Memories of a long-ago war …

As slogans of Joi Bangla continued to be heard all over the city, Bengalis wondered if Bangabandhu was alive or had been murdered by the army in Mianwali

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 15 Dec 2022, 04:25 PM
Updated : 15 Dec 2022, 04:25 PM

I was sixteen in 1971, studying in the Senior Cambridge class at St. Francis Grammar School in Quetta, Pakistan. Between the general election of December 1970 and March 1971, I was happy at the prospect of a Bengali political leader, BangabandhuSheikh Mujibur Rahman, taking over as Pakistan’s Prime Minister in Islamabad. His party had won the election, so it was natural to expect him to be the country’s new leader. 

At home, in the room where my brother and I slept (it also served as a drawing room), I had Bangabandhu’s portrait, which I had earlier acquired from the Baluchistan office of the AwamiLeague, pinned to the wall. To all our neighbours  -- and they were all Urdu-speaking Mohajirs, Punjabis, Sindhis and Pathans -- we explained why Mujib was important and how much of a positive impact he would have on Pakistan as its elected leader.

MAR 26, 1971:

All day long, my father and I waited for the much anticipated speech which General Yahya Khan, President of Pakistan, was expected to make in the evening on a transfer of power. We had no idea that he had come back to West Pakistan, that the Pakistan army had in the night just gone by launched a genocide in East Pakistan. So when Yahya came on the air (we had the radio to listen to him), we were utterly shocked at what he had to say. An immense pall of darkness came over us, over every Bengali family in Quetta.

When I went to school the next day, I could notice the palpable pleasure on the faces of some of my classmates. The Bengalis had been taken care of, they seemed to say. As for myself, I was spoiling for a fight, whenever it came.


It was a weekly holiday when I made my way to the newspaper stand in the centre of Quetta. That was a habit I had developed over the preceding couple of years, especially since I waited for the weekly Herald magazine to appear. On that particular day, when I approached the newspaper vendor, my eyes fell on the front pages of the newspapers, Urdu and English. There before me was the picture of Bangabandhu under arrest at Karachi airport. Two policemen stood on either side of him. 

It broke my heart. Here was the elected leader of the country, a man who should have been in power but was now a prisoner far removed from his own Bengal. I bought copies of Dawn and the Pakistan Times and rushed home, to give the newspapers to my father. He looked immensely sad at the sight of Bangabandhu in that picture, but again, he was relieved that Bangabandhu was alive. All of us had been worried that the Pakistan army might have murdered him. But our worries did not actually cease. Where had the junta taken Bangabandhu from Karachi airport?


That things were not going well for Pakistan’s soldiers in Bangladesh was becoming quite obvious. Almost every day, beginning in May, vehicles carrying the corpses of dead soldiers went past my school. The men had all died in Bangladesh, in action and at the hands of fledgling Bengali guerrillas. 

I enjoyed it all, and each day my belief that Bangladesh would be independent was reinforced. But I was often weighed down by worries about when the day of freedom would come. I got into arguments with my classmates, particularly the Punjabi ones. An incident took place where I angrily tore the picture of Mohammad Ali Jinnah off a page in my history textbook. A classmate had dared me to do it and I did it. Soon enough, it got reported to the principal, a Dutch missionary. He called me and asked me sternly if I had insulted the ‘father of the nation’. I answered in the negative, upon which he told me I had insulted the picture of Jinnah. I told him our father of the nation was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and he was in jail. I had not insulted him!

The principal looked at me for a few seconds, before telling me to go back to class. He decreed no punishment for me, except to say that I should be careful.

Towards the end of May, I first learned that a government-in-exile with Tajuddin Ahmad as prime minister had been formed. It was a report, none too kindly disposed to Tajuddin, who was referred to as prime minister of ‘so-called Bangladesh’, in Dawnthat raised my spirits. My father too was happy that the government had been formed. In a mood of defiance, I told my classmates and some of my teachers that we Bengalis had a government, that we were no more citizens of Pakistan.

JULY 1971

At the railway station in Quetta, minutes before my family boarded Bolan Mail for Karachi, from where we would go by a PIA flight to Dhaka (my father had convinced his office to give him a transfer as my grandfather was all alone in our village and there was no way of communicating with him in those fraught times), I told my classmates who came to bid me goodbye that the next time we met, I would be a citizen of a free Bangladesh. They looked sad. We parted on friendly terms.

At Karachi airport, security subjected us, especially me, to rigorous checking. On the long, circuitous flight all across the western and eastern coasts of India, we saw that the aircraft was full of men in western suits and not one of them was a Bengali. Once the plane landed at Tejgaon airport late on a rainy evening, we suddenly realized we had been travelling with the enemy. All those fellow passengers were being saluted by Pakistan military officers, which was enough to tell us that they were senior officers come to serve in occupied Bangladesh.

AUGUST 1971:

At the army checkpost in Demra, a Pakistani army officer checked my father and me. We were going to our village Noagaon to see my grandfather, my dada. I was not inclined to be friendly with the officer, who asked me in Urdu, ‘kis class mein parhte ho (in which class do you study?)’ Of course I knew Urdu, but I told him, ‘I don’t understand Urdu’. He looked at me, thought for a while, and then waved us through.

In the same month, my uncle, Arun Mama, took me to my mother’s village. On the way back, we spotted no boats or launches that could take us down the river Sitalakhya to Ghorashal, from where we would catch a train for Dhaka. We walked all the way, all along the Sitalakhya, in driving rain and sudden bursts of sunlight, until we reached Ghorashal. No trains were operating. We walked to Narsingdi and then found that no buses were operating. We then walked on, all the way to Dhaka. Only when we reached Pak Motor (today Bangla Motor) did Arun Mama and I get on to a rickshaw, for eight annas or half a rupee, to reach home in Malibagh.


I did not go out of our house on the day General Niazisurrendered. But the next day, my friend Manju and I, along with an uncle of his, ventured out. On the road beside the President’s House (later Ganabhaban) we came across a crowd looking at two dead Pakistani soldiers. Someone had stuffed a cigarette between the lips of one of the soldiers. The other dead soldier had his head smashed in.

We went past the Race Course, where jubilation was in full swing, and soon reached Governor’s House (later Bangabhaban). The Mukti Bahini were everywhere. Everyone was hugging them and shaking hands with them. The guards there would not let anyone in because the place was in bad shapeafter all the bombing by Indian fighter jets. But he reassured us: ‘This is our house now. Once we have cleaned it of all the debris, feel free to come back.’

Near Mouchak Market in Malibagh, as I made my way back home, I saw a group of young men suddenly stop a rickshaw and pounce on a passenger, a man dressed in white shirt and white trousers and wearing sunglasses. They pulled him down and began to beat him up. It soon emerged that he was a collaborator, a razakar who had pushed many Bengalis to deep trouble by his misdeeds.

I went home. In the evening, slogans of Joi Bangla continued to be heard all over the city.

All of us wondered if Bangabandhu was alive or had been murdered by the army in Mianwali.