Memories of 1971, of a war

Published : 25 March 2016, 06:00 PM
Updated : 25 March 2016, 06:00 PM

Soon after the historic election of December 7, 1970, I along with three of my classmates from Rajshahi Cadet College (RCC), went to Lahore to study there on "Inter-Wing Scholarships."

Historically, Lahore was the epicentre of politics in Pakistan. A prestigious academic institution, Lahore Government College was the seat of higher education for many sons and daughters of the affluent landlords and elites of Pakistan.

Its alumni include the poet and philosopher Allama Iqbal, Nobel Laureates Dr. Abdus Salaam and Dr. Khurana (later an Indo-American medical scientist). Our classmates included a son of Hamoodur Rahman, at that time the Chief Justice of Pakistan. Hamoodur Rahman later headed the commission investigating the debacle of Pakistan in 1971.

In the dormitory of the college, an aura of feudal aristocracy prevailed. For every four students there was a servant who would keep the room and shoes clean and who would be ready to bring food from the cafeteria if anyone wanted.

Student leaders of our hall one day welcomed us and assured all help and promised to arrange items of fish on the menu – a great promise in Lahore. The teachers of Lahore Government College were friendly to us, especially the English teacher who invited us a few times to his office for tea. He told us that he often listened to Tagore songs.

One day, in our Mathematics class, the teacher, in the middle of his lecture, started lecturing in Urdu. He noticed us and inquired whether anyone didn't understand Urdu. I stood up and said that a few of us didn't understand Urdu.

Some Punjabi students murmured, "Why don't you understand Urdu?"

The teacher immediately switched to English which was the medium of instruction. There were some Punjabi students who were too innocent of what was going on in the political arena.

I still remember a student, who came from Sialkot, saying, "How can East Pakistan separate from West Pakistan? We have the same Koran, the same Kibla, the same prophet, and of course the same Islam."

I said to myself, the four identities essentially amounted to one. Students from the North-West Frontier Province, Baluchistan, and Sind at Lahore Government College eagerly welcomed the prospect of Mujib becoming the Prime Minister.

While we were in Lahore, an incident happened on January 30, 1971, which worsened India-Pakistan relations. A group of Kashmiri militants hijacked an Indian plane, brought it to Lahore and set it on fire. The people of Lahore in great jubilation welcomed the militants as heroes.

India immediately banned all Pakistani flights across its airspace. All flights to and from West Pakistan and East Pakistan were routed through Karachi and then over Sri Lanka.

One day, while we were shopping, a Punjabi businessman asked us whether we were from East Pakistan. As soon as we said yes, the man began to vilify Bengalis. Apparently, his business had been vandalised in Dhaka. He took a piece of paper and said, "You want independence, then have it."

We firmly but politely calmed him down and reminded him that "East Pakistanis are the majority demographically and now politically. We have no reason to ask for independence. If you West Pakistanis want independence, then go and tell your army generals."

The most surprising and memorable event in Lahore was our meeting with Major Khaled Adib, who had been our first Adjutant at Rajshahi Cadet College (RCC). After leaving RCC, he was posted at Lahore Cantonment. He invited us twice, once in Lahore Inter-Continental Hotel and another time probably in the Cantonment.

A truly broad-minded person, at one time during our conversation, he suddenly, made a statement which proved to be prescient:

"Gentlemen, East Pakistan soon is going to be an independent country. You should develop a very strong army."

We still couldn't figure out whether he had any advance information or he was saying this on the basis of his intuition.

On February 28, 1971, while we were in Lahore, Z.A. Bhutto gave what was politically his most combustible and demagogic speech at a mammoth public meeting in Lahore. I had thought about attending it.

Later, however, I abandoned the idea because occasionally we were jeered by the Punjabi people on the street – "Hey Bangali Babu!"

The political situation worsened sharply following the speech on March 1, 1971, by General Yahya, which essentially was a caving-in to pressure from Bhutto. He indefinitely postponed the scheduled meeting of the National Assembly, which was supposed to be held on March 3 in Dhaka.

Punjabi students in the Common Room thunderously applauded the speech of Yahya and thought Mujib would get his lesson soon. On March 7, the Common Room was packed to capacity to hear Mujib's speech. The speech was, however, not relayed on the day but the next morning in recorded form. Hearing the tough speech of Mujib, the Common Room fell into a complete silence.

Increasingly, it became clear to me that the days of a United Pakistan were numbered and that the existential crisis of Pakistan had reached a dead end. As far as I remember, on March 22, 1971, we decided to leave Lahore for Dhaka without telling the authorities of Lahore Government College.

We took a flight to Karachi, stayed overnight at the place of one of our friends in Karachi Cantonment. On March 23, a historic day indeed, we boarded our flight to Dhaka.

At Karachi Airport, an airport official asked, "Are you going to Dhaka to make Mujib's hands strong?"

One of us immediately retorted, "He is already strong."

On March 24, I left Dhaka for Kushtia to visit my eldest brother who was a doctor at the Kushtia Sadar Hospital. The next day, Pakistan's brutal "Operation Searchlight" began in Dhaka. Kushtia, although a small district at the time, became the bastion of the liberation forces.

For a brief account of the Liberation War in Kushtia, one can read the article, "The Battle of Kushtia," by the correspondent Dan Coggins, Time magazine, April 19, 1971.

As the Pakistani forces advanced toward Kushtia, probably on April 17, 1971, we took shelter in our maternal uncle's house in Khoksa (about 24 km south-east of Kushtia near Gorai river), where Rabindranath Tagore wrote a few poems.

For several months, we were stuck in Khoksa; my family members in Shibganj Upazilla under Chapai Nawabganj thought I was still trapped in Lahore!

One day, a gang of Biharis and other collaborators, escorted by Pakistani army personnel, came to Khoksa. Their main targets were Hindus, freedom fighters, and university students. I, along with my relative, took shelter in another village. Next day, we returned to my uncle's house.

With great risk, my uncle (who ironically was, in a way, a "persecuted Muslim" emigrant from Murshidabad) gave shelter to some prominent Hindu families. The Pakistani army and their collaborators took away some Hindus and killed several of them.

The next day, we went to a nearby sugarcane field where we saw two dead bodies with slit throats. The slaughtered men were innocent Hindus who used to make a living by carrying out menial jobs.

To me, after almost 44 years, those slit throats still evoke vivid yet horrific images of the barbarity of the Pakistani army.

In Khoksa, one day, I also went to see the bullet-ridden dead body of a local "Peace Committee" leader. Just a few days before he was killed, he showed us a letter containing a death threat from the Muktibahini.

In Kushtia, to use an expression of one of my favourite novelists, Charles Dickens, "I saw the best of times as well as the worst of times."

I saw the poorest of poor families serving cooked food for the liberation forces. I saw how in the absence of police and other government forces, for a brief period, a free Kushtia remained free from petty crime and also free from self-serving impulses.

I saw the worst of times when I saw those slit throats and when I learned that there was no shortage of collaborators whose job was to slaughter and torture their fellow human beings. It was as if, for some time, we were in a "Hobbesian jungle."

Probably at the end of August 1971, we decided to leave Khoksa and went to Chapai Nawabganj town where we stayed until the end of December.

The greatest moment, of course, came on December 16, 1971, when the Muktibahini liberated Chapai Nawabganj. While liberating Chapai Nawabganj, Bir Sreshstha Mohiuddin Jahangir was killed on December 14.

On December 16, the news quickly spread about officers of the liberation forces, which to my surprise and ecstasy, included Bazlur Rashid, a classmate from RCC.

I went to the makeshift headquarters of the liberation forces where I was overjoyed to meet with Bazlur Rashid. The commander of the liberation forces invited me as a special guest to the lunch party.

Bazlur Rashid, possibly with a few others, deserted the military academy in Pakistan, crossed the India-Pakistan border at enormous risk, and joined the Liberation War. From the information that I have, Bazlur Rashid served as the commander of one of the three groups assigned to liberate Chapai Nawabganj. He was the commander of sub-sector 6 (Sheikhpara) in Sector 7.

After a few years, when I met him at Dhaka Airport, he looked disgruntled and disillusioned. He left the Army and, as far as I know, worked at the Rural Electrification Board, and later unfortunately died.

Our joyous moment was punctuated by grim news. One of our cousins, a brilliant student of the engineering university in Dhaka (now BUET) became a martyr in the Liberation War, and was not among those hundreds of fighters who victoriously returned from the battlefields and entered Chapai Nawabganj.

I never had the courage to see my beloved Khala Amma and console her. As Victory Day approaches every year, I cannot but recall the imaginary stoic face of my Khala Amma.

Today, a hall named after him (Satu Hall) in Chapai Nawabganj, reminds us of his heroism and sacrifice.

As I philosophically reflect upon the events of 1971 and upon Victory Day, it appears that in the short run, self-delusional and power-hungry rulers can hang on to power through divide-and-rule, rhetoric, and deception, but in the long run the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil.

Yet the liberation struggle of Bangladesh is not complete.

Let the Liberation War remind us that a liberation struggle is not a "destination" but a "perpetual mission" against poverty, malnutrition, corruption, unequal access to educational opportunity, sub-human working conditions, exploitation, and illiteracy.

More importantly, let's keep up our "inner liberation struggle" by inclining our empathic mind-set toward the less fortunate.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher