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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