By Air Chief Marshal Jamal A. Khan
One of the PAF’s most courageous leaders, Air Commodore M. Zafar Masud, HJ, SBt, breathed his last on Oct 7. 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 commander’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 Karachi’s social milieu. Ever visible was the infectious idealism — the reason for his nickname, an allusion to the fictional Walter Mitty — that drove him to set for himself and his subordinates difficult-to-achieve standards.
Masud retired from the PAF in Sept 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 PAF’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 Leaders’ School, the premier institution of the PAF that today runs under the name of Combat Commanders’ School. Then came a Staff College course in England from which Masud returned with the best foreign student award.
1n 1965, Group Captain Masud became a war hero for his courageous leadership as commander of Pakistan’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.
Masud’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-Jurat. 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 March 15, Gen Tikka Khan’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 army’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 event that India decided to intervene. Coming from a relatively junior officer, this evaluation was startlingly less-rosy than the army’s presentation. It was also irrefutably well-reasoned.
Yahya interjected several times to agree with Masud’s arguments, and at the end said: “You must surely know that I too do not want a war and am doing my best to persuade Mujib and Bhutto to find a way out of the crisis.”
Masud was elated during the first few days of Yahya Khan’s stay in Dhaka but stunned when after a week, Yahya ordered the military crackdown. As the president boarded his Karachi-bound Boeing on March 25, Masud tried once again personally to persuade him to change his mind. But Yahya’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 Masud’s courageous stand in these words:
“At 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 obedience…”
Masud later told me that he refused to demand to send combat aircraft to kill rebellious Pakistani citizens armed with spears and sticks because according to his interpretation of military honour an unlawful demand was being made on him. Having studied every detail of the 1970-71 debacle as well as the formally defined norms of professional military ethics in various countries, I remain convinced that Masud was right in refusing to assign his pilots and aircraft to commit an unlawful and dishonourable massacre of civilians. But more than Masud’s strong integrity and cold logic, what merits greater recognition is the courage that he brought into play as he dealt with both a moral and personal challenge. I believe he set a very high standard of courage and honour when he made his decision.
Unique in his style of command was Masud’s capacity of being both a demanding, almost harsh but fair professional task master as well as a practitioner, after working hours, of the joy-of- living among his friends and those he led. Always quick to see the humorous side of any situation, his witticism always sparkled with underlying intelligence. He left a deep impression on the PAF with his integrity, creative brilliance and strong-willed leadership.
Air Commodore Masud was very happily married to his devoted wife, Elizabeth, for 45 years and their son Salaar works as a software analyst in Europe. Elizabeth Masud, a German lady, speaks Urdu fluently and has, despite her own frail health, lovingly remained by her husband’s side, including his long and difficult battle with Parkinson’s disease. As a PAF commander’s wife, she was a leading member of the PAF Women’s Association and made strong contributions to the families’ welfare schemes. She was especially supportive of her husband’s particular attention to the living conditions of the lower paid employees. Many still remember fondly her energy and enthusiasm in projects dealing with child care and pre-school education at the PAF bases at which Masud served in various capacities.
Those who knew Air Commodore Masud as both friend and leader (as this writer did) were happy to see that the Air Force never forgot him and his services to the nation. The PAF attentively nursed him throughout his illness, and gave a fitting farewell to one of its bright and courageous stars.