They were days of horror in Bangladesh. It was a land under occupation by Pakistan’s soldiers, who had made it their macabre mission to snuff out the spirit of Bengali nationalism.
The undisputed leader of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, abducted by the military in March, languished in solitary confinement in distant (West) Pakistan. His constitutional advisor Kamal Hossain was in similar circumstances.
Putting Bengali Aspirations to the Torch
Those were times of medieval darkness in the land. Even as Bangabandhu’s associates shaped a guerrilla strategy for national liberation, the occupation army fanned out across the country on its mission of murder, pillage and rape. It had no dearth of supporters, or call them agents, to assist it in its mission of putting Bengali aspirations to the torch. The ‘peace committees’ comprising right-wing political figures, those which had never acknowledged the requirement of political rights for their fellow Bengalis, cheerfully linked themselves with the army.
Throughout the country, these ‘peace committee’ men went around calling for Pakistan’s ideology, whatever it was, to be upheld and for ‘conspiracies against the integrity and unity of Pakistan’ to be resisted. To these elements, the Mukti Bahini were miscreants, the Indians were aggressors against Pakistan. It was of little or no consequence that the army as well as the Razakar vigilantes, in the shape of al-Badr and al-Shams, was busy murdering Bengalis. It was Pakistan which was important and for that importance to be emphasised over and over again, it was essential that any Bengali who espoused his own nationalism was put to death.
Throughout the country, in its hamlets and villages and towns, the soldiers went looking for the Muktis, as they referred to the freedom fighters. They found precious few Muktis, but they had plenty of fun shooting elderly men, parents and relatives of the young men who had made a beeline for the Mukti Bahini and were busy putting up resistance to the army. And these soldiers, with the villainous collaboration of the ‘peace committees’ and the razakars, came away from these operations with young women they meant to ravish.
And ravish these women they did, in the many cantonments and camps of the military. All through 1971, besides the millions murdered, 200,000 young Bengali women, Muslims and Hindus, were raped. A vast majority of these women were made pregnant, giving birth to war babies in the weeks and months following the end of the war.
Days of Fear
Those were days of fear. Life under occupation was every day an experience which rested on the belief that death was at the door. The soldiers clamped curfews and blackouts in the towns and cities. Under cover of curfew they conducted a search of neighbourhoods, taking away the young men they found at home with their families. On the streets, they stopped Bengalis, asking them rudely if they were Hindus or Muslims. They had been told by their officers in Rawalpindi and Lahore and Peshawar and Quetta that ‘East Pakistan’ was infested with Hindus determined to cause Pakistan’s destruction.
When they stopped the Bengali young on the streets, they asked them to recite the kalima and then to raise the slogan of ‘Pakistan zindabad’. There were those embarrassing moments when many of the Bengali men they stopped on the streets were asked to strip, for the soldiers needed to see if they had been circumcised. That way, they made sure that these men were Muslims.
The soldiers never pretended to be polite, not even to their collaborators. They turned up in villages, looking for Hindus and Awami League supporters to kill. In many villages where they expected to come across these ‘enemies of Pakistan’, they came upon venerable old Muslim men engaged in prayers.
The record speaks of a teenaged soldier who, traumatised after all the killing missions he was part of, went back to the Punjab along with his fellow 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war from India, told his mother he could not recount the horrors he had seen and participated in. He lapsed into silence, spent his days in penitence in prayers.
But not everyone was like this teenaged soldier. They demanded, at many points in the occupied country, that people produce their ‘dundee cards’. These soldiers, with the bare minimum of education, could not pronounce the term ‘identity card’. In a number of instances, clever young Bengalis showed them their ration cards, which these soldiers actually believed were ‘dundee cards’.
In internal exile, sixty-five million people — ten million had already crossed over to India as refugees — lived in constant fear of death. The sudden entry of the soldiers into a locality, the fearsome knocking on doors, terrified families quickly and in panic doing all they could to hide their young daughters somewhere in the house —- these were the realities people lived through.
A Dark Hint
There was Shwadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (Radio Free Bengal) people discreetly listened to for news from the battlefield. Programmes like Jollader Dorbar and Charampatra injected enthusiasm among people. Every programme began with Bangabandhu’s call to freedom, the concluding part of his oration at the 7 March rally at the Race Course — ebarer shongram amader muktir shongram, ebarer shongram shadhinotar shongram.
An entire nation prayed for Bangabandhu even though no one had any clue as to his whereabouts in (West) Pakistan. When in early August, a terse announcement was made on Radio Pakistan about his imminent trial on charges of waging war against Pakistan, sentiments among Bengalis were two-fold.
On the one hand, it was confirmation of the fact that the Father of the Nation was alive; and on the other it was a dark hint that the Yahya Khan junta was preparing to put him to death after a sham trial. In November, at the time of Eid-ul-Fitr, every Bengali prayed for Bangabandhu. Families stayed away from Eid celebrations. Every Bengali heart was burdened with sorrow.
Academics Rounded Up
The abductions and the killings went on. Army trucks patrolled the streets, made rounds of the Dhaka University area. A good number of academics had already been done to death in the early phase of the genocide, but that did not bring an end to the killings. Teachers continued to be rounded up and those who had left Dhaka or stayed away from classes were warned to return to their jobs.
Not many heeded the warning. Meanwhile, martial law courts began the process of trying the leading figures of the freedom struggle in absentia and pronouncing judgment swiftly on them. They were all sentenced to fourteen years’ rigorous imprisonment and their properties were declared confiscated.
Seized and Not to be Seen Again
The collaborationist politicians remained hyperactive through the nine months of the war. They met Tikka Khan in the early phase of the war, doing obeisance to him. Rao Farman Ali busily planned a liquidation of an increasing number of intellectuals. When AAK Niazi came, these collaborators shamelessly offered him their services.
At Demra and Tarabo, on the banks of the Sitalakhya, the army set up check-posts, where every Bengali intending to cross the river was subjected to rigorous questioning. Students were a particular target. Many of them were simply seized and taken away to detention, not to be seen again.
Darul Kabab, Occupiers Enjoying Life
It was a reign of terror which hung upon the land like a blanket emitting ugly odours. The capital Dhaka was almost empty of families, most of whom had made their way to their villages in search of safety. In many ways, Dhaka was a ghost city. But that did not prevent the soldiers from enjoying life in the occupied country. Every evening officers of different ranks gathered at Darul Kabab, a kabab shop situated opposite what is now Hotel Sonargaon.
On one occasion, a newly married Bengali couple (their marriage had taken place in February) turned up there to have some snacks. The young wife, a beautiful Bengali, realised soon enough that the army officers were looking at her intently. She quickly persuaded her husband into taking her home. They never had any kabab there.
Siddik Salik's Visit to Newspaper Offices
Those were times dreaded by a captive population. The newspapers dished out false propaganda about normalcy returning to ‘East Pakistan’, but Bengalis came by authentic news through tuning in, carefully and surreptitiously, to All-India Radio, the BBC and the Voice of America.
Siddik Salik, the spokesperson of the Pakistan army at ISPR, made it a point to visit newspaper offices to instruct editors on what they needed to do. His work, Witness to Surrender, was applauded by many when it was published after the war. People thought he was a gentleman. The reality was quite different. In 1971, he was a harsh military man Bengali editors and journalists were afraid of.
The Fishes had Feasted on the Dead
In 1971, people stayed away from consuming such fish as the hilsa. With so many corpses of Bengalis dumped in the rivers in the course of the war, there was the natural fear that the fish had feasted on the dead. In the markets, which had a ghostly appearance, it was meat and vegetables people went for. As the war went on, the junta came forth with a so-called white paper listing the ‘crimes’ of the Awami League and Bangabandhu.
The details were carried over a number of days by the newspapers. No one took the ‘white paper’ seriously, in the way no one took a couple of pro-Pakistan university teachers seriously when they informed people on an all-expenses paid trip abroad on behalf of the army that there had been no genocide in ‘East Pakistan’ and that it was only the ‘miscreants’ of the Mukti Bahini who engaged in acts of sabotage.
'Wo To Shaheed Hogaye'
With the passage of time, the guerrillas of the Mukti Bahini began to cause terror among the soldiers in Dhaka itself. Bombs were detonated in the Intercontinental and at the Department of Films office in Shantinagar, blowing away half it. On the highway leading to Narsingdi, the guerrillas blew up the bridge at Panchrukhi, making it hard for the soldiers to link up with their platoons in the area.
Much a similar situation prevailed elsewhere in the country as the army, increasingly demoralised and especially losing ground effectively from November, went into retreat in diverse areas. Its internal radio communication was often cracked, with listeners hearing officers speaking of who among their fellow officers had been killed in operations against the Mukti Bahini. ‘Wo to shaheed hogaye (he has become a martyr)’ was a common refrain in those conversations.
Life under occupation was reflected in the poor attendance in the educational institutions. Schools and colleges had a paltry presence of students, many of whose teachers did not turn up because they had gone off to be part of the movement for liberation. The universities wore a desolate look because many of the academics there had already been killed or were unwilling to return to the classroom. A very large number of university students had abandoned classroom attendance and made their way to the war, where they joined the Mukti Bahini.
Left for Rawalpindi, Never to Return
In December, with the state of Pakistan crumbling, it was a cheering sight observing Indian planes in a clear Dhaka sky throw leaflets, in Bangla as well as English, asking the Pakistan army to surrender unconditionally. General Niazi boastfully told foreign journalists that the Indian army would take Dhaka over his dead body. He was very much alive when Dhaka fell to the Indians and the Mukti Bahini.
Two days before Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign state — and that was the time when the al-Badr and Razakars were rounding up Bengali intellectuals to kill — a Bengali right-wing politician who had been in the Ayub Khan regime as a minister, denigrated the emerging Bangladesh as an illegitimate child brought into life by India. Some others of his kind had already journeyed to Rawalpindi for consultations with Yahya Khan. They would not return because their ‘East Pakistan’ would perish on 16 December.
Life under occupation was transformed into life blossoming in liberty on the afternoon of 16 December, with a recitation of the poem ‘aaj srishti shukher ullashe’ broadcast on Dhaka Radio. It was followed by Abdul Jabbar’s tribute to Bangladesh through the song ‘hajar bochhor pore abar eshechhi phire/Banglar buuke achhi danrhiye.’
On the streets, as the Mukti Bahini and the troops of the Indian army poured into the city once the Pakistan forces had surrendered, full-throated slogans of Joi Bangla rent the air. The occupation was over. It was time to begin counting the dead and the missing.
All over the land flowed the tears of parents losing their children, of wives losing their husbands, of siblings looking for their brothers and sisters, of children not knowing where their fathers had been taken away by an army now vanquished and by collaborators now on the run from the free people of a free country.
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.