Air Commodore M Zafar Masud, HJ, SBt
By Air Chief Marshal Jamal A Khan (Retired), NI(M), SJ, SBt
One of the PAFâ€™s most courageous leaders, Air Commodore M Zafar Masud, HJ, SBt, breathed his last on Oct, 7 2003. In 1953, my first posting, after operational training, was to a jet fighter squadron at Faisal Air Base, Karachi, which was commanded by the legendary F S Hussain. The squadron commanderâ€™s fatherly figure was balanced by Flight Lieutenant Mitty Masud, our tough, uncompromising second-in-command.
Masud led us through the hazards of combat flying with the same energy and disregard for danger as he showed in his spirited embrace of Karachiâ€™s social milieu. Ever visible was the infectious idealism â€“ the reason for his nickname, an allusion to the fictional Walter Mitty â€“ that drove him to set for himself and his subordinates difficult-to-achieve standards.
Masud retired from the PAF in Septâ€™ 1971, his promising career cut short by his opposition to the military suppression in East Pakistan.
Coming from a Gujranwala family, Mitty was by 1947 already an Air Force pilot and became the youngest pioneer of the newly-born Pakistan Air Force.
An exceptional fighter pilot, Masud was at his best when given really challenging assignments, but even when asked to take on some mundane tasks, he tackled those with great energy and inventiveness. Quite remarkably, within days of taking over a new unit, the men under him would begin to identify with his goals, and the experience always left them better trained and stronger advocates of professional values.
In 1958 Air Marshal Asghar Khan chose Wing Commander Masud to organize, train and lead an aerobatics team of 16 Sabre jets that set a world record, validating the PAFâ€™s place among the well-regarded air arms of the world.
Within months of that event Masud was assigned to set up and command the Fighter Leadersâ€™ School, the premier institution of the PAF that today runs under the name of Combat Commandersâ€™ School. Then came a Staff College course in England from which Masud returned with the â€˜best foreign studentâ€™ award.
In 1965 Group Captain Masud became a war hero for his courageous leadership as commander of Pakistanâ€™s key air base at Sargodha. The team of officers and men under Masud fought back the Indian Air Force assaults on Sargodha with skill and disciplined confidence. Simultaneously they punished the IAF in other combat zones, and assisted in halting the Indian Army from Sialkot to Kasur. Among his pilots were dead and living heroes the nation has come to know well: Rafiqui, Alam, Munir, Alauddin Ahmed, Yunus, Middlecoat and Cecil Chaudhry.
Masudâ€™s men gave the best that he demanded of them, and for his war leadership he was given a high medal for valour, the Hilal-i-Jurâ€™at. In the post-war years he continued to add to his reputation by excelling in other pivotal appointments including that of chief of all air force operations. By the late 1960s, Masud, now an Air Commodore, was widely respected and regarded as a probable future Air Force Chief.
In April 1970 he was assigned to Dhaka as the top PAF Commander in the Eastern Wing. In the twelve months he spent in East Pakistan, Masud studied, with increasing distress, the rapidly mounting military-political threat that none of the power wielders seemed able or interested to resolve.
With Pakistan in deep crisis in the last week of March 1971, Air Commodore Masud displayed an even higher measure of courage than in 1965. For that audacity, he was relieved of his command. Spurning other assignments, he preferred to leave the PAF. The Air Force thus lost one of its finest leaders.
When Gen Yahya Khan visited Dhaka in March 1971 to break the Mujib-Bhutto impasse, Masud demanded an opportunity to brief the president. On Mach 15, Gen Tikka Khanâ€™s staff at the Eastern Command Headquarters were the first to present their assessment of the civil and military situation to Yahya Khan and the armyâ€™s top generals accompanying him.
Air Commodore Masud then took the rostrum and for well over an hour gave a candid, fact-filled evaluation of the civil-military environment. He forcefully argued that the turmoil in East Pakistan could never be resolved with military force.
His military experience and patriotism compelled Masud to argue for averting a suicidally mismatched war with India and he appealed for a political solution, even if that meant a loose confederation between the two wings.
He said that in the prevailing military imbalance, a semi-autonomous East Pakistan was far preferable to the certainty of a military defeat in the even that India decided to intervene. Coming from a relatively junior officer, this evaluation was startlingly less-rosy than the armyâ€™s presentation. It was also irrefutably well-reasoned.
Yahya interjected several times to agree with Masudâ€™s arguments, and at the end said: â€œYou must surely know that I too do not want a war and am doing my best to persuade Mujid and Bhutto to find a way out of the crisis.
Masud was elated during the first few days of Yahya Khanâ€™s stay in Dhaka but stunned when, after a week, Yahya ordered the military crack-down. As the president boarded his Karachi-bound Boeing on March 25, Masud tried once again personally to persuade him to change his mind. But Yahyaâ€™s inner council had convinced him that the East Pakistanis could be easily subdued and normalcy quickly restored.
An angry and frustrated Masud could clearly visualise the debacle that the president had set in motion. Within the first few days of the launch of military suppression in East Pakistan, Masud had decided on what was for him the only honourable course, but one that he knew would end his career in the PAF. He would not allow the combat aircraft under his command in East Pakistan to be used in a police role, to kill civilians who were being incited to rebellion by Mujib.
In his view, the application of such an excessively destructive power to wipe out emotion-charged mobs would violate the laws of war. He would rather conserve the scant PAF resources that East Pakistan would desperately need in the impending war with India.
The official history of the PAF records Masudâ€™s courageous stand in these words:
[b]â€œAt the end of March, when Operation Blitzkrieg was in full swing, Masud was asked, as he had feared, to mount an air strike against a mob of armed civilians on the outskirts of Dhaka. For Masud it was the worst imaginable moment of truth; should he allow the PAF to participate in what he believed to be a wholly dishonourable operation? On the one hand was his revulsion at the brutality of the proposed strikes when viewed against his concept of the justifiable use of military force. On the ether hand was the oath he had taken years before which now demanded his unquestioning obedienceâ€