It Could have Happened But Did Not
16 August, 2005
By Col. Riaz Jafri (Retd)
On 17 August 1988 Genral Mirza Aslam Beg – VCOAS Pak Army - was flying to Multan from Bahawalpur, when his helicopter pilot informed him that the Presidential plane was not responding to Bahawalpur Air Traffic Controller’s’ calls. “You call the Presidential plane”, General asked the pilot. “Alpha One – Alpha One -- Do you read me, over”. No reply. “Alpha One-report my signal”. Still no reply. General Aslam Beg asked the pilot to turn back and they both soon saw to their horror the C-130 carrying the President Zia ul Haq, the US ambassador Rafael and the elite crop of top generals of the Pakistan army, manoeuvring uncontrollably in the air over river Satluj near Bahawalpur. The plane was flying most erratically, up and down, left and right, sideways as if making shallow dives, coming down but again pulling upwards from midway. One moment down the next up again. It was drifting perilously and the most unpredictably. They were watching it most helplessly without being able to do any thing – in fact anything. Then, it just went into a nose dive and burst into flames on hitting the dry river bed. It was the most horrific sight the memories of which shall haunt them for long. No one else knew of it anywhere in the world. “Oh, my God” and a silent prayer escaped the lips of General Aslam Beg, who asked the pilot to get General Durrani – GOC Bahawalpur in the ATC. After a while he was there and General Beg told him over the radio what had happened. He instructed him not to leak a word of it to anyone, cordon off the air port, send the rescue parties to the crash site and wait for his further orders. He asked the pilot to head for Rawalpindi instead of Multan.
General Zia had gone to Bahawalpur to witness the desert performance of the US main battle tank M-61 and was returning to Rawalpindi that after noon. As a security measure two C-130s had been lined up on the runway and the President with his entourage could board any one of them at his discretion. Zia was discussing the tank with Lt General Mian Afzaal – the then CGS and an armoured corps officer when they approached the aircraft. Just at the last moment he asked Afzaal to accompany him to Pindi, instead of going to Multan where there was some function for the senior officers the next day, so that they could discuss the tank further during the flight. General Afzal spotted General Rahm Dil Bhatti, (fondly known in the army as Kind Hearted Bhatti, now retired and our one time ambassador to North Korea) and asked him to proceed to Multan instead of going to Pindi with the President and that he could use his helicopter also. General Aslam Beg, as the protocol demanded, was waiting at the tarmac for the Presidential plane to depart before himself leaving for Multan. Seeing him there, the President told him that he need not wait for him to leave and could proceed to Multan. General Beg saluted and left. Gen Rahm Dil Bhatti was not the only one to be spared by the angel of death that day, who seemed to be playing strange pranks. Earlier in the morning Lt Col. Arshad Hussain AMC (retired as Major General) the personal physicians to the President had dutifully presented himself at Chaklala airfield with his medical bag containing the most effective emergency life saving drugs to accompany the President as usual on his tours. General Zia, known for his modesty, sent him off saying, “Arshad, why bother yourself, I shall be back by the evening in any case”. Brigadier Yunas, Military Secretary to the President, was similarly asked by him to tend to certain important matters in his absence and not to ‘suffer’ the scorching heat of Bahawalpur. General K M Arif had done a course in the USA, where he being a ‘tanker’ ridden the M-61 tank and studied it from close quarters. Zia wanted him to be at the trial demonstration also, but as his good luck would have it, no one informed him of it! Actually, what happened was that General Rafaqat – the President’s COS – was in Zia’s office when Zia was talking to the US ambassador and asking him to accompany them to Bahawalpur next day. In their conversation, Zia had told Rafael that Arif would also be there and that they would stand to gain from his first hand knowledge of the tank. Rafaqat said later, that he had assumed that Arif had been asked by the President himself to be at Bahawalpur, he as such did not inform him. The angel of death played some other tricks also. One General (no names please) refused to attend the function in Multan on egoistic grounds. Due to the paucity of VIP No.1 rooms in Multan messes he was accommodated in a VIP No. 2 room!. “No way”, said the general, but little did he know that his misplaced ego would cost him his life.
Flying time from Bahawalpur to Rawalpindi in a chopper is about 90 minutes. During all this time General Mirza Aslam Beg, all alone by himself, was engrossed in a deep and heavily overweighing thought process about the future of Pakistan. What will become of the country was the only question coming again and again to his mind. Country was under Martial Law, PM Janejo’s government having been dismissed some time back. The Chief Martial Law Administrator, the President and the Chief of Army Staff – the absolute authority in the country had died. Constitution was held in abeyance. Parliament – the National Assembly and the Senate - stood dissolved. Speaker NA relieved of his duties. Only the Chairman Senate was somewhere around. He being the VCOAS was the most legitimate and automatic successor of the late COAS. As COAS he would be automatically the CMLA and the President of the country. Who was there to stop him from taking over ? Buried in his such thoughts and almost unaware of the surroundings he found himself in the Presidency. He called General Rafaqt and informed him of the tragedy. “Should I inform the Begum Sahiba”, asked General Rafaqat. “No, not yet. Please ask Air Mashal Hakimullah and Admiral Sarohi to come to the Presidency. Oh, yes, please call Mr. Ishaq Khan also”, the General said. By now he seemed to be quite his own self, composed, resolute and sure of his actions. On arrival of the CAS Air Marshal Hakimullah and the CNS Admiral Sarohi, General Beg informed them of the incidence and posed the question as to what should be done. Then without waiting for their reply, added, “I think, let the constitution its own course”. “what does the constitution say”, interjected Hakimullah. “Constitution says that the Chairman Senate should take over”, was the simple reply of General Beg to them. They nodded in agreement. Chairman Senate Ishaq Khan had also arrived in the mean while and was sitting in an adjoining room, pondering over the reason for his being called up there at that odd hour of the day. All three Chiefs of the Services entered the room and informed Ishaq Khan of the crash. “What do you gentlemen want me to do”, asked Ishaq Khan. “Sir, we want you to take over the country”, said General Beg calmly. “Oh, bhai, agar aap logoon nay das din kay baad take over karna hai to abhi kar lo”, was the matter of reply of Ishaq Khan. (Oh, brothers, if you people have to take over after 10 days, you might do it now). All three unanimously assured Ishaq Khan that they had no such intentions and that they seriously requested him to assume the responsibility. “Give me some time to think over it”, asked Ishaq khan and the three left the room. After about ten minutes, Ishaq Khan called them and informed that he was ready to take over. General Rafaqat with an eye for the details had already sent for the Chief Justice of Pakistan but as he was out of the country the acting Chief Justice had arrived, who solemnly administered the oath of the office of the Presidency to Mr. Ishaq Khan in probably what would have been the most simple ceremony in the history of such oath taking ceremonies. After the oath, the three saluted the President and asked his permission if Begum Zia could be informed of the tragedy. General Rafaqt performed the unpleasant task by visiting the family personally and expressing the condolences of the President Ishaq Khan and the three services’ chiefs.
Elections were held within 90 days as announced by Ishaq Khan. Benazir – the majority leader was being out-manoeuvred by the Muslim Leaguers trying to form a coalition government, citing the Indian precedence where Rajiv Gandhi despite his majority had conceded to the minority leader to form the coalition government. General Beg once again rose to the occasion and after extracting three promises from BB (1) She will pull on amicably with Ishaq Khan, (2) Not take any revengeful measure against Zia’s family and (3) Not interfere in army matters, put his weight down in her favour. It is another thing that BB from day one – even before it – spoilt her relations with Ishaq Khan. On her swearing in the ceremony hall was in its full regalia. The entire top brass of the country – both civil and military was there. So were the diplomatic corps and the foreign dignitaries with their spouses. Prime Minister designate Benazir accompanied by the President had to enter the stage from the rear door. And, it just happened at the threshold. While entering the door the old and elderly Ishaq Khan out of sheer courtesy and chivalry asked BB to proceed ahead saying, “Beti, after you”. “ I am not Beti. I am the Prime Minister of Pakistan”, retorted BB haughtily and spontaneously to the bewilderment of Ishaq Khan. Okay, let it be that way, mused Ishaq Khan in his heart of hearts and took a step forward of BB to enter the hall first. The President had given a clear signal to the Prime Minister designate of his authority and that too on her asking.
Rest is history. Only, Beg (the army) did not take over when there was nothing to stop him (it). It didn’t happen when it could.