Ikram Sehgal’s great escape

Ikram spent 99 days in Indian custody but escaped on the 100th day, barefoot and naked except for his underwear.

Khaled Ahmed October 13, 2012
Ikram Sehgal’s great escape

Funnily, instead of funerals and other occasions of high emotion, I am moved by any show of discipline and restraint. I am touched by situations brought about by moments of moral relativism when it is difficult to deliver judgments.

I confess I have been deeply affected by Ikram Sehgal’s memoir Escape from Oblivion: The Story of a Pakistani Prisoner of War in India (OUP 2012). He carried a binary identity — born of a Punjabi father and a Bengali mother — which held only as long as East and West Pakistan held together. What devastated me was how it was invalidated by both and Ikram was handed over to India as a prisoner of war (POW). Across time, he comes across as the only morally valid reference in the story of Pakistan.

Ikram got into the army in 1965 and was commissioned into 2E Bengal Regiment where he served till 1968 before qualifying as a pilot in army aviation. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military cracked down on Dhaka. Ikram reached Dhaka two days later to join Logistic Flight, Eastern Command, and was told he had been posted to Sri Lanka instead. The meaning of the second transfer was lost on him. He used his ‘joining time’ period to visit 2E Bengal near the Indian border.

But 2E Bengal was in revolt. They thought he was a Punjabi commando come to kill their commander. Ikram was handed over to the Indians who took him to a camp in Agartala where the Indian Border Security Force savagely tortured him. Soldier to the core, he now posed as a rebel to survive, causing his identity crisis to become an insoluble riddle. From Agartala he was finally moved to Panagarh in West Bengal, along with other Pakistani POWs. In 1947, his father, Captain (later Lt Col) Abdul Majeed Sehgal, was demobbed from the same Panagarh to Lahore and on to Sialkot.

Ikram spent 99 days in Indian custody but escaped on the 100th day, barefoot and naked except for his underwear, in a replay of the Great Escape film, which forms the purple patch of the book. He went to Calcutta — home of his maternal grandmother — in a truck driven by Biharis. He managed to walk half-naked into the US Consulate in the city, was given shelter because of the recent Henry Kissinger-Yahya Khan plot to facilitate President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing, but was asked to leave lest the Indians got wind of it. He was given Rs1,000 as his fare to wherever he wanted to go. He plumped for New Delhi. What the ISI officer did in the Pakistan High Commission reads like fiction but it really happened. Two commandos, fully armed — AK-47, three magazines, a pistol, and some grenades — took him on a circuitous route to Kathmandu in Nepal from where he took a flight to Rangoon, and finally to Bangkok, with the weapons as hand luggage! In Bangkok, the defence attaché was intellectually incapable of grasping his now-invalidated identity. Back in Dhaka, he spent 84 days under interrogation at the HQ Inter Services Screening Committee.

In November 1971, he rejoined the Pakistan Army and served in Thar and Balochistan “but was dismissed from service two years later without any reasons for this action”.

Ikram Sehgal’s mother was an Urdu-speaking Bengali from Midnapore near Calcutta. Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy and JA Rahim were his grandmother’s first cousins. On his father’s side, his late grandfather, Haji Abdul Karim Sehgal, partly built the Marine Drive of Bombay. His grand-uncle Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah served as chief engineer at the Bombay Baroda Central India Railways. Today, Ikram runs his security firms and has gone back to Bangladesh to rejoin the 2E Bengal as an old friend and he is still a Pakistan Army soldier to the marrow. But this is what he writes about 1971: “When soldiers make war on women and children, they cease to be soldiers. That is why in the final analysis, when it came to real combat, they could not face up to bullets which is their actual job as soldiers … the terror that was unleashed by them in East Pakistan between March and November 1971 is simply inexcusable.”

What should one do when two identities are in violent clash and you are stuck in the middle? Is reality acceptable only when it is framed in black and white?

Published in The Express Tribune, October 14th, 2012. 


Observer | 11 years ago | Reply

@LionOfPunjab: I disagree with Lion of Punjab. Please respect our Shaheed Jawaans they are giving there blood to save the country in which we are living

Babloo | 11 years ago | Reply

I dont know Ikram Sehgal. However, I have read his columns in another daily. He makes up facts and has a very narrow and biased view of history. I never thought his columns were truthful and were detestable. Can his book be any better ?

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