The sailor who never said ‘no’

My uncle, the late Lt Commander Ghaffar Ahmed Muraj, was a sailor for whom the word ‘impossible’ just didn’t exist.

Anwer Mooraj August 12, 2012

Tomorrow the nation will be celebrating the 65th anniversary of independence. There will be the usual marches and flag hoistings. Patriotic songs will be aired on the glass bucket. Newspapers and TV stations will exhume the sepia tints of the major players in the freedom movement. But sadly, only the leading stars in the struggle for independence and those martyred in the patriotic wars are given top billing. Lesser mortals who stand way, way down in the pecking order, who in their own quiet, unobtrusive way had the wonderful feeling that they were making a contribution, however small, in the great drama of Independence, are usually ignored. One such person was my uncle, the late Lt Commander Ghaffar Ahmed Muraj. In India, he commanded Test, Carnatic, Tir, Baroda and Avenger; and in Pakistan, Jhelum, Shamsheer, Malwa, Attock and Chittagong. On August 15, 1947, he hoisted the Pakistan flag on HMIS Nerbudda, later renamed HMPS Jhelum. He collected five war medals and awards in the land of his birth — and three decorations in the land of his adoption. On March 23, 1956, he was awarded the Sitara-i-Basalat and retired three years later from Pakistan government service. In the words of a former naval C-in-C, he was a sailor who never said ‘no’ and for whom the word ‘impossible’ just didn’t exist.

Shortly before his death, I visited him in his modest home in PECHS, Karachi. He was in his study filled with Chinoiserie, Burmese and Indonesian curios and other oriental bric-a-brac. There was the unmistakable aroma of Erinmore Flake. Suddenly, he pulled out a file from the odd 100 that lined the wall and selected a dog-eared letter yellowed with age. It was a note of thanks from Dr Abdul Haq, the scholar referred to as Baba-i-Urdu, who had praised him for preserving a part of Muslim history. That letter meant more to him than the other 900. He had transported the scholar to Karachi along with his entire library of books — a treasure trove of Urdu literature. To do this, he took a three-day casual leave, so that he could clear the entire consignment of precious tomes and manuscripts with the Karachi customs — and was delighted at the cooperation and courtesy he received from the men in white. He was a dapper, handsome and intrepid naval officer who rarely talked about himself or the adventurous life he led in the war. His last posting in India was as liaison officer between the two newly independent countries. He became a frequent target of the RSS in Bombay who made a number of attacks on his life and once succeeded in pushing his car off a pier into the ocean — while he was still at the wheel.

He will be remembered not for his exploits in the war but for the numerous risks he took to save fellow Muslims while they were being attacked all over riot-torn Bombay. Day after day, at great personal risk to himself and his family, he crammed hundreds of Muslim refugees onto the overcrowded decks of naval vessels and merchant ships headed for Karachi and succeeded in bringing over 25,000 Muslims to Pakistan in the stormy days that followed Partition. Other important people who he managed to bring across were Dr Mahmud Hussain, AT Naqvi, Akbar Mirza of the CID, Sami Mohammed Khan of the police and Brigadier Jalal M Shah of the army. The list goes on and on and includes numerous British and Australian officers such as Commodore Little, Major JE Davis and Captain GT Lenworthy, who were shipped along with their families to Karachi, after the United Kingdom High Commission in Bombay refused to accept responsibility for their safety.

Lt Muraj, as he was then known, was destined to live a life of danger. In 1938, whilst in the Indian merchant navy, his ship was plying the Red Sea routes between Jeddah and Aden. While anchored at Jeddah, it was bombarded by Italian warplanes. But like most Dufferin-trained officers, he remained unfazed. Miraculously, the ship survived. Subsequently, as a navigating officer on HMIS Nulchira, stationed at Vizagapatam for minesweeping duties, Japanese warplanes suddenly came out of the sun and attacked his ship from 10:30 in the morning until sunset. Providence once again smiled on the gallant crewmen. And then on Easter Sunday, while stationed in Calcutta on HMIS Berar, Japanese warplanes strafed and bombed his ship. In the fierce battle that ensued, with bombs falling and Ack Ack guns blazing, one of the gunners managed to wing two  enemy aircraft and everybody on board cheered wildly each time the propeller-driven warplane nose-dived into a watery grave in the Bay of Bengal.

Lt Muraj lived at 30 Dhanraj Mahal in Apollo Bunder, Bombay. The decor in the apartment was a highly ornamented rococo fused with the latest in Malacca and rattan, while potted Erica palms fringed the walls of the huge sitting room and the balconies. His wife was a highly cultured Burmese lady and an exceptional hostess. Her dinner parties were attended by an assortment of diplomats, military men, journalists like Frank Moraes, editor of The Times of India, and film stars Ashok Kumar and Nargis. Guests sampled the finest of Burmese delicacies permitted under a war economy and danced to the exotic rhythms of the Lecuona Cuban Boys. His apartment was also crawling with intelligence men who ranged from the seedy sleuths in mackintoshes  to polished officials in starched white uniforms — insouciant masters of disinformation. As a naval liaison officer in Bombay, he was at times asked to perform duties which, in the services, are described as ‘over and above the call of duty’. These he performed with diligence. In India, he received considerable support from Commodore HR Inigo Jones, Captain Thompson and Commander Sampson. And in Pakistan, there was Admiral JW Jefford, Commodore Bailey and Admiral HMS Chaudhri — an upright officer with a passionate interest in maritime history. Top naval brass paid their final tribute by attending his funeral.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2012.


Cynical | 11 years ago | Reply


You are extraordinarily forthright.But I guess people as well as their values are a product of their time.

Anwer Mooraj | 11 years ago | Reply

@Talat Hameed: Your comments and those of Shahid and Kaalchakra were much appreciated. I wrote a simple story about a simple man who was just performing his duty to the best of his ability. Nor was it a defense of Imperialism or British rule or the military. Just a simple tale of an honest man who believed in all sincerity, like the Congress and Muslim League leadership, that siding with the Allies against the Axis would have hastened India’s independence. And while he was doing his job , he did his bit for his Muslim brethren. One of the detractors wrote that as my uncle was a military man he had no compassion for him. I have no malice towards him. Perhaps he suffered abominably under army rule. But one wonders what might have happened to the treasure trove of Urdu literature and the less influential among those he brought over.

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