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The hero who didn’t die young

April 16, 2013

The one person who had a sustained and wholesome influence over my life from birth to green youth – a man called M.M. Alam – died recently, without ever meeting me, or even hearing about me and his influence over me or anyone at all. He had lost much of his shine by the end and so they used the epithet of ‘national hero’ one last time in the news media and buried the man who never seemed to measure up as a Pakistani hero anyway.

I was born in the moments Squadron Leader Emem Alam – as the retired air commodore is fondly known in Sargodha – was fighting his legendary dogfight over Sargodha during which he shot down a world record seven enemy aircraft in less than a minute. An aunt says the midwife who had left my mother with the newborn’s umbilical cord uncut to watch the air battle from rooftop, swore that she saw in the bright midday light, and counted, nine kafir aircraft going up in flames one after the other. ‘They were popping like corn kernels in hell’s fire’. Emem Alam the war hero and I were born at the same moment. So they named me Masud Alam after him.

The above is a summary of lies, half-truths and a misleading narrative of a historical event I believed and propagated throughout my childhood. I did so because: one, it used to be really important for me to impress people; two, it wasn’t far removed from reality and sounded cleverer; and three, I mildly disliked my name and wanted to explain it away creatively. The correct version of events and facts is: During the war, enemy aircraft were announced to the public with cautionary sirens and not with invitations to go on to rooftops, and even if you ditched the safety of the trench, you couldn’t see the speed shooting spectacle from a Sargodha rooftop because it actually took place over Sangla Hill, more than a 100 km away, at a quarter to six on that autumn morning; Emem Alam downed three aircraft during that mission, one over Sargodha and two over Sangla Hill, while another pair of them was hit in the Sangla encounter but managed to escape; and Emem stands for Mohammad Mahmood, not Masud.

The bit about my birth coinciding with the birth of Alam-the-hero is, however, true.

And what a hero! I am told he used to be as big and popular a name as any Bengali could imagine making in West Pakistan. It was bigger than Shabnam … and bigger than Runa Laila and Alamgir who both came much later. He was a national hero then, but has always remained and still is Sargodha’s identity. He is the reason Sargodha is known as ‘City of Eagles’ and not the kinnow capital of the citrus world, which it definitely is and has always been. He didn’t have the looks of Shan or Moammar Rana of course, but he was a fighter pilot, and a bloody good one at that. He had the highest gunnery scores in the PAF, the highest number of kills in combat, and he downed the first Indian Hunter on 6th September during a dusk raid on Adhampur for which he was awarded Sitara-e-Jur’at, with a Bar added for his epic dogfight the very next dawn.

Before landing that morning of 7th September, Alam triumphantly informed the control that he’d shot down five Hunters. By the time his claim was verified and found to be short by two, owing to the miraculous safe landing at Halwara of two of his badly holed up Hunter victims, the word had gotten out that Emem Alam had made aviation history.

Tradition suggests that when we make someone a war hero we consider it a national duty to exaggerate the fête. So, till date, his record is said to be five, seven or nine downed aircraft in a single sortie. One account available at Wikipedia says: ‘In one mission, on 7 September 1965, Alam downed five Indian aircraft in less than a minute, the first four within 30 seconds, establishing a world record.’ This information is so much like a 10-year-old me boasting to my class mates.

I grew up and moved on. I was no longer keen on becoming a fighter pilot, ‘to bomb Indira Gandhi and liberate Kashmir’ as I had been promising anyone who cared to hear out a precocious boy with a claim to have been born as an accessory to an epic dogfight in the Sargodha skies. My change of heart may have been influenced by the fact that Indira Gandhi was already killed, Kashmiris seemed in no hurry to be liberated, and my childhood inspiration – Emem Alam – had shrunk as a hero even though his heroics continued to be exaggerated.

Like other Bengalis he wasn’t given an active part in the ‘71 war but unlike many he survived the fallout of the war that saw Bengali servicemen coerced into leaving Pakistan for Bangladesh. He declared, in no uncertain terms, that he was a Pakistani and will remain one. He rose to the rank of a one-star general and occupied the important position of Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Plans), and that is when his career stalled and never recovered.

Professional jealousy may have been a factor in turning senior officers against him and his ethnicity may have made him a soft target, but his born-again zeal for Islam and his vocal and public opposition to the way his unit or the PAF in general was being run, proved to be the stick he was finally beaten out with. He was prematurely retired (effective 1982) and sent on leave in 1981 by the then Chief of Air Staff, Anwar Shamim, the only service head in the PAF history who built a reputation for a lavish lifestyle, frequent and blatant misuse of his position by his family, and his close relation with the president (Gen Zia ul Haq) that allowed him to stay at the helm of PAF as the longest serving CAS. The two were poles apart in their outlook and motivation as professional soldiers. Alam, who was weaker of the two, was frustrated enough to break all military codes of conduct, especially his public altercations with senior commanders and their families, and thus provided ample grounds for his removal.

To say that Alam was mad at being thrown out will be a gross understatement. PAF wasn’t just a source of livelihood for him, one that helped him take care of his family after his father died, and to educate and settle down his many siblings for the sake of whom he broke off his own engagement and never married. Flying was his passion, PAF was his life and Pakistan was his obsession. He was and remained so incensed with the forced retirement that he refused to accept his end of service dues, including pension. But he never left the air force physically even after it left him officially. For more than 30 years of his post-retirement life he lived on at air bases. His last residence was a BOQ (bachelor officer’s quarter) at the PAF base Faisal in Karachi. To his credit he never went public with his grievances.

In his last few years in the service he became a voracious reader and an insufferable preacher. He felt strongly about Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and took long leave to visit Afghanistan to advise Gulbuddin Hekmetyar on strategy, around 1979. After his retirement he is said to have openly joined Afghan mujahideen and fought alongside them in mid ‘80s.

The Facebook page he started in August 2009 gives a peek into his aging mind. He was consumed by patriotic fervour, enraged by the universal victimisation of Muslims, and impatient for reform through religion. A majority of entries on the page are links to other right wing web sites and material by one, Syed Zaid Hamid – the Afghan-mujahid turned TV-mujahid.

This is hardly sounding like the profile of a national hero. For all practical purposes, he had ceased to be one. When he died on the morning of March 18, 2013, at PNS Shifa, the prolific national media couldn’t come up with one comprehensive obituary despite getting a few months’ preparation time, thanks to false rumours of his death at the end of last year, and again in February this year. Instead, every media outlet relied on unverified accounts of  the‘65 war and clichéd adjectives to paint him as a worthy hero, in the news item about his death.

While it was a chronic lung ailment that killed Alam-the-man, it was longevity that killed Alam-the-hero, much earlier. Generations of PAF cadets have learned their first lessons in heroism from the ubiquitous adage displayed in their mess halls, living quarters, and pretty much everywhere else: ‘Heroes die young’. Alam died four months shy of his 78th birthday.


Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.