The birth of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, transformed the political landscape of the Indian subcontinent, making 1971 a watershed year. India had fought a bloody war with then West and East Pakistan, which led to the largest surrender after World War II when the Pakistan Army laid down arms before the Indian Army.
Additionally, it was the lone occasion in which the air force men of the three nations received the highest gallantry honours. Nobody has been able to recreate the feat as of yet.
This is the tale of two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilots—an instructor and a student—who were torn apart by their love for their separate homelands. They sacrificed their lives for their respective countries in the same incident.
The relationship between West Pakistan and East Pakistan, which were physically separated by a sizable portion of Indian territory, was under strain right from the creation of the Islamic country in 1947.
Their political and economic division paralleled the physical difference between West and East Pakistan. West Pakistan was designated as the nation’s political hub since the majority of the ruling class had relocated west from India. Due to perceived policy discrimination by West Pakistan, East Pakistan demanded its own independence.
Bengali-speaking On March 25, 1971, East Pakistan already proclaimed its independence. PAF’s Bengali officers were grounded as a result. The Indian subcontinent was heavily under the shadow of impending war.
On August 20, 1971, the incident occurred in West Pakistan. Pilot Officer Rashid Minhas, a 21-year-old member of the Pakistan Air Force, was taxiing his Lockheed Martin T-33 training plane towards the runway.
Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rehman, an instructor pilot from East Pakistan, gave him the order to stop just as he was about to start the take-off run. He then sat down in the instructor’s seat. Then, the unexpected occurred: the plane veered towards India as it took off from Karachi.
The events that came before this are suitable for the movies. Flight Lieutenant Rahman, who was from the Bengali-speaking region of East Pakistan, had taken control of the trainer plane in order to flee the Pakistan Air Force and join the liberation struggle in Bangladesh. He was headed for Bhuj, the closest Indian Air Force Base.
“Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman, who tried to hijack the T-33 trainer (Pilot Officer) Rashid Minhas, was our senior from PAF Public School Sargodha. He was a bright young officer and flight instructor at the jet conversion school but had been grounded along with other Bengali officers after Bengalis had declared their freedom on March 25, 1971,” Group Captain SM Hali, a retired PAF pilot, wrote in a tribute to the brave pilots.
At the end of January 1971, Rahman and his family were spending a two-month vacation in Dhaka when Pakistan launched “Operation Searchlight” on March 25. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the leader of East Pakistan, was detained during the operation, and the Pakistan Army is alleged to have killed Bengali civilians. There have been between 500,000 and over 3 million deaths overall, according to estimates.
According to the Bangladesh Air Force website, Rahman saw the crimes. This compelled him to establish a training facility in Vairab where he would instruct Bengali recruits for the Mukti Bahini. “With a few gathered weapons and a few willing men, he established a small defence group.
“The PAF bombed his camp on April 14, 1971. But Rahman anticipated the attack beforehand and changed the place of his camp. Thus, his crew and he were saved from the bombing,” the Bangladesh Air Force website claims.
On May 9, Rahman travelled back to Karachi with his wife and two daughters.
“In the prelude to the 1971 war, Mati planned his hijacking mission meticulously, selecting Rashid Minhas, apparently a benign and polite officer, as his target,” Group Captain Hali, who was in the academy at that time, recalled.
“When Rashid Minhas taxied out for take-off, he positioned himself at a strategic location, from where the air traffic control tower or mobile post near the runway could not see him,” he added.
Minhas regained consciousness 35 miles before the border with India, foiling Rahman’s objectives.
“He radioed a distress signal to his home base that he was being hijacked, then tried to wrest control from the hijacker.
Rashid Minhas was no match for the Flight Instructor, who had greater experience. The inexperienced student pilot had only one option available to him: he could place his entire body weight on the joystick and crash the T-33 into the earth.
“While planning the hijack, Matiur Rahman had made one miscalculation, his choice of Rashid Minhas. He thought he would be able to overpower the lean and thin mild-mannered student, but instead, he was met with the steely nerves of Rashid Minhas, who refused to accept defeat and preferred to sacrifice himself to preserve the pride and dignity of Pakistan,” Hali added.
Pilot Officer Minhas received the highest heroism medal, the Nishan-e-Haider, from Pakistan, which renamed the air base at Kamra as PAF Base Minhas. In Pakistan, Rahman was laid to rest.
Rahman received the highest gallantry medal, the “Bir Shrestho,” from the Bangladesh Air Force, and the air base in Jessore was named in his honour. Flt Lt Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, who received the Param Vir Chakra, is the only member of the Indian air force to have received the highest gallantry medal thus far in this conflict.
Around 30 years were spent in negotiations between Bangladesh and Pakistan to obtain Flight Lieutenant Rehman’s remains. On June 24, 2006, Bangladesh received his lifeless remains, and he was reburied in Dhaka with full military honours.
“When I was serving as Director of Public Relations for PAF, I was informed that Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman’s daughter, a small child in 1971, residing with her parents at PAF Masroor, wanted permission to visit her father’s grave. I urged the-then air chief to permit her as a gesture of goodwill. Matiur Rahman’s grave was renovated, and his daughter was permitted to visit and offer Fateha,” Hali recalled.