New Delhi, November 11 (Hindustan Times): When President Ram Nath Kovind conferred the Padma awards, among the highest civilian honours in India, one of the recipients was Lt Col Qazi Sajjad Ali Zahir – a former Pakistani soldier who risked his life by crossing over to India and helping liberate Bangladesh in the 1971 war.
Although Lt Colonel Zahir’s name went by largely under the radar all those years ago (owing to the confidential nature of military business), he was thrown into the spotlight this week when stepping onto the podium to receive the Padma Shri, a recognition of his contributions to the Indian intelligence and subsequently, the Bangladesh freedom movement.
That Lt Col Qazi Sajjad Ali Zahir risked his life to help India and the nascent Bangladesh is no understatement. As a 20-year-old officer posted in Sialkot, Lt Col Zahir crossed over to neighbouring India at the height of the Pakistani army’s atrocities and human rights violations in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan).
His troubles did not end even after he arrived in India, where he was naturally suspected of being a Pakistani spy and grilled by the border security force and later by senior officers of the Indian Army in Pathankot. However, after Lt Col Zahir presented a bunch of confidential documents of the Pakistani Army to back up his cause, he was sent to a safe house in Delhi, from where the Indian intelligence coordinated with him. Later, the former Pakistani soldier moved to Bangladesh, where he trained the Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) in guerilla warfare to take on Pakistani forces.
In fact, Lt Col Zahir’s is a name that Pakistan continues to hate even today. According to the ex-military man, there’s a death sentence pending in his name in Pakistan for the past 50 years. In Bangladesh, however, Lt Col Zahir has been honoured with gallantry medals such as the Bir Protik and the country’s highest civilian honour, the Swadhinata Padak. Now India, too, has recognised his contributions to the military history of the subcontinent and conferred on him the Padma Shri.
The Padma Awards are the highest civilian honours of India announced annually ahead of Republic Day. However, the award-giving ceremony was affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year.
The Padma Awards are given in three categories: Padma Vibhushan (for exceptional and distinguished service), Padma Bhushan (distinguished service of higher-order) and Padma Shri (distinguished service). The award seeks to recognise achievements in all fields of activities or disciplines where an element of public service is involved.