HARKING BACK: ‘Invisible hero’ who walked through fire to save Lahore - BY: Majid Sheikh

March 18, 2018

Over half a century ago - the year was 1967 - the massive Lahore Cantonment Ammunition Depot just east of the airport experienced a huge fire that threatened the main dump, then considered among the largest in Pakistan.

It was a grim moment.

The Corps Commander of Lahore in those days was the late Gen. Tikka Khan, whose WW2 experience told him that everything within a five-mile radius would be blown to smithereens.

A warning was issued that Lahore was threatened and he rushed to the ammunition dump to work a way out. It was his sheer luck that a young major from the Engineers, who was a commando too, was passing that way.

He stopped him and asked him what should be done.

The plucky engineer used his binoculars and suggested that a tractor be used to segregate the damaged area and then commandos should crawl into the silos to remove the rockets and bombs.

“Can you carry out such a crazy suicidal strategy,”

asked an amazed and worried Gen. Tikka Khan.

“Yes Sir, but it will take at least three days.”

It was in this bizarre situation that the young Major took a tractor to plough deep ditches around the premises and then in an act, which any sane mind would surely term suicidal, he drove straight into the developing and exploding inferno.

As the growing army team watched in shock from afar, every five minutes this dare-devil would emerge his clothes virtually burnt.

He would roll on the ground to cool off and then back into the exploding dump he went.

Everyone was sure that at some point he would not emerge and a major portion of Lahore would be blown up.

After four hours of hard work he emerged, burnt from head to toe, and sought five commandos to head in five different directions.

Volunteers were aplenty after seeing this young brave engineer-commando.

Soon a few army soldiers also begged Gen. Tikka to be allowed to control what promised to be the most dangerous situation the Pakistan Army had till then faced in peace time.

On their minds was the city of Lahore and its citizens.

The brilliant Tikka Khan disallowed them declaring that this was a fight only officers would have to fight out, and he himself was nearby in harm’s way.

As the Army Engineers worked out contingency plans for evacuating the threatened portions of Lahore and its surrounding villages, the six officers, led by Engineer-Commando Major Khurshid Ghias, worked away into the night and by the time the next day emerged they had managed to contain the inferno with exploding bombs all around them. It might sound as super-human today but the fact is that for three days and nights these amazing soldiers worked removing rockets and bombs which was burning their arms, to safer parts of the outlying fields and buried in ditches dug all over the place.

It was a sight the Pakistan Army had never seen before, and given the experience of 1965 everyone expected a miracle.

Today we can safely say that a miracle was achieved and Lahore was saved by the efforts of this exceptionally brave Engineer-Commando.

On Monday last that very same brave gentleman that was the engineer-commando, who was to later excel as an academic and irrigation expert, passed away in Lahore. Brig. Khurshid Ghias was buried in the Cavalry Ground graveyard by his colleagues and friends the same evening.

The next day a religious scholar paid him tributes.

The presentation was brief, to the point and devoid of any religiosity.

That is the way the unsung heroes of our land prefer, away from official tributes and attention and devoid of the sycophancy that plagues our official discourse.

It was my pleasure to know the brigadier for the last 45 years, and attending his ‘dua’, a simple, brief and meaningful affair if ever there was, was something that few who attended will forget.

That is why in this piece a few more aspects of the life of this

‘Unknown Hero’

deserves to be spelled out as a final tribute to a man who gave so much and demanded nothing in return.

After the Lahore Ammunition Depot incident, Brig. Khurshid Ghias was awarded the ‘Sitara-e-Basalat’.

He then returned to his commando roles.

Earlier in the 1965 War he was thrown behind enemy lines where he had been blowing up enemy bridges as tanks rolled forward to battle.

Nearly 25 per cent, as one scholarly analysis tells us now, of Indian battle tanks got bogged down as river and canal banks suddenly burst.

It was this silent battle that played a contributing role to the final outcome.

In the first Balochistan insurgency he disappeared and returned home dressed as a Baloch ‘Sardar’ with an impressive beard.

In that period he had made his way deep into Afghanistan and for over four months operated in that country.

All these adventures made him deeply interested in the history of the lands of Pakistan, and by the time it was time for him to retire from a long life of arms, he was a reasonably qualified academic.

He joined Wapda as member water and soon started a movement to line all the canals of Pakistan. His theory was that the water loss resulted in a lot of barren land emerging as water-logged. The rate of land lost to water-logging and the water lost for crops had to be reversed and he set off lining the Sadiq Canal in Bahawalpur. That had a dramatic effect on the economy of the region. The paper he presented on the issue was reproduced in international academic magazines.

He was to go on to play a major part in the building of the Panu Aqil Cantonment, as also modernizing the Risalpur Engineering College. After retirement he played a major role in seeing the Lahore Defence Club come to fruition.

All the time Brig. Khurshid Ghias played the role of the ‘invisible benefactor’, allowing lesser souls to lap up the glory and fame lesser mortals seek so desperately.

But to my mind his name will always live, once the history of Lahore is written in detail, as the man who risked everything to save the city and its people. As I research the history of our city, this incident, so important that it was, has been forgotten. The city was saved and people move on. The simple ‘invisible’ brigadier moved to another world last Monday. When the annals of bravery are written, his name will surely be among those who served their fellow humans till the last.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2018

Posted on Sep 07, 18 | 10:11 am