Thursday 26 February 2015

Legacy of a Warrior

Like all legends, Param Vir Chakra awardee Abdul Hamid too had his share of myths around him. A popular one going around was that he had confronted a Pakistani tank with a grenade tied to him in the 1965 war. But when I reached his village Dhamupur (Ghazipur district, Uttar Pradesh) and met his family in nearby town Dullapur, the figure of Abdul Hamid unravelled itself as one of extreme determination, empathy, courage and loyalty. He was not just someone who got acclaim through a solitary heroic act. Absolute surrender to the call of duty, to identify the need of the hour and do exactly that, was a way of life with him.

Abdul Hamid

Not one but two wars

Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid was in the 4th Grenadiers of the Indian Army. In the Indo-Sino war of 1962, after having ousted Chinese infiltrators, he lay unconscious for thirteen days and having hoisted the Indian flag on the recaptured land, emerged on the fourteenth day, when the government had almost declared him dead.

Naturally after he came back from the clutches of death, his family grew all the more concerned for his safety. So when he came home in 1965 and got a letter from the headquarters cancelling his leave because of impending war with Pakistan, his family felt apprehensive and asked him not to go. To this, he is said to have replied, 'I have to be loyal to the country that feeds me.' For his family it seemed like a day full of forebodings when the string holding his bedding together gave way, his cycle tyre burst and a black cat crossed his path. He dismissed their superstitions and said once he had stepped out there was no going back. When he reached the station with his father and almost missed the train, his intuition told him something was amiss and he said to his father, 'Do not expect me back.'

That year when he went to join the war Hamid had already served the army for ten years. But neither he nor his fellow soldiers in Khem Karan Sector were prepared for the Pakistani army's Patton tanks advancing towards them. His grandson says the story was reconstructed for the family and others later by a fellow soldier (who lost his hand but was the only one of the team to survive) who was there with his grandfather on the battleground. An old man from the village sympathetically advised Hamid to run away, saying the Indian army wasn't equipped to face the tanks. The friend who survived remembered sharing his anxiety with Hamid, 'Look, their tank says “Allah-hu-Akbar”. Do you think they would really win?' Hamid reassured him, 'But it is us and not them who can see the writing. So it is our victory that is being predicted.' 

Soldiers on the other side also tried to use religion to sway the Indian army, reminding them that they were Mussalmans and should not fight for kafirs. But pledging loyalty to the country they lived in, they fought on. When the soon to get infamous Patton tanks arrived, under heavy firing Abdul Hamid is remembered to have completed the task usually done by three. He drove the vehicle, loaded the recoilless gun and also fired. Constantly changing his position so as not to get exposed to the enemy, he destroyed one tank after another till he suffered a fatal attack launched by the other side. This extraordinary act posthumously brought to him the highest gallantry award-the Param Vir Chakra. Not only that, after Hamid's open challenge to the Patton tanks that ruined their credibility, they were completely withdrawn from subsequent wars.

The wait that wouldn't end

Back in Dhamupur, Abdul Hamid's village, the village head was trying to tune in to the news on the radio. He told Hamid's family that soldiers who had died during the battle were being mentioned in terms of numbers and not names. Another recruit from a village with the same name had also gone for the war, which added to the confusion. An old letter lying at Hamid's house was sought out. The numbers matched and it was confirmed that Hamid had been lost.

The village house where Hamid lived

His son says that he has very faint memories of that time but there was a gathering of ministers at his home. The administration announced a sum of Rs 10,000 for the family and land in Ghazipur. Abdul Hamid's death anniversary is marked every year in Khem Karan setor, Punjab, on 10 September, where the tanks are displayed and scenes from the war are reconstructed to acquaint the public with his singular courage under fire. In the year 2000, a stamp bearing his picture was issued by the government and a television serial featuring Naseeruddin Shah was also produced. Syed Ehsan Ali wrote a book detailing his personal and professional history. 

Where it all began

Hamid's father Usman Farooqi wanted his son to be a khalifa, a chief wrestler like him. And Hamid could wrestle too. But then he was also a swimmer, a sword fighter and a marksman. The villagers testified to the fact that he could not be beaten at any sport. He loved playing with kids just as much. During a flood, with his strong swimming skills he was able to save many lives. The army was not just any job but a dream for him. 

Entrance to the village

To detain him from joining the army, his father arranged for him to be married. Hamid grew restive that he would no longer be able to pursue his aspiration of becoming a soldier. He secretively went to meet the girl chosen for him and said, 'I like you a lot but we can marry only if you do not dissuade me from joining the army.' The girl, later to be his partner, Rasoolan Bibi, answered, 'If you join the army, it will be a matter of pride for me.'

Those who were left behind

Rasoolan Bibi immediately strikes one as a resilient woman who has seen much and still has a lot of endurance left in her. When I try to speak to her, she regretfully says that I will have to get all information from her son and grandson because she does not keep too well these days and that her memory has been failing her. Yet when I do begin to interview the other two, she interjects to ask me, 'Tell me something. We have met so many people and so many have come and written in their books like you do now. Help me understand. When will something come out of all this? There isn't even a hospital in our village yet. The park built in his memory is hardly looked after.' 

Memorial park

Her grandson Jamil Alam, a determined young man employed with the railways, shares his grandmother's hurt that they have had to meet and appeal to so many people for what should have been rightfully theirs. 'If we had been asking just for ourselves, it would have been one thing. But we ask for the village, the community.' Recently after he took up the matter with chief minister Akhilesh Yadav the CM made an announcement for the hospital but after the chief medical officer's survey, they have just been waiting. The other fear is that if the government changes it may not honour the promises made by those who were in power earlier. Jamil admits that his generation did not have to face poverty but this was not the case when Rasoolan Bibi was left alone to fend for her five children after the death of the soldier. 

Her son Juned Alam says, 'In those days, it used to be a monthly pension of Rs 200. After having to fight for it over the years, it has now become a somewhat decent sum.' He says when the government had announced two bighas of land for the martyr's family, the village head had felt it did not suitably honour Hamid's exploits. Then the administration raised it to five bighas, to which the village head added another five, adding that Abdul Hamid had brought honour to the entire village. 'When Ram Vilas Paswan was the railway minister, he had considered naming a train and the nearest railway station after my father,' Juned Alam says. But, he laments, those who fight for their country aren't though of worth much in this country. He appreciated how the minister announced a job for him and a railway pass for his mother even though at that time the election commission had warned against making promising announcements in election constituencies. Turning to me anxiously, he asks, ' Is it possible to edit the book written by Rahi Masoom Raza? It mentions that my father destroyed three tanks when in fact they were seven.' After so many years, reconstructing history is a tough job and oral narratives have to be relied on, or at least heard as they are meant to.

Juned Alam's son and Abdul Hamid's grandson Jamil Alam is a doer like his famed ancestor. He started accompanying his grandmother to public functions and meetings with ministers at the age of fifteen. In Rae Bareilly he was assertive enough to meet with his grandmother Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. When a car was sent for them, he said he did not believe in hiding his identity and went ahead in a rickshaw. Despite chief minister Mayawati's assurances that their petition would be considered, he and Rasoolan Bibi also wanted to meet the then President Pratibha Patil. Upon looking at their demands the President said they could have approached the local MP or MLA for the same. Jamil's reply was, 'You are the most important figure of the country. We would not have come to you if things would have got addressed at that level.' When they met Lalu Yadav during his tenure as railway minister he sanctioned Jamil's job, and recently upon meeting prime minister Narendra Modi he was offered a ticket to contest a parliamentary election. 'I refused; I felt it was too soon.' 

Juned Alam says that wherever his father's memory can be honoured by spending some money, he and his family do that according to what they can afford. They organise an annual function at the memorial park with their own money. He worries, 'The waterproof tent itself costs around Rs 50,000. How much can we do?' Jamil adds that ministers and actors earlier used to be reluctant to come to a village to attend such a programme. But over the years he has worked hard to make it bigger and well known people have started attending. He is grateful to the media for having always being supportive. Three Hindi film directors, along with actors like Salman Khan and John Abraham, have also expressed an interest in Abdul Hamid's story being adapted into a film. While they have promised full support, Jamil hopes that the filmmakers would be able to find enough money to finance the productions. 

Some time back Jamil went to the administration with a plaque in his grandfather's name, requesting it be put in the marketplace. The magistrate said they could not do this without permission. Jamil then met the CM who sanctioned it and Hamid Chowk came into being. The marble stone with Abdul Hamid's name inscribed on it at the Dullapur railway station had weathered away. Jamil got a new one put in place, also replacing the deteriorated marker of another war martyr on the same platform.

Hamid Chowk

The family speaks of an NRI who had come to India from the US especially to attend the annual programme held at Khem Karan. He was greatly touched by Hamid's story and even invited the family to the US, where he wanted to organise something similar. Jamil's cousin Rizwan smiles, 'If our grandfather had been from the US, probably he and his family would have been valued more.' 

Jamil agrees, 'Why would anyone martyr themselves for a cause if they cannot feel reassured that their families would be looked after? Nobody came to see how Dadi was bringing up her children alone. The district has become famous because of my grandfather's deeds. But not enough is done to preserve his memory.' His own little son talks of his great-grandfather's heroic acts like he has witnessed them himself. 

Four generations: Jamil Alam with his grandmother, son and father

Once at a public function Jamil had to interrupt a minister and correct the facts he was relating about Abdul Hamid, much to the minister's chagrin. Then there are times when people try to use Hamid's name to gain leverage themselves. Jamil says that on a TV show Anna Hazare claimed to have been with Hamid in the war. When Jamil asked for details and queried why he had never come to see the family as a friend, he was told by the show host not to ask such questions. Arvind Kejriwal, also on the show, tried to tell him that the issue was corruption. The answer did not satisfy Jamil.

Admitting that he too gets excited upon seeing film actors, he says, 'But people like Dadaji are the real heroes. And I want to follow in his footsteps.' And yet, the family feels, film actors with a Bharat Ratna are accorded more value than a martyr with a Param Vir Chakra. He and his family from time to time organise relief work for the poor. Actor Salman Khan advised Jamil that he too would like to donate once they have a trust. So the family is now about to set up a trust in Abdul Hamid's name, which they can then use to help the community. 

Fragmented memories

While they may get mixed up about the details, many in Ghazipur district do know of Abdul Hamid as an exceptionally brave soldier. My own local taxi driver had been able to share with me a lot of information even before they later got corroborated by the family. Telling me of the bridge and the road named after the martyr, Hamid Setu and Vir Abdul Hamid Marg, Chhotelal Yadav proudly narrates, 'The people of Ghazipur are known to be courageous. They are not afraid of dying on the battlefield. In fact they long for a such a noble death. That is why every year special recruitments are done from this district.'

Apart from his wife, not many from Abdul Hamid's generation have survived to tell the tale. In the school named after him in Dhamupur village, I ask the children what they know of him and a little boy tentatively says he was a freedom fighter. An annoyed principal corrects him and tells me that Vir Hamid used to be a part of the textbooks but it was changed with a change in government. Jamil is upset about it and wants to report this to the chief minister. 

Shaheed Vir Abdul Hamid School, Dhamupur

The modern soldier's predicament

To join the army is an individual's choice. But the wars an army fights are those between two political establishments, where the lives of the powers that be are least at stake. Yet for Hamid things were relatively simpler. The 'other', the enemy, lay across the border. Today when under various Special Powers Acts the army is pitted against its 'own' people and is also ordered to keep civilians under fear, when so many army personnel undergo mental trauma and others quit, more than ever the definition of a patriot is in question. What would someone like Abdul Hamid have felt in such a situation?

His grandnephew Rizwan shares, 'The attempt should be to maintain cross-border relations in a way that wars do not happen at all. The money spent on buying weapons can be spent on the country's development. It is good to have security. But what's the use if your country is weak from within?' Jamil agrees, 'Many people like Naxals take up arms because their basic needs are not fulfilled. The inequalities in this country are too steep. Like I was reading the other day, while one person wonders what to eat with so many options about, another has to think of whether there is anything to eat at all.' 

Rasoolan Bibi had to struggle to fend for herself and her children. By the time her grandson's generation came, with education and an awareness of their rights, things had become easier and at present they are financially stable. They have a house in Ghazipur on the land the government gave them and live in Dullapur, close to the native village. A lot of it also had to do with the resolute nature of family members like Jamil who fought to get the family their rights. 

The Dullapur house where the family currently lives

But we know that this is not always the case. Joint families themselves are no longer such a common feature and so the first generation of survivors, especially in rural areas with limited access to education, administration and resources, most in need of support, often fail to get it in time. 

And this when those killed on duty in the army are clearly recognized as having died for the country. Let alone compensation, have we been able to calculate the human cost of war itself - whether when lives are wasted as cannon fodder fighting someone else's war or as collateral damage while contributing to the 'development' that will never reach them?

First published in The Equator Line, January-March 2015.


manju said...

Salute to the martyr,Hamid. Very informative arti cle written in the simplest form .

Yash said...

Thank you for sharing this article.

ankita said...

I was not sure if many people would still want to read a story on a theme like this, and that too on someone from long ago. Encouraged to see your interest.

probe said...

I'd have never known Hamid's story if you hadn't written about it. Thanks again for such enlightenment, peppered with the sheer joy that your writing is.

ankita said...

I didn't know until I got the assignment.

You give me one more reason to write :).

Betuke Khyal said...

Well, I was born in Ghazipur. So when I came across your write-up, I felt nostalgic. As for Abdul Hamid, entire country can be proud of this martyr.

Betuke Khyal said...

Bharat Singh said...

Such a brave solider he was. Govt. should give job to all the grand children of Hamid. And annual function should be done by the Govt. in the name of Veer Abdul Hamid.

ankita said...

Thank you for your thoughts, @Ashwini and @Dharmendra.

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