A young Qais Hussain in 1965.

Qais Hussain, a former PAF pilot, had shot down an Indian civilian aircraft during the 1965 war. In the April 2011 issue of the Defense Journal of Pakistan, Air. Cdre. Kaiser Tufail story brought to fore some hard facts about the incident. Following the feedback, in August 2011, Hussain offered condolences to the families of the crew who died in the Gujarat Beechcraft incident. His compassionate gesture was returned in kind by the family of the deceased pilot. In an exclusive interview with Dawn.com, Hussain shares his personal and professional life and how he looks at the incident four decades on.

I met Qais Hussain, a former PAF flying officer, on a not-so-warm and rainy Saturday afternoon at his house in Lahore. Touching seventy-one, sporting a short beard and a moustache, both almost white, and dressed casually in jeans and a dark T-shirt, he did not appear a day above sixty. I waited in a small guest room, which was simply but tastefully decorated. Some souvenirs from his travels and a couple of landscapes adorned the room. War memorabilia was conspicuously absent. A book shelf revealed his interests ranging from Western philosophy, Qur’anic interpretation, Islamic Law, Siyaasat-daanon ki Qalaabaaziyan, Anna Pasternak’s Princess in Love, Obama’s Audacity of Hope, Clinton’s My Life, Tennis’s Björn Borg, Cricket’s Viv Richards, Gardening, Pakistan and regional politics.

He came in after about ten minutes. “I am sorry Aurangzeb. I had to deal with another party who were supposed to be here about forty minutes ago. I called them seven minutes after their appointed time and they hadn’t even started,” Hussain politely explained. His principled and courteous mannerism impressed me. As we conversed, I realised that childhood dreams had caught up with him sooner than later in his life. First time he became fascinated with planes was when an Army L19 did an emergency landing in his school’s football field in Khanpur.

He was then in class five or six. Once he matriculated, he wanted to join the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) along with some of his class-fellows but upon his father’s advice postponed any major career decisions until he had graduated from FC College Lahore. The fire rekindled when he attended the passing out of a cousin from the PAF Academy Risalpur.

“My mother was not very keen. My father could not say anything because he had given me his word,” Hussain recalled. “I joined the air force because I had an adventurous, go-getter, kind of personality, but discipline was natural to me.” Until two years ago he was still driving by road to Karachi and back.

Hussain was a natural flyer. That did not take away the teaching pains. He suffered altitude sickness on his first flights, as he recalled, both in Pakistan and in the US, where he also trained. “That happens to the best of us. In the US, I had to clean my own cockpit afterwards.”

Junior but one of the best that he was, as vouched by a superior officer, “great kid this Qais, good poking and aggressive fighter pilot,” he was chosen to fly missions superseding some senior pilots during the 1965 war.

On a fateful afternoon in September he was scrambled from Mauripur Base near Karachi to intercept an Indian aircraft flying over a sensitive area along the Pakistani border. The aircraft was suspected of collecting reconnaissance data which could be used by India to open another war front in the Runn of Kutch area. Upon interception, it was clear that a small civilian plane – a Beechcraft – had gone considerably off-course. Its pilot Jahangir Engineer confirmed this by waggling his wings. Hussain didn’t want to shoot at an unarmed plane so he communicated the situation to his ground controllers. There was a deliberation of about 3-4 minutes. The controllers decided that it was too risky to let the plane escape. He carried out his orders and shot it down.

“When I shot down the aircraft, we (the Radar Controllers and our superiors) thought that it was on a Recce mission and was carrying sensitive border information for the Indian Army to open a new front in the south or possibly dropping troops on Runn of Kutch border. Please keep in mind that during the earlier part of 65 (April onwards for about 3 months), tensions were high in the Rann of Kutchh and both sides were on high alert. So there was a back ground to our sensitivity. I was very satisfied and it would not be farfetched if I say that I was very proud that I had single-handedly thwarted the Indian Army from opening a new front.”

“But I wished that I would return without firing a shot,” Hussain candidly shared.

On the ground there was a sense of achievement. But, by evening when the Indian radio confirmed that the plane was registered with Civil Aviation and carried only civilians including a VIP, the mood became somber.

War is a cruel thing. But ethics of war demand respect for lives, both civilian and military. “No human would like to kill. No religion, whether Islam or Hinduism, preaches killing of the innocent. Human suffering is also the same everywhere. I hold the paw of my four-month old puppy and caress it when she hurts herself. How could I not feel the pain for the loss of human lives that resulted from my action?” Hussain said.

Did he feel guilty and did he apologise? “If I had felt any guilt I would not have been able to sleep. It was really not my fault as this happened under war conditions on orders in the line of duty. If I had shot him on sight, then yes, I would have been guilty. But that did not happen. So, I did not give the incident much thought afterwards.”

It was only a recent interest in the incident as a result of a publication about it in India and accompanied media speculations which prompted Hussain to set the record straight and to search the crew’s families in order to do the humane thing: to share his forty-six year old grief and to offer condolences for the unfortunate loss of loved ones.

Qais Hussain: War is useless except in self-defence. Borders are often used for political games.

Hussain never expected any publicity for his condolence. He didn’t even know if he would receive a response to his email which he had sent to Mrs. Farida Singh, daughter of the deceased Indian pilot, in early August. Its tone was quite matter of fact but kind and sincere.

One thing struck me though. Hussain had mentioned “your father” several times in the email but used his pet name “Jungoo” in the end. I asked him about this. “Yes, it was a conscious choice of words. By using his pet name I wanted to show my affection for the man.” And his affection was responded with equal kindness and generosity, if not more: “We never, not for one moment, bore bitterness or hatred for the person who actually pulled the trigger and caused my father’s death. The fact that this all happened in the confusion of a tragic war was never lost to us,” Mrs. Singh wrote.

When asked if he considers his apology as an act of closure, he said, “I do not know what exactly do you mean by ‘an act of closure’.  I am sure that I would not have thought about it even now or may be never, had it not been for Kaiser's article and his dispatch of those clippings and reports that I have talked of here-above. The old memories of regret came back and coupled with a sense of duty to put the record straight in a dignified and bold manner, I decided upon finding the relatives of the deceased and writing to them directly and explain personally as to what happened and try and lessen their pain. I am still waiting for a few other relatives’ details to repeat my letter to them with a few modifications.”

The public response on both sides of the border has also been overwhelmingly positive. Even the ranks, Air Marshalls to flying officers, have shared words of support. One Pakistani reader remarked: “The condolence letter is very apt and speaks highly of you as a soldier and the PAF as a force. As a Pakistani you make me proud.” And one Indian said: “If I can reach you I will personally touch your feet as a sign of respect (as you must be very old). You are my hero even though you are from Pakistan.” In these words lies hope for a peaceful future for the two countries.

“War is useless except in self-defence. Borders are often used for political games,” feels Hussain. He thinks that being neighbours both countries need to normalise relations by focusing on bilateral trade. When asked if people to people contact like the one between him and Mrs. Singh would help to ease relations, he said with certainty, “Only good can come out of it.” While pondering over this we took a walk around his house. I had not imagined him an avid gardener and animal keeper. But there he was walking me through his make-shift zoo and introducing me to his lovebirds, cockatiel and pigeons. A peacock crossed our path, his mate shied away in a corner, while we said hello to his four-month old German shepherd for whom he seemed to carry a twinkle in his eyes. And with that, through his love for nature and animals, everything about him fit into place. His humanity, so apparent, had won over the cruelty of war.

The writer is a faculty member at LUMS.

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Comments (55)

September 1, 2011 10:39 pm
Repentance does not absolve you from your deeds. If you are sincere enough you should consider exposing those who gave the orders .
September 1, 2011 10:58 pm
It's really wonderful article. I believe that border is used only and only for politics. Hope this article should publish i big way and i also hope that we (indian/pakistan) can join hand togather for good future of our next generation. As a Indian i really proud on you and all pakistani like you. Have a nice Iid ahead.....
Kamal Nasir
September 1, 2011 11:29 pm
I wish we all Muslims and especially Pakistani have the same guts to come forth and accept our faults. Sign of being a true Muslim. May Allah accept your courage for a country and forgiveness from famlies who lost loved onec.
September 2, 2011 12:05 am
I liked this person, Qais Hussain
September 2, 2011 12:36 am
Splendid article! We may be soldiers, whether Indian or Pakistani, but we should not never lose our sense of humanity. Mistakes may be made during war, but they should be revisited with a sense of grief and humbleness rather than exultation and pride.
September 2, 2011 12:48 am
I am so Proud of our Men in uniforms. Sometimes, people think soldiers are like machines. They don't have anything like heart. May be they never met someone like Sir Qais. May be they never fought on the frontline for their nation. Borders are actually used for the political & personal benefits. Patriot soldiers & people give sacrifices for the country
September 2, 2011 1:20 am
What an Amazing story , i enjoyed reading it ..
Shujaat Ayub Khan
September 2, 2011 1:26 am
Now we need some who committed atrocities to come out of the woods .
September 2, 2011 2:16 am
September 2, 2011 3:51 am
You are very right, no religion in the world allows killing innocent people and that borders are used for political games. I hope there will emerge a mature and educated class of leaders on both sides, who understand these thoughts.
September 2, 2011 4:21 am
It is strange that this man is receiving so much praise. There are only two possible ways to characterize his action. Either India and Pakistan were at war at the time in which case it is a war crime, or it is a case of premeditated murder. In either case he should be prosecuted and awarded the maximum penalty.
Muneer Khan
September 2, 2011 8:42 am
It is very nice to know that our veterans of war have respect for life and peace instead of war and killing innocent people.
Syed Hussein El-Edro
September 2, 2011 9:14 am
Reading the article left a lump in my throat. When will the anamosity between to two countries end?
Nadeem Khan
September 2, 2011 9:23 am
a very noble gesture sir for which I really admire you. More so is by the family of deceased Indian pilot to accept your deep whole hearted apology. Wish it could happen in all levels of life including our leaders. This region does not need another war or arms race but cooperation between two great nations
September 2, 2011 9:45 am
Sir, Its a rare privilege to hear people rise above and do the right thing. You are indeed a soldier's soldier and somebody to whom many should look up to. I can only imagine the sheer courage you had shown in writing the letter. Especially in this day and age, where our conscience is predicated on how jingoistic we can be, your letter to Mrs. Singh was a sombre reminder of what war does. My father was from the Army, and you are right, no soldier loves war. It is indeed important for the conscience of our new generation to be free of the shackles of hatred for each other. I am sure sir, that your story like many others of soldiers from our two countries shall help bridging the sea of animosity. I hope you do visit India some day and many more people know of your deed. Yours sincerely Abhik Sen
September 2, 2011 10:15 am
I appreciate the sincerity & honesty of Hussain Saab to apolagise to the family of the deceased Indian pilot. Such good gestures make a long way in improving the coordial relations between the two nations who are suspicious of each other. I salute Hussain Sab again.
September 2, 2011 10:21 am
I don't know about Mr. Qais Hussain and how truly apologetic he is for shooting down an unarmed civilian plane, but what really left a lump in my throat is the kind response from the victim's daughter, without any hatred or thoughts of vengeance. I did not sense much remorse from Mr. Hussain other than a matter of fact admission of what happened on that fateful day. Maybe if he were to put himself in the shoes of a defenseless pilot, lost over the border and the terror of facing hostile military aircraft and being shot down by a merciless pilot should give him a sense of what he caused. I am sure these thoughts must have played out many times over in the minds of the victims' families. I am not impressed by any means by Mr. Hussain, but the unconditional forgiveness demonstrated by the daughter of the hapless pilot is an inspiration. Ultimately it is only those humans that inspire, that leave a mark on this earth - the rest are passers by - not living to their God given potential. May God have mercy on Mr. Hussain's soul.
September 2, 2011 10:21 am
It takes a special person to admit a mistake even if it was on a war footing. Something you will never understand
September 2, 2011 10:32 am
read about this first on bbc website.good to see it published in dawn.the man has kind eyes.
September 2, 2011 10:57 am
A commendable deed at least!
September 2, 2011 11:00 am
"tried for war crime" thats quite a stretch for shooting down a transport aircraft flying in an active war-zone... it really is what it is, an unfortunate accident... It was IAFs resonsibility to keep their skies dominated, escort the VIP movement or otherwise keep the civilians out of harms way... This courtesy was not awarded to PNS Atlantic even during peace time... The gentleman did the right thing then and he did the right thing now (46 years later) and all with courage and diginity that a uniformed officer must display...
September 2, 2011 11:07 am
What has religion got to do with this ? Qais is a muslim and the pilot of the other aircraft was a Parsi and could have been an Indian muslim. Religion itself is not innocent and harmless since lots of wars, crimes and terrorism has been done in this world in the name of religion but there was no need to bring religion into this.
September 2, 2011 12:37 pm
I saw Qais interview in NDTV in India along with the victims families. It was indeed an excellent gesture. I wish all countries spend less money on defence and more on uplifting pepole's lives. Poverty and lack of education are much bigger problem in this part of the world. We don't need to look at the western world and try to match their military power - they have ensured a decent living for their citizens - be it food, place to live , education etc.. I wish all borders are frozen as of now and an UN Army is setup where by all developing countries can pay a fee to borrow resources when needed. This would free up huge sum of money to address real issues instead of these proxy wars and wars over religion.
Arjun Kumar
September 2, 2011 1:29 pm
Shirish, I think Naveed was only quoting a sentence from the article. He was not trying to make a point, but trying to reply to a point!
September 2, 2011 1:40 pm
Hats off to the old man!
Shahid Ejaz Hussain
September 2, 2011 2:14 pm
Qais is a true reflection of Humanity, Muslim and a Pakistani. During War he obeyed the ordres of his command this was the requirement at that time. But he has the courage to offer condolence to the bereaved family. This no other soldier has done from either side.You make me proud Mr. Qais Hussain
September 2, 2011 3:35 pm
So will IAF prosecute the shooting of Pakistan Navy C-3 in open waters few years in the time of peace? He apologized even though he had no need to and personally he should not be. He was following orders in a time of war in a war zone.
Meekal Ahmed
September 2, 2011 3:44 pm
What is not mentioned is the fact that the Beech was flying in Indian airspace. It had NOT violated Pakistani airspace. If the Beech rocked it's wings, that is a non-aggressive act and a gesture of surrender. The PAF pilot should then have asked him to follow (either through hand-signals or by calling him on 121.5 -- the emergency frequency). I am less impressed by this act than others. It should never have happened.
Ishtiaq Andrabi
September 2, 2011 3:49 pm
I very much appreciate the humane gesture of the Pakistani pilot, but why is it that all such gestures come from Pakistan with hardly any reciprocal act from India. I wonder, if the Indian fighter pilot who had strafed the passenger train at Dhonkal railway station near Wazirabad in 1965 killing dozens of civilians including a college girl, will come forward and express remorse at killing innocent people.
September 2, 2011 3:50 pm
Qais's condolence is a reflection of a true muslim and pakistani soldier. On Pakistani side first casualties of Indian air force's attack were two civilian sisters probably at wazirabad station but no apology from the other side of the border ever emerged.
September 2, 2011 3:57 pm
Awesome article for an amazing man.
September 2, 2011 4:19 pm
This story reminds of an incident where my freinds father an ex-PAF war veteran of 1965 and 1971 war now retired Air-Cmdr had shot down an Indian aircraft during an air raid at an Indian air base. He shot the aircraft while it was getting airborne and witnessed it catching fire and tumbling to the ground and bursting into flames. The PAF pilot had thought that the Indian pilot had perished with the aircraft. In 2001 while visiting his son and my freind in the USA I was visiting their house and I saw him glued to the computer screen looking elated and the story goes he had actually found the e-mail address of the Indian pilot's son and had e-mailed me to pay his respects and mention the futility of war but to his pleasant surprise the Indian pilot had ejected and survived with minor injuries. I could see the look of happiness and releif on his face that no words can tell. The PAF pilot is a decorated officer and has shot down IAF airacrft and both 65 and 71 wars but no where did I see the pride of taking a human life even in the event of war. I acutally heard him say that war is unneccessary unless for defense. Indian and Pakistani civilian are more jingoistic and war mongering than these retired veterans who have tasted war and have come to detest it. A lesson for all. A final word its important to be a gentlman first before one can be termed an "Officer". Peace!
September 2, 2011 5:12 pm
what Mr Hussain has done requires a lot of courage.Normally the servicemen do not even want to talk about these things and as they say ther are some secrets which one takes to the grave.
Concerned Citizen
September 2, 2011 5:38 pm
Don't bring religion into this. This has nothing to do with him being a Muslim. Good people are in every religion.
September 2, 2011 6:24 pm
First of all saying "all such gestures" is wrong because this is just one gesture. Secondly, even this guy took more than 40 years, the Indian guy you're talking about might even be dead by now (he might not eve have survived the war to begin with). Lastly the kind of contempt that you're trying to infer here is the very thing this article teaches against.
Ishfaq Ilahi
September 2, 2011 6:44 pm
Writing an article for a Bangladesh Newspaper on this incident. Mr. Qais makes me proud, once upon a time being in the PAF.
September 2, 2011 6:46 pm
Absolutely true.... Good men come in all kinds of creeds, castes, religions and so do bad people....
September 2, 2011 6:50 pm
Does this mean that what ever happens we can never highlight our good religion? Why talking about religion or praising someone about his religion has become a taboo nowadays. I am a muslim and if I see someone, whether muslim or not doing something worthy of praise in Islam I will mention our religion. Our religion is not what those Taleban and crazy terrorrist are showing but it is a religion full of life and respect ! Pakistan zindabad, Pakistan paindabad
September 2, 2011 7:16 pm
Meekal, The reason this aircraft was shot down was the way it flew close the border for a considerable period like 7 to 10 minutes or so giving a very strong indication that it was on a Recce mission. You would never venture into a war zone with a civilian aircraft, leave alone with a VIP on board. As for making the aircraft surrender, it was not possible to make him land in Pakistan territory given the fuel state of my F-86F Saber. By the time I caught up he had been flying towards Bhuj for about 25 minutes. Therefore, to bring him back would have taken at least that much or more time and longer still to get him to a safe landing strip. The fuel capacity in the tanks of the Saber would not allow that. As it is I landed with fuel vapors in my tanks. If we come to blame game in this incident, then one can question the awareness of the Indian Radar Controllers. It is well documented in the Indian Government Inquiry Committee Report as "An enquiry into the affair submitted the facts four months later. According to it, the IAF authorities at Bombay refused to let the aircraft go on the flight. When the Gujarat government pressed for clearance, the air force authorities, in an obvious attempt to get them off their backs, gave clearance for the pilot to proceed at his own risk." However, such a permission did not absolve the IAF from keeping track of the aircraft. Another blunder was the inability of the IAF to notice my entry into the Indian airspace at 20,000'. If the IAF fighters had been scrambled from Jamnagar, my Controller at Badin would have informed me and called me back without jeopardizing my security because I was a single Pakistani aircraft at that spot. I appreciate your comments and rate these highly. But I think that what the Controller did was correct under the given circumstances. He had no other choice but to discuss with his superiors at the Station and AOC (Air Officer Commander) and take a joint decision which was conveyed to me.
September 2, 2011 7:55 pm
A real soldier would have shown moral braveness by not following the order to fire on civilians. Mr. Hussain regrettably failed it.
September 2, 2011 8:22 pm
Sir, I am from Chennai [formerly Madras]in South India. It requires tremendous moral courage to own ones fault and express regret. It also requires the same moral courage to gracefully accept the regret with no malice. Today's world has very few of these rare breeds. Both Mr.Qais Hussain and Mrs. Farida Singh have done their respective countries proud by these exemplary acts. Thank you for reporting this very inspiring incident.
September 2, 2011 8:25 pm
mr qais hussain sir you deserve a standing ovation for what you have done....i am proud being an indian that mrs singh too has reciprocated in the same manner....i hope god gives peace to you and your family ....happy eid
September 2, 2011 9:15 pm
Absolutely true. It is the mindset that brings individuals, groups and people closer or widening the gulf and affecting progress of countries.
September 3, 2011 1:44 am
You did the right thing in 1965 and you did the right thing today!
September 3, 2011 7:23 pm
What possible good can that do? Mr. Qais Hussain has made it clear that the order came from the Pakistani Radar Controllers in consultation with the Air Officer Commander, and given the then circumstances the outcome could not have been any different if Mr. Hussain was an Indian AF pilot intercepting a Pakistani plane. Most of the people involved in the decision-making process would perhaps already be dead and even if they were alive, the unfortunate and harsh reality is that what happened on that fateful day in September 1965 can not be undone. What can be done, however, is a thorough introspection by the peoples of both the countries to try and resolve all outstanding disputes through meaningful dialogue to prevent the outbreak of any future wars between India and Pakistan.
September 4, 2011 10:24 am
I agree with you Meekal despite Mr. Quais's response and defense of his actions. Once the civilian plane dipped its wings in surrender, the PAF pilot had many options in this control. But, pressing the trigger must have been the impulse he could niot resist. If he was low on fuel, he could have called in other PAF fighter craft to his assistance. I think he knows that he wanted to take the "credit" for saving the day for Pakistan. No matter what he says, he cannot walk away from this without blood on his hands. May Gos have mercy on his soul. The great Mohammed the Prophet preached compassion towards your worst enemies. I have no doubt that in his private moments, Mr. Quais knows that he need not have killed.
September 4, 2011 1:33 pm
Great to see that there are so many peace lovers on both sides... India and Pakistan must find ways of co- existence if not mutual friendly relations
Khalid A Qureshi
September 4, 2011 3:24 pm
Sir, You have made us proud!
September 5, 2011 1:46 am
Mr. The pilot did a great job. Dont disappoint us Indians and Pakistanis with your foolish comments. They have no place here.
Neeta Singh
September 5, 2011 1:59 am
What a stupid thing to say. Mr. Hussain is my hero. I wish all us Indians could be like him.
Muhammad Raza
September 5, 2011 1:45 pm
I would only say Mr Qais Hussain show his grief and sympethies with Pilot's daughter.But didnt used to word sorry or confess anywhere.
Zeeshan Shamsi
September 5, 2011 5:05 pm
What a commendable act to face one's past, and to extend an apology. It is takes a man of real courage and honor to face the ghosts of his past. Hats Off to you Sir, and to your contemporaries in PAF and IAF. I am hopeful that there is no shortage of sane minds on both sides in an era of Media driven absurdities. It is so easy for some of you keyboard jockeys to criticize the Air Commodore. What many in "Top Gun" watching generation don't realize is that the Pilot does not take the final decision to fire, rather it is his Ground Controller, or the Radar that he/she is linked with makes the call to fire, keeping in view the Intelligence available, alert status, and the overall situation at hand. I am not justifying the sad act, having lost friends in the event, but similar must have happened when the Indians AF decided to pull the trigger on the PN Atlantic flying close to the Pakistani border during a tension period (convenient that they "avenged" their two aircraft shot down earlier). I am sure the PN aircraft flown by PN Officers Zarrar and Farasat was also doing everything to show its lack of hostile intention when intercepted by Indian Mig 21s. I don't blame those pilots, since they were also following orders. I hope that more sane minds on both sides of our border quit the war mongering and talk about reconciliation, which is our only sustainable salvation.
Zeeshan Shamsi
September 5, 2011 5:25 pm
Ms. Laxmi in the US: as to your irrelevant and rather comical requirement of "Expose those who gave orders" This is Dawn, not WikiLeaks. The best and most kind response has already been received from the family of the deceased pilot, and many sane and like minded individuals from India. Why don't you have your contemporaries from India expose the guys from 1998 PN Incident? I am sure they are alive and kicking.
shaukat javed
September 5, 2011 6:14 pm
God bless u mr qais
September 7, 2011 4:20 pm
its really a great gesture.it shows that peace is the best thing for both countries.
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