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Azam Gill: Soldier of misfortune

 Azam Gill’s story begins with Sadhu Sundar Singh, the “apostle with bleeding feet” who converted many Punjabi Sikhs to Christianity in British India in undivided Punjab in the early 20th century. Gill’s grandfather was one of these converts. 

Gill was born in Pakistan to a jurist father and an educationist mother in Lahore. He was the youngest of three. Today, he is a French national and has living relatives in India and none in Pakistan—the country he was forced to flee because he wrote a book. The 63-year-old Gill is now a retired French professor and I recently exchanged several emails with him for this story. 

Gill joined the Pakistani army in his late teens, and was posted with the 47th Battalion of the Punjab Regiment. He joined the army, he said, because it was good for Pakistani minorities at the time to have army officers in the family. He was deployed along the Line of Control in Kashmir. 

In 1972, the year after the Bangladesh War, he became the youngest adjutant in the Pakistani Army. His duties included collecting field intelligence and providing cover fire when the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) wanted to infiltrate India. 

After Babrak Karmal’s coup in Kabul in 1973, training camps sprouted up all over Pakistan eager to organize an Afghan resistance. Army officers were keen to offer their services, for the multitude of incentives this offered. More jeeps were particularly coveted, Gill recalled. 

They were turbulent times for the military. The left-wing London Study Group, a bunch of students from prominent Pakistani families living in London but politically active in Pakistan, was allegedly involved with the Soviet backed insurgency in Afghanistan, and Pakistani Intelligence had started a witch hunt for KGB agents. 

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had arrested a number of young officers in relation to what came to be known as the Attock Conspiracy. The officers held Bhutto responsible for the creation of Bangladesh and the defeat of the Pakistan Army in 1971. They felt Bhutto’s refusal to accept Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s election victory in 1970 had led to the resentment that resulted in their loss in the 1971 war. 

On 30 March 1973, some officers were arrested on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government and were tried in Attock Fort. A number of them were convicted in trials presided over by Bhutto’s future nemesis, Major Zia-ul-Haq. 

Gill’s commanding officer was one of those charged. As his adjutant, Gill missed it by a hair’s breadth. Up until that point, the Pakistan Army had been oriented to fight India. But subsequent to that, the troubles in Afghanistan and the conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, in which Pakistan was on the Americans’ side, meant the army’s gaze was now directed westward, and since that time, has stayed in both directions, Gill says. 

Despite his strong bonds with several officers and the loyalty of his battalion, he was disturbed by the discrimination against Pakistani Christians. He felt he had to stand up for himself and the community as they were being treated like illegal immigrants in the land of his ancestors. 

He wrote a pamphlet in Pakistan called “Jail Reforms” about human rights issues in the country’s prisons, followed by a 79-page book titled “Army Reforms”, about the deplorable state of human rights in the Pakistan Army. The preface was written by General Bakhtiar Rana. 

The book was a cry for secularism in a functional theocracy and it angered the authorities. It was immediately banned. 

In 1981, Gill was summoned to Islamabad by General Zia-ul-Haq’s personal secretary, who had been one of his instructors at the Pakistan Military Academy. Gill was advised to leave the country within 40 days, before the order banning him from leaving was circulated. But when Gill got back to Lahore, the order was in the postbox. 

He returned to Islamabad, where the French embassy issued him a visa for political asylum, with a caveat—he would spend the next five years serving the French Foreign Legion. Gill’s mother backed his decision and gave him money and a copy of the Gospel of Saint John. 

The Legion offered him anonymity. Besides his family could reassure the government that there was no risk of Gill conspiring against Pakistan from Paris—he'd be too busy lugging a rucksack in some corner of Africa. 

Thus Azam Gill joined the French Foreign Legion, a storied special unit of the French military. Only one in 10 are selected from a list of applicants from all over the world, and even fewer make it past basic training. 

Physically, Gill recalls, it was no harder than enrolling in any other professional army. Psychologically, however, things are complicated—you're serving under a foreign flag, under an assumed identity, with no family, your past wiped out, your future uncertain and your present tenuous, singing marching songs about death. There are no French lessons, you speak pidgin French, and often communicate by grunts and gestures. 

It works to the military’s advantage, since the intense ethnic competition leads to a natural synergy that keeps standards high. Legion recruits bring different talents and experience— beggars, doctors, army officers, race car drivers, princes, bandits and locksmiths. When the Legion needs to put together a team for a special operations, all this talent comes into play. 

In the Foreign Legion, people of all nationalities, communities and races were given equal treatment. Though racial supremacists—white, black, brown—also ended up joining the Legion, and while there was certainly racist talk, nothing resulted in action, says Gill. 

Some of his good memories from his stint in the Legion were of times spent drinking and grilling goat meat with comrades, and the endless generosity of the people of Africa, he says. And then there are the bad memories, of the rare encounter with an “enemy”, often nothing more than ragged, ill-trained men doing some Libyan officer’s bidding. This was not the calibre of foe Gill had been used to at the Line of Control. 

Life after the Legion 

Gill met his wife in a French class at Grenoble University where he was pursuing his PhD. They have three children. He is the first veteran Legionnaire, he says, to complete a doctorate. 

He worked as a language teacher and lecturer at Grenoble University’s Polytechnique. He then worked with the French Navy, where he taught English before his recent retirement. During this time, he also wrote a column on geopolitics for the Californian magazine The National Educator. 

His articles have since been compiled into a book Winds of Change: Geopolitics and the World Order, published in 2001 to critical acclaim in geopolitical circles. It provides valuable insights for anyone who is confused by what is going on in today’s world. 

Since then, he has written three novels, the first one a spy thriller that would’ve made Tom Clancy cringe in shame. It would make a great Hollywood or Indian movie. It is truly sad that most Asian readers are yet to discover Gill’s novels. 

Though he had to flee Pakistan, he is glad to note some of the measures suggested in his book have been implemented now. As for the recent mutilation of Indian soldiers, Gill says he finds it difficult to believe as such acts are out of character for the Pakistani army he served in. 

The Kashmir issue is as old as the independence of India and Pakistan. Both countries see it as a land-grab that needs to be redressed. Gill feels frustrated that India and Pakistan are engaged in a fratricidal war of attrition which occasionally gets worse before it gets better. 

Gill would like to visit his remaining relatives in India. Since Partition, he has met just two of his first cousins on his mother’s side, during a visit here when he was a boy in 1961. His most treasured memories are of meeting Mohini didi and Kamini didi. For Jaggi bhaiya, it’s too late. He passed away some years ago. And Gill would love to see Manni bhaiya whom he has never met. All Gill knows is that he studied at College of Engineering, Guindy in Madras and joined the Assam Rifles. If there are readers in touch with Major Manjit Singh Chander’s family, perhaps they will be able to help bridge a bond that is all but forgotten.

Deepa Kandaswamy is an award-winning freelance writer and author.  

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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