A man of peace who flew high

Updated December 20, 2019

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Zafar Ahmad Chaudhry
Zafar Ahmad Chaudhry

Zafar Ahmad Chaudhry, Air Marshal and chief of the Pakistan Air Force (1972-1974) and one of the most eminent defenders of human rights in the country, belonged to the fast vanishing breed of Pakistani citizens known and respected for their qualities of head and heart and who have the courage to live by their convictions.

Born in Sialkot in 1926, Zafar Chaudhry graduated from Government College, Lahore, and joined the Royal Indian Air Force before partition. He rose rapidly in PAF and was chosen to lead it in March 1972 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, president at that time, was looking for military officers committed to the cause of democratic consolidation. Two years later Mr Bhutto asked the air chief to reprieve one or two air force officers who had been convicted in the well known Attock Conspiracy Case. Zafar Chaudhry’s response was his letter of resignation. That defined the person.

Not known for affluence, Zafar Chaudhry used several means to earn an honest living, from trying to sell automobiles in the United States to joining Syed Babar Ali in World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Pakistan, but when Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was established in 1986-1987 he was among the first few who joined it. As the first elected Treasurer of HRCP he was largely responsible for collecting financial resources, mostly from his expatiate friends, that enabled the organisation to function for three years without outside help and gather credit sufficient to attract international NGO support.

Elected to the HRCP Council (the governing body) at each of the regular elections, he remained its active member till he lost his ability to move around. As a council member and as the organization’s treasurer for more than one term he distinguished himself as an ardent champion of truth, justice and peace and as a stout fighter against bigotry, hypocrisy and intolerance. His interventions in the council discussions were marked by sobriety, clarity and broad-mindedness.

The Air Marshal told the story of his life and his experiences in four books in which he described his early years in the air force, and the trainings received in England and the US, as well as a serious accident in which he miraculously escaped unhurt. He also revealed how the PAF officers at Peshawar helped Hashim Khan and Roshan Khan to become world champions in squash. But perhaps the hardest battle he fought, with the help of his strong-willed wife, was to ensure that his younger son, struck down by polio in early childhood, received proper education and became a doctor of considerable eminence. The young man justified the investment in his training and became the envy of his peers in the US. Unfortunately, he died young but not before he had added two precocious children to the Air Marshal’s family.

Zafar A Chaudhry’s prose in English was marked by a lucid style and he was equally proficient in Urdu. A piece of his Urdu writing about Delhi, a city where he had spent much happy time as a young man and which he never stopped loving, impressed Zia Mohyiuddin so much that he included it in his repertoire. And there could be occasions when he would recall a couplet or two from Persian or Punjabi classical poetry to facilitate his audience’s proper appreciation of the situation it was faced with.

An urbane and unobtrusive person of many parts, Zafar Chaudhry spoke after due deliberation and gave the other party the same freedom of opinion that he cherished for himself. He also carried his wounds, such as those caused by the loss of his life-partner or the failure of his elder son to cross the rank of Lt. Colonel in the army probably because of his belief, with the grace of a stoic.

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2019