian Army chief General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri responded rather approvingly when American academics Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph asked him about Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup against President Iskander Mirza in Pakistan. He thought Khan must have felt obliged to move in and ‘put things right’ finding Mirza playing ducks and drakes with the country’s political situation.
Chaudhuri’s assessment two years before he led the Indian Army in the second India-Pakistan war over Kashmir in 1965 echoed Khan’s claim of having been forced to act and getting drawn into politics to prevent Pakistan from descending into political chaos.
The opinion was significant as the two knew each other well. Khan and Chaudhuri were batchmates at British Royal Military College in Sandhurst and among many top Indian and Pakistani military officers, who shared much affinity in the early years of India and Pakistan as nation-states.
These officers trained and served together in the British Indian Army before Pakistan’s creation in 1947 and were among a group of tightly knit cadets chosen for training at Sandhurst from 1919 following a selection process based on shared features.
Most of these officers came from the so-called martial races and families seen to be loyal to the British. They were thought to be compatible with British values and norms and were concentrated in a few platoons to overcome distress from being away from home in unfamiliar surroundings and to accommodate the biases of the British.
Mirza, who retired from the army as a Major General and was the scion of an aristocratic Bengal family, was also trained at Sandhurst. He served in the British Indian Army and was part of the 17th Poona Horse before becoming a joint secretary in the Indian defense ministry in New Delhi.
After Pakistan’s creation, he served as its first defense secretary. Like other Indians at Sandhurst, he spent a year with a British regiment after training before his posting to an Indian regiment.
The Indian officers trained at Sandhurst were sent to eight Indanised units or a 10th of the total number of battalions. This was due to British prejudices about serving with Indians and doubts about the leadership abilities of the Indians.
In his book Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence, Steven Wilkinson writes the links as such between these Indian officers were much tighter than if they had been spread across all the units of the army at the beginning of their careers.
Ten Indian officers trained at Sandhurst were commissioned from 1920 to 1929 into just one of these eight units, 1/14 Punjab Regiment, which was later merged into the Pakistan Army in November 1947. Wilkinson writes these officers ate and drank as well as trained, often went on leave, and served in the field together.
By 1951, six of them were in service in the Indian Army with one retiring the year before because of ill health. They included three of India’s 22 major generals. On the Pakistani side, their batchmates included Ayub Khan. The officers forged close bonds during training at Sandhurst and at staff colleges as well as operations during the Second World War.
Sam Manekshaw, who led the Indian Army in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and Muhammad Musa Khan, the Pakistani Army chief from 1958 to 1966, were part of the first batch at Dehradun’s military academy when training began there in 1932.
In Manekshaw’s obituary in 2008, Pakistani columnist and fellow Parsi Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote about having heard much about the Indian military leader from his friend, Attiqur Rahman, a Litunent General in the Pakistani army.
Manekshaw and Rahman served in the British Indian Army as young officers on the Burma front. In February 1942, Manekshaw asked Rahman to leave his pistol so that he could shoot himself after getting wounded in Burma.
Cowasjee quoted Rahman telling Manekshaw not to be silly and that all would be well. It was a close call with the surgeon attending to him almost giving up. He wrote Rahman and Manekshaw did not meet again until 1945 when the latter was one of his instructors at the Quetta Staff College, which became the Pakistan Army’s institute for training mid-career officers after 1947.
Gen Mohammed Yahya Khan, who led Pakistan in the 1971 war, was also a good friend of Manekshaw and the two were part of British Indian Army chief Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck’s staff in 1947. Cowasjee wrote Yahya Khan offered to buy Manekshaw’s motorcycle for Rs 1,000 which he promised to send from Pakistan but failed to do so.
Manekshaw is quoted to have said after the 1971 war that Yahya Khan ‘never paid me the Rs1,000 for my motorbike, but now he has paid with half his country’, referring to Bangladesh’s creation.
Cowasjee wrote when he met Manekshaw he told him that Yahya Khan had never forgotten the debt, but never got around to it while offering to pay back the Rs 1,000 with interest on his behalf.
‘No, no, said the field marshal [Manekshaw], Yahya was a good man and a good soldier. We served together. There was not one mean or corrupt bone in his body. Your politicians are as bad as ours. Yahya was condemned [after the 1971 war] without being heard. After he was put under house arrest at the end of December 1971, up to his death in 1980, he clamoured unceasingly for an open trial. Why was he condemned unheard?’ Cowasjee quoted Manekshaw as saying.
Many of these officers maintained such cordial ties despite continuing hostilities between the two countries. Asghar Khan, who led the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and came to be known as its father, spoke to Indian veteran Squadron Leader Dalip Singh Majithia days before his death in January 2018.
In October 2017, Asghar Khan phoned his Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) roommate Randhir Singh to offer condolences over Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh’s death.
In the 1940s, Arjan Singh and Asghar Khan were batchmates. They maintained their relationship despite heading two adversarial military forces. Their bond also helped avert an all-out war following an India–Pakistan skirmish in March 1965 in Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch.
Asghar Khan would pick up the phone and speak to Singh. He urged Singh not to get the IAF involved as PAF would be forced to respond if the latter did and end up broadening the theatre of war. Singh was convinced and prevented a full-scale conflict before Pakistani incursions into Kashmir in 1965 triggered a full-blown war later that year.
These bonds also helped save the lives of Asghar Khan and his family when they were caught in the middle of the bloodbath subcontinent’s division into India and Pakistan triggered in 1947.
Khan was the chief flying instructor at RIAF’s Advanced Flying Training School in Ambala on the Indian side when the violence began. His successor at RIAF, Wing Commander Nair, convinced Asghar Khan against taking a train across the newly-created border. ‘Wing Commander Nair did us a good turn and saved our lives,’ Asghar Khan wrote in his book, My Political Struggle.
Nair would get in touch with PAF chief Air Vice-Marshal Allan Perry-Keene to help arrange a plane for Asghar Khan and his family’s evacuation to Pakistan.
In 1965, Ayub Khan offered to release K C Cariappa, who was taken as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down on the last day of the war that year, as a special gesture since the Indian Air Force officer’s father, General Kodandera Madappa Cariappa, was the Pakistani military leader’s senior.
Ayub Khan directed Pakistan’s envoy to India to meet General Cariappa, the first Indian commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, and brief him about his son’s condition. General Cariappa, who was later conferred with Field Marshal rank, instead asked the envoy to look after all the captured Indian soldiers.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide