I am frustrated when I tried to arrange a visit to Agra - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am frustrated when I tried to arrange a visit to Agra

For political reasons I did not take any photographs during my short stay in East Pakistan, as it was then called.)

There were several flying instructor postings in and out following the graduation of the senior students in December and, to my great surprise, I was appointed Flight Commander. I told the Commandant and my Squadron Commander that, although I deemed it an honour, I would prefer not to be the Flight Commander - none of my RAF predecessors had been. I felt that it was an appointment that rightly should go to a Pakistani QFI. The Commandant insisted that he had to appoint me as Flight Commander otherwise I would lose face and respect. "There are," he said, "three reasons. You are my only A2 QFI on the T37 Flight; you are the senior of all the flight lieutenants; and you are the oldest QFI. If I didn't appoint you, it would appear to all the others that I had no confidence in you. So you see, Tony, there can be no argument."

The lack of an immigration stamp in my passport became a real embarrassment just before Christmas 1969 when I tried to arrange my January end-of-term holiday. I had decided that, since I was so near, it would be a shame to leave the sub-Continent without paying a visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra. The only way to get by air from Rawalpindi Airport to anywhere in India was by using Lufthansa so I went to their Rawalpindi office and tried to book a return flight to the nearest airport to Agra, which I seem to recall was Delhi. The clerk gave me an odd look and asked the purpose of my visit. I told her that I wished to visit the Taj Mahal. She asked to see my passport. It hadn't occurred to me that I would need my passport simply to book an airline ticket; I didn't have it with me so I told the clerk that I would have to come back later with it. I left the airline office and set off, on foot, to the British High Commission to collect my driver who would take me back to Risalpur. On the way, I suddenly remembered the lack of an immigration stamp in my passport to show how and when I had entered Pakistan and I decided that I had better not risk flying out of the country in case I couldn't get back in.

When I reached the High Commission, Group Captain Johns called me into his office. "Why have you been to the Lufthansa office?" he asked, rather frostily. I was astonished that he knew - it was only about 30 minutes since I had left the airline's office. Clearly the Defence Adviser had spies who had been watching me - probably my own driver. I told the DA that I was planning a visit to Agra during the Academy's end-of-term break in early January. "Think about it, Tony" he said. "How do you think your Pakistani friends will react when they hear you're going off to India? And what do you think the Indians will do when you suddenly arrive from Pakistan? The countries are not exactly the best of friends, are they?" Ooops! Not a good idea. Come to think about it, I don't believe I had even told the Defence Advisor that I had no immigration stamp in my passport.

Christmas Day is a holiday in Pakistan. It turns out, conveniently, that 25 December is also the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the revered Father of the Nation, called Quaid-i-Azam by all Pakistanis, so Christians and Muslims all have cause to celebrate on that date. Actually, Christmas Day turned out to be of academic interest to me because I was laid low in my rooms for 48 hours with a streaming cold and stomach bug. In spite of my protestations, the Academy's Flight Surgeon insisted on giving me several injections of whatever fluid he used for rehydration.

There was a Graduation Parade on 10 January 1970 at which President Yahya Khan was the Reviewing Officer. The entire Diplomatic Corps arrived from Islamabad to watch so security was intense throughout the base as one would expect. The parade itself was splendid and it was pleasing to see the graduating student pilots' pride as they had their wings pinned on by the President. I was amused to hear the band play the tune of "Abide with me" over and over again during the lengthy inspection but I doubt if anyone but me, and possibly Air Commodore O'Brien, newly promoted from group captain, realised that the music was composed for a Christian hymn.

The Academy then closed down for two weeks, so I decided to spend a few days of my leave in East Pakistan. Surely that would be uncontroversial? I got a free lift to Karachi on the RAF Andover that was conveniently making one of its regular runs from the Gulf and I booked myself into Room 531 at the Karachi Intercontinental Hotel for a couple of nights. Several of the Iranian students who had just graduated from Risalpur knew I would be staying there and they came to visit me in the hotel early the following day. Just before leaving Islamabad my Iranian girlfriend and I had arranged to meet up in Karachi at the Intercontinental but one of the Iranian students told me that she had suddenly been recalled to Tehran. Sadly, she had left no message for me, so I was sure it had been an involuntary departure. One of the more forthcoming students quietly suggested that it would be better if I did not make any enquiries, so I didn't.

On 19 January I flew to Dacca. The flight from Karachi to Dacca, the capital city of what was then East Pakistan, was treated as an internal flight even though most of the route passed over Indian territory. There seemed to be a written, or maybe unwritten, agreement that India would not interfere with civilian airliners transiting between the two halves of Pakistan. I could, therefore, legally travel from Karachi to Dacca and back without the need to show my passport - although I did carry it with me hoping that I would not have to produce it anywhere.
I had no sooner booked into my Dacca hotel, another Intercontinental if I remember correctly, than a General Strike, hartal in Bengali the majority language in East Pakistan, was called covering the whole of East Pakistan. I was forced to spend two whole days confined to the hotel and having to watch parades and demonstrations from my hotel bedroom window. It was exceedingly boring.

The third day, when things had got back to normal in the city, I hired a taxi for the day and went on a long tour of Dacca and surrounding areas. The taxi driver spoke excellent English and clearly enjoyed having a very rare 'tourist' in his cab. I was horrified at the squalor and poverty in the city: I thought Rawalpindi and Karachi were bad enough, but Dacca was much worse. The taxi driver showed me the world-famous magnificent 19th Century Star Mosque and then we drove out to where a grandiose new Government Headquarters complex was being built. "It is most important that Government ministers have a nice place to work in, isn't it?" he said with a wry smile. When he dropped me back at my hotel late-afternoon he asked, shyly, if I could pay him in US dollars. Rightly or wrongly, I did so - and probably gave him far too much, but I didn't mind because I had enjoyed his company.

The next day I flew back to Rawalpindi, this time a direct flight across the sub-continent. Sadly, there had been not been enough time, nor had I enough cash left in any currency, to visit either Chittagong or the Sundarbans, the home of the Royal Bengal Tigers, in the south west of East Pakistan. What with one thing and another, my mid-tour leave had been a bit of an expensive disaster.

Before another year passed, a war would be fought between India and Pakistan as a result of which a number of my Pakistani Air Force friends would be killed on active service. As a result, East Pakistan became the self-governing independent country of Bangladesh and the Western spelling of Dacca was changed to Dhaka (a Bengali word that is difficult for Europeans to pronounce correctly - try saying the initial 'Dh' with your tongue trapped between your teeth).

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