Dhaka has a festive air about it. The sports-loving nation is hosting the cricket World Cup for the first time and nationalism is at the fore, uniting people otherwise divided on issues more than one. The Bangladeshi flag is aflutter from every corner of the city.
The flags rekindle Qayyum Khan’s memories of the night that changed Bangladesh’s fate forever. “It was a gut-wrenching moment,” says the Gulshan-resident employed as managing director at a French multinational company’s Dhaka office, recalling Pakistan Army’s crackdown on unsuspecting civilians on March 25, 1971. “We had to bring down the Bangladesh flag from the rooftop following instructions of the marauding army. We did not know what to do with it. We could not burn or throw it and keeping it was like inviting Pakistan army to kill us, who could knock at our door any moment,” says Khan, who was a student at Dhaka University then. “So, I put the flag in a plastic bag and hid it inside the water tank.”
March Massacre: Operation Searchlight
‘Maybe hell is like that,” says Khan. “Gunshots and cries rent the air. The slums were set on fire and fleeing people were shot at. From the rooftop, we saw Dhaka skyline was lit. There was fire everywhere. It was an unending night,” recalls Khan, who later joined as officer in Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and was trained in India.
President Yahya Khan left at around 1800 hours with instructions that Operation Searchlight should begin only after he had landed in Karachi. At around 2200 hours, army jeeps, trucks and tanks began moving into the city. The flimsy barricades that the people had set up using tree trunks were no hurdle for the attackers armed with rifles, automatic weapons, canons and tank main guns who went on a killing spree—Dhaka University, East Pakistan Rifles lines and East Pakistan Police lines being the principal targets.
And like Nero who watched Rome burn playing the lyre, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is said to have watched Dhaka burn from his top-floor suite of Inter-Continental hotel, now Sheraton. The Pakistani Peoples’ Party leader had refused to let Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to form the government of undivided Pakistan even though Awami League had secured a landslide victory —167 of 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan, majority of the 313 National Assembly seats — in 1970 elections.
“I was stranded with 42 foreign journalists (who were soon deported) at the hotel and we saw the carnage from a top-floor suite,” recalls Moudud Ahmed, a National Assembly member. The barrister is a former Prime Minister and vice-President of Bangladesh and, after a couple of switchovers, is now a leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s principal opposition. “The journalists wanted to speak to Mr Bhutto whose suite was in the same floor. But his aide, Salman Taseer (governor of Punjab in Pakistan who was assassinated on January 4, 2011), said he was sleeping.”
Sleeping when the whole of Dhaka is burning? “Oh! No. He was sipping his favourite Royal Salute whiskey and enjoying the view from the top-floor window!” says Ahmed.
It was West Pakistan power centre’s revenge on the people of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, for refusing to accept discrimination of any form—social, economic and political. The “fault” of the people of East Pakistan was that they demanded fair treatment on a par with West Pakistan. They were secular in a state where leaders were fundamentalists. Not just revenge, it was a tactic for the Pakistan establishment to cripple the East so that it never dared to raise its voice. But, that boomeranged. What had begun as a language and culture movement (after Urdu was forced as national language, even for the Bengali-speaking East, and Rabindranath Tagore was banned), soon became a political movement and, after March 25, a full-fledged liberation war.
The carnage that began on March 25 and continued in the months leading to the Liberation had about three million people dead.
Clarion Call: independence Declaration
There is much controversy as to who should be given the credit of declaring independence. The Awami League has maintained, and what the popular belief is, that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence before he was arrested in the wee hours of March 26. “He had made the announcement on the radio and also in a written communiqué. I had got a copy of the written declaration,” says former law minister and Supreme Court lawyer Abdul Matin Khasru. He was a member of the Chhatra League, the students’ body of Awami League, in 1971.
The other view, fuelled by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by former-President late Ziaur Rahman, is that it was Rahman, an army major then, who made independence declaration. “I was at a tea garden in Sylhet when I heard Major Zia’s voice. Everybody heard him. Nobody heard Sheikh Mujib,” recalls BNP leader Ahmed, who was once a close aide of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Ahmed and his family had fled Dhaka after the crackdown. “He (Zia) made the declaration twice, 27th and 30th March. The second time, he said he was making the declaration on behalf of the Bongobondhu. He must be given the credit for this, even though it was Sheikh Mujib who was the national leader, someone who took the nation toward liberation.”
However, the fact that no one has denied is Major Rahman’s appeal to the people to fight against the might of Pakistan Army brought a ray of hope to the people who were thrown into a chaos following the sudden start of massacre. This was the first voice that suggested that resistance had begun. Swadheen Bangla Betar Kendro (Free Bangladesh Radio Centre), a nascent radio channel that broadcast the declaration, was in itself one of the first forms of organised protests. “That voice was very important at that moment,” recalls human rights’ activist Sharmeen Murshid. “It was a clarion call and the youths wanted to respond to it. They left their homes to join the war,” she adds.
“In any case, it does not matter who declared independence and when. Our struggle for independence began with the crackdown on March 25,” points out Khan, who joined Mukti Bahini in April and was initially trained at the Motinagar Mukti Bahini camp under 4 East Bengal Regiment.
Fleeing Death: Refugee Crisis
“They had already announced in the radio that my parents were killed on March 25 crackdown,” says Murshid, who was 15 then. “My parents were in Pakistan Army’s target list, but our family miraculously escaped. We had no choice but to leave Dhaka.” Her father Khan Sarwar Murshid taught at Dhaka University and they lived in the campus, one of the targets of the crackdown. Her mother Nurjahan was an Awami League leader, one of the two first women to be elected members of East Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1954.
Murshid, her three siblings and parents crossed one village after another, across the rivers, stayed with relatives, finally making it into Agartala in northeast India. “I still remember the day we crossed the border. Father said let’s go back. Mother said it would be suicidal. They had tears in their eyes. They stood at the border holding the soil of the country in their fists for a long time. Our only question then was, will we be able to come back home, ever?”
Murshid was luckier than many others when she reached Agartala in northeast India —thanks to her mother’s childhood friend, Sobha Mashi (Sobha Aunty), who had come from Kolkata (Calcutta then), to help the refugees. Born in India, her mother Nurjahan studied in Calcutta University. She had left India with her family during the 1947 Partition. “Sobha Mashi, the only name by which I knew her, was god-send at a time when we were tired after such a long journey, sick with typhoid.”
Murshid recalls how her mother had only one pair of clothing, the one she was wearing when they left home. “Sobha Mashi gave my mother a fresh saree, petticoat and blouse.” Not only clothes and food, Sobha also volunteered to keep the sick children with her while the parents went back to the country, regrouped with friends and joined the liberation movement.
Back in Bangladesh, Dhaka had become a ghost town with almost all its 700,000 people having left, says Kaiser Haq, well-known English poet and English professor at Dhaka University. An undergraduate student in 1971, Haq joined Mukti Bahini as an officer in Sector 7.
As violence spread to other parts of the country India opened its 4023 km (2,500 miles) border with Bangladesh for people trying to escape the Pakistan Army’s atrocities. Refugee camps came up in the bordering states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura to make room for 10 million Bangladeshis, majority of them Hindus. Mounting refugee pressure prompted India to pass a resolution in Parliament on March 31, 1971 to support the cause of Bangladesh.
“Refugee camps were full of people who survived to tell horror stories,” recalls Lubna Marium. Marium, her sister Naila and Murshid would visit the camps as part of a group of travelling musicians, Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Sangstha formed during this time. They composed and sang songs of freedom and nationalism. In the camps, there were women raped and widowed, gang-raped girls too shocked to speak; old men and women who had taken arduous journey from their homes to save their lives; children orphaned and injured. Danseuse and cultural activist, Lubna was 17. Her father Lt Col Nuruzzaman and brother Nadeem were at the war front.
Exiled Democracy: Government In Exile
Murshid’s parents regrouped with their friends and joined the Provisional Government of People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the government in exile based in Calcutta. “My mother became roving ambassador and was involved in creating international opinion and father joined the planning commission. And, while my brother joined the publication cell, my sister joined the Swadheen bangle Betar Kendro.”
A number of resistance leaders like Tajuddin, Nazrul Islam, Mansur Ali, A.H.M. Qamaruzzaman and Col M.A.G Osmani began visiting Calcutta in early April. On 10th April, the senior Awami League leaders and others who had defected from the civil and armed services formed a government. “I would meet them to discuss a wide range of projections,” says Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob, who was the chief of staff, Eastern Command, at that time. “Tajuddin asked me to give him a draft declaration. I prepared a short draft and gave it to him, which was taken to legal experts and rewritten. This declaration was eventually issued on April 17,” says the retired Indian army general — a Calcutta born Jew who decided to join the army in 1941 appalled by the holocaust and inspired by war poets like AE Housman and Julian Grenfell.
On April 17, the Mujibnagar Government, as it came to be known, was formally sworn in at a ceremony held at Baidyanathtala, renamed Mujibnagar (Mujib’s city) in Meherpur, northwest Bangladesh. “The Bangladesh flag was hoisted and National Anthem ‘Amar sonar Bangla’ was sung. I was there to give my salute and guard of honour to the new government,” says Md Alimuddin Mandal, a freedom fighter who was present at the ceremony.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, still in prison, was appointed the President of Bangladesh. Syed Nazrul Islam became the acting president; Tajuddin Ahmed, Prime Minister; Qamaruzzaman, minister of home affairs; Khondakar Mostaq Ahmed, minister of foreign affairs and law; M. Mansur Ali, finance minister and Colonel M.A.G Osmani, the Commander in Chief of Bangladesh Army. The government operated out of 8 Shakespeare Sarani (Theatre Road) in Calcutta. Soon after, the Mukti Bahini was organised into sectors and brigades.
Of poets and Peasants: The mukti Bahini
Kaiser Haq was a poet even in college. In January, 1971, he was one of the winners of the All-Pakistan Poetry Competition organised by the USIS and becoming a soldier had not even seemed like a remote possibility then. Yet, when the time came, he wielded the gun instead of the pen. “The crackdown forced us to face this existential choice,” he says.
In May Haq left his village home near Bhulta, 12 miles from Dhaka, with three cousins and two distant uncles. They lied that they were visiting relatives so as not to arouse suspicion. It was a long trek, through villages, fields, tea gardens, past the Meghna river; and when they reached Agartala, a grocer was gracious enough to allow them to sleep on the shop floor. A memorable train journey brought him to north Bengal, where he met Qayyum Khan, another Dhaka University student who was also selected as Second Lieutenant in Sector 7 under sector commander Col Nuruzzaman. Both Khan and Haq trained as officers Murti in Jalpaiguri district of north Bengal, India, before being commissioned on October 9.
Along with his change of lungi – a sarong-kind garment worn around the waist by men—Haq had carried with him an anthology of modern poetry, edited by John Wain, a book called The Age of the Guerrilla and the 1964 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Laying siege of Khanpur and face-to-face combat with the enemy are stories that the poet now plans to bring out in a book with two other freedom fighters from his sector.
Like Khan and Haq, people of all walks of life, mostly farmers and students, came forward to join the war. Over 100,000 youths were recruited for the Mukti Bahini guerrilla warfare. “Our job was to make every bush, river, canal, street hazardous for the Pakistan army; fight the army wherever we can. In short, make Pakistan army’s life hell. In our training in India we were told: ‘Only way to succeed is if you can surprise the enemy’,” says Khan.
Though the Mukti Bahini were the war heroes, they had their share of sufferings and setbacks. Recounting a particularly distressing period, Khan says: “April to June was bad time for Mukti Bahini. Pakistan Army had taken control of East Pakistan. During this time about 20,000 volunteers were trained for one-three weeks, organised in small groups, armed with some grenades and pistols and sent to war. Like sacrificial lambs, they were all killed. I feel terrible about this more so because there are no records of these men, who were mostly farmers and simple village boys.”
From August, events took a turn and trained freedom fighters were infiltrated into East Pakistan. “By the end of November, some 50,000 Mukti Joddhas were infiltrated,” says Lt Gen J. F.R. Jacob, who was overseeing the operations. “They attacked and harassed Pakistani armed and paramilitary forces. They destroyed communication network, blew up bridges and railway tracks. Very successfully, they were able to instil fear into the rank and file of Pakistan Army, which had a crushing effect on their morale. They also gained control over some areas. Despite inadequate training and insufficient junior leaders, the Mukti Bahini fought with courage and determination, which played a major role in leading to the surrender of Pakistan,” he adds.
While Haq returned and finished his studies, Khan continued in the army for 10 more years before quitting in the mayhem following the assassination of Ziaur Rahman.
Neighbourhood Tales: India joins in
Gen Jacob recalls that it was the first week of April that he got a phone from Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who was the Chief of the Army Staff at that time, saying that the government wanted the army to immediately move into Bangladesh. “I said it’s not possible. We had mountain division, which is neither equipped nor trained to handle riverine warfare. Plus, the approaching monsoon would make the terrain difficult. He called again the next morning and said the bureaucrats were saying that the army was being a coward. I said, yes, go say we are cowards. I told him that it was possible to move India forces not before November 15, after training and properly equipping them.”
In the following months India worked on building infrastructure. “From May, right through the monsoons we worked on building the logistics and creating the infrastructure without any official order,” says Jacob.
By November the build-up was complete and talks were on to launch an attack on December 4. “Fortunately, Pakistan bombed our airfields in the west on December 3 (triggering off the 13-day India-Pakistan War),” adds the general.
Niazi’s Tears: War & Surrender
“This is a smirk, not exactly a smile,” says Gen Jacob pointing at his face in the photograph in which he is standing behind Pakistan army commander Lt Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi signing on a document, seated beside his Indian counterpart Lt Gen JJ Aurora. It was December 16, 1971, and the occasion was the public surrender by the Pakistan army in Dhaka. He had just “blackmailed” (a term used by Niazi later on) Niazi into surrendering with 93,000 prisoners of war. He had also proven his bosses wrong.
Alluding to Horatio Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye, Gen. Jacob says he ignored orders of his bosses to make India’s victory possible. “The war plan that was given in writing asked us to focus on Khulna and Chittagong, and not Dhaka as I had suggested,” says the General, who is now working on his second book Odyssey in War and Peace, on his life and experiences at war. When he was refused troops for Dhaka, he brought in three brigades from Chinese border, infuriating Manekshaw who ordered them to be taken back. “But I was firm on capturing Dhaka and it was only after five full days I got the order to deploy them on December 8.”
By December 13, the Indian Army was in the outskirts of Dhaka bypassing all major towns. The United Nations’ Security Council in session and there were apprehensions that India will be forced to accept a ceasefire, especially because Soviet Union had made it clear that there would be no more vetoes, recalls Jacob. Manekshaw then asked him to go back and capture all bypassed towns; again, leaving out Dhaka. “Aurora told me that my head would be on the chopping block,” laughs Jacob.
“The same day, I got through to Niazi on wireless and offered him generous terms if he surrendered,” recalls Jacob. On December 14 evening Niazi handed over proposal of ceasefire and cessation of hostilities under UN to American Consul General Spivack. When the message was given to Bhutto in New York at the Security Council meeting the next day, he tore up the resolution and left after shouting at the meeting that they would never surrender but fight to the end.
“Jake, go and get a surrender,” Manekshaw reportedly told Jacob on December 16 morning. “Armed with an instrument of surrender that I had drafted, but was yet to be confirmed, I set out for Dhaka. UN representatives met me and said they were joining to arrange the ceasefire and withdrawal of Pakistan troops. I thanked them and refused their help. The Mukti Bahini and Pakistanis were fighting on the streets and also attacked our Pakistan staff car.”
When the draft instrument of surrender was read out, tears rolled down Niazi’s cheeks and he said, ‘Who said I am surrendering? You have only come to discuss ceasefire and withdrawal as proposed by me’, recounts Jacob. “I told them that if they surrendered, the government of India has given a word that it will ensure their safety, that of their families, ethnic minorities and other civilians. If you don’t, we can take no responsibility. Niazi was quiet and I said, ‘I cannot give you better terms’, and left saying I’ll be back in 30 minutes.”
In the next 30 minutes that Jacob spent pacing outside, conversing with a Pakistani sentry, he was thinking of what to do if Niazi says no. “I was in a quandary. Pakistan had 26,400 troops in Dhaka and we only 3000 some 30 miles out!”
“When I returned to the room, there was dead silence. I asked Niazi if he accepted the document. I asked him thrice and he was quiet. Then I picked up the document and said, ‘I take it as accepted’.”
Tears kept rolling down Niazi’s cheeks. In four hours the ceasefire proposal was converted into a surrender, a public surrender—only one in history— at the Race Course grounds.
Many said Niazi’s nerve broke and he gave into Jacob’s bluff. Niazi told Pakistan government’s enquiry that he was blackmailed into surrendering by Jacob. Whatever it was, history was made and Bangladesh was born.
Jacob says he was aghast when he took a look at the documents when they were being signed by Niazi and Aurora. “The heading read ‘Instrument of Surrender— to be signed at 1631 IST’. I looked at my watch (an Omega gold watch, Seiko bellmatic with an alarm, bought in Bangkok). It was 1655.”
An edited French translation of this story was published in Asies in their May 2011 issue with the headline Le jour où est né le bangladesh.