By Air Commodore (r) Naunehal Shah
A great son of Hunza and one of the heroes of Gilgit-Baltistan’s liberation war, Group Captain Mohammad Shah Khan died on November 19, 2016 at Combined Military Hospital Gilgit at the age of 92 years, just three months after the demise of his wife. He was laid to rest at the historical Chinar Bagh in the vicinity of the monument of the martyrs of Gilgit-Baltisan liberation war.
Shah Khan leaves behind three sons; Colonel Sher Khan (retired), Asif Khan and Major Yousuf Khan (retired) and two daughters. All children are married and have lovely children; the two older children have grand children.
Shah Khan was son of Sir Mir Mohammad Nazim Khan, the ruler of Hunza. He was born in Hunza in April 1924. Shah Khan was very dear and close to his father and grew learning sports like horsemanship, archery and marksmanship. He was an accomplished polo player, a master archer and very good shot. He owned the best of horses, the best of guns and always kept a well trained dog of good pedigree.
Education had not yet acquired its due place until then in the royalty of Hunza and therefore, after his basic education Shah Khan joined the erstwhile Gilgit Scouts as a viceroy commissioned officer in 1942. God had gifted Shah Khan with an amazingly endearing personality. He was a child in 1934 when Colonel Lorimer and his wife Emily O Lorimer visited Hunza for their research work on Burushaski – the language spoken by the people of Hunza. Mir Mohammad Nazim Khan chose his son Shah Khan aged ten and third in line, his older brothers being Ghazan Khan and Shahbaz Khan, to receive the guests when they visited the Mir. Young Shah Khan so impressed his British guests that Emily Lorimer chose to nickname him little Lord Fauntleroy, owing to his exceptional good manners and flamboyant dressing. She so writes in her book:
“—and at the gate of the park a young prince stood to greet us, the loveliest boy of thirteen I have ever seen. He was Shah Khan, —– but I christened him forthwith Lord Fauntleroy.”
Due to his endearing nature and his mastery in polo and as an accomplished shot he became close to the British Commandants of Gilgit Scouts. In his book titled the Gilgit Scouts, which he finished writing a few years before his death, Shah Khan gives a good account of his indulgences in polo and his shooting excursions with the British officers. William A. Brown who was Commandant Gilgit Scouts from 1943 to 1946, in his book The Gilgit Rebellion pays tribute to Shah Khan’s archery skills while describing the sport of teerandazi as played in Hunza.
“Another favourite in Hunza and Nagar is tarandazi or archery; but this does not consist of shooting at a stationery object with bow and arrow. A small white disc slightly bigger than a match box is placed on the side of a mound of earth in the centre of the polo ground. The marksman mounts his pony, places the arrow in the bow which he grasps in the left hand with the string half taut. He then urges his pony to full gallop down the polo ground, guiding it with his right hand so that it will pass on the right of the target at some five to ten yards distance. As he approaches the mound holding the disc he must drop his reins, guide the pony with his legs, grasp the bow and arrow in both hands, take aim and fire without slowing up. This sounds incredibly difficult – it is, and requires a high standard of skill and horsemanship. Admittedly a bull’s eye is a rare thing but it is gained especially by the Hunza folk. I have seen Prince Shah Khan of Hunza, about whom we shall hear much later, pierce the disc on three consecutive runs”.
Consequent to the accession to India of the Maharaja of Kashmir against the wishes of the people of the state and in contravention of the partition plan, and subsequent storming by Indian troops of Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit Baltistan region by default was assumed to go to India as part of Indian Occupied Kashmir. The Maharaja had positioned a Dogra Governor Brigadier Ghansara Singh in Gilgit and he was to assume, on behalf of the Dogra ruler of Jammu & Kashmir, the administrative control of Gilgit Baltistan. This arrangement of the partition not being acceptable (not going into details for reasons of an extended discussion) the five VCOs of the Gilgit Scouts, namely Subedar Major Muhammad Babar Khan, Jemdar Shah Khan, Subedar Safiullah Beg, Jemdar Shah Sultan and Jemdar Fida Ali, decided to stage a successful rebellion and God Almighty bestowed on them the glory of freeing this vast land of Gilgit Baltistan from Indian occupation. He commanded a column of poorly armed men who walked in the waist deep snow across Burzil pass wearing their scouts’ chappal (footgear). He successfully led his men towards their objective and made significant gains reaching as far as Zojila and beyond. Shah Khan was awarded Sitara-i-Jurat for his gallantry services during the war of liberation and was also granted commission in the Pakistan Army.
In 1958, his services were acquired by the Pakistan Air Force to set up its Snow Survival School at Naltar and to organise survival courses for aircrew in all other climatic and terrain conditions including sea, dessert and jungle. This was a second phase of Shah Khan’s career. He measured up to the task by developing skiing facilities in Naltar and conducting survival courses for PAF aircrew in other parts of the country. Skiing was an unknown sport in Pakistan. He started from a scratch by building the slopes and installing ski lifts at Naltar. His explanation for introducing skiing as part of winter survival training was convincing – engaging trainees over extended hours to willingly work in cold and snow conditions attracted by the thrill of the sport.
He progressed up the promotion ladder and in 1975, he was promoted as Group Captain and appointed Base Commander of the newly established Kalabagh Base. Kalabagh was an abandoned staging cantonment of the Army Mountain Battery. The buildings were broken and dilapidated. It was due to his unique leadership skills and imaginative planning that the place soon transformed into a locality envy of many a hill resort. With his promotion as Group Captain and elevation as Base Commander, Shah Khan’s responsibilities had widened and he needed someone to assist him with the training component of the newly established Base. On his request the Pakistan Air Force acquired my services from the Army and I joined his small team at Kalabagh in October 1975. I had the privilege to work with him for five years until he retired from service in 1980.
During these five years, I have had the opportunity to know Shah Khan from very close. We developed a relationship of trust, respect and love and that has stayed ever after. He was a born leader destined only to succeed. As he mentions in his book ‘Gilgit Scouts’ , he never met failure except when, after his retirement, he contested the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly elections against his grand nephew Ghazanfar Ali Khan.
He was humane and compassionate. He enjoyed an incredible respect and obedience of his subordinates; especially the civilian employees were particularly close to his heart. After serving the PAF for nearly twenty two years he retired in 1980.
In recognition of his services the President of Pakistan conferred Sitara-i-Imtiaz (M) on Shah Khan on his retirement.