FE Today Logo

An ordeal in March, 1971

A Qayyum Khan | March 26, 2023 00:00:00

I wanted to find Sheikh Kamal or information about him. I couldn't enter Road 32 as both ends were sealed off so I walked to Sat Masjid Road and reached the large sports field (the field is now known as the Abahani ground). At the bus stand, a small detachment of soldiers were keeping an eye on the populace. I had walked past the bus stand a couple of times and this had not escaped the eyes of the Punjabi junior commissioned officer (JCO) who was in charge. He called me over and started asking me questions. My heart froze. I think my answers were incoherent. Before I could say anything else he said "Student? Sit down here!" and made me sit on the pavement. My mind was racing. What will they do to me? My friend, Sajjad Rahman who lived across the street had seen the entire thing from his verandah (Dr. Sajjadur Rahman lives in Ottawa and works for the Canadian Government Aid Agency, CIDA). What he did next was very brave but also foolhardy. He crossed the street to where the JCO stood and addressed the man in an assertive tone: "Why have you detained him? Let him go! I know him!" and that too in Bengali! he JCO was not impressed and barked back, "What's the matter with you? You don't know any Urdu? You too sit down with him! Chalo"! Sajjad sat down meekly. I was now totally shell-shocked. My friends Quazi Ali Anwar (Helal) and Shaukat Osman appeared and were staring at us but I quietly signaled them with my eyes to keep moving and not stop. They complied. A few minutes later, a 3-ton army truck pulled up. It was packed with civilians; all Bengali men of various ages. The JCO tried to put us on the truck but you couldn't squeeze in an additional child. Frustrated he said in Urdu: "Okay, the next one, then!"

Immediately, my survival instincts took over. If we didn't get away by the time the next truck arrived we would be dead. I got up and addressed the JCO in Urdu: "Sir! I am a Bihari; my father migrated here from Patna (India) in 1947 and I am a Khan, sir" and showed him the fake identity card I carried which said I was a clerk in my father's company (After March 1, many of my friends including me carried ID cards from companies where they had connections through friends and relatives. This was necessary because the army was checking for students and being a student meant trouble of some sort). Then I began a tirade against Bengalis. Sajjad was dumbfounded and was staring at me open- mouthed but before he could say anything I said, "And although my friend here is a Bengali, he is a true and loyal Pakistani!" All that nonsense and that too in accent-free Urdu must have been agreeable to the JCO because after what couldn't have been more than a few seconds, but felt like forever, he said: "Thik hein, tum double se chalay jao!"

I had never felt more relieved which is why we were a bit slow to start and were walking away when a shout prompted us to start running, half expecting them to shoot us in the back. But nothing happened and Sajjad was inside his house in no time as I sprinted to Shaukat's house in Road 8A. Shaukat told me later he had never seen anyone down two bottles of water in one go. I was in no condition to walk, so Shaukat's father drove me to my uncle's at Road 31.

Once home, I told everyone about my ordeal. I was badly affected. My hands would shake, and I had difficulty swallowing. I saw danger everywhere. Curfew was back in place and along with curfew came sporadic firing. Every time I heard gunfire my heart would start pounding. That night, I left my room and crept into my parents' bed!


We were stuck inside because of the curfew and the only thing to do was to scan the frequencies on the radio. I could not overcome the thought of what was going to happen to our dreams of freedom and an independent Bangladesh with so much death and destruction. Then, I accidentally tuned into a weak station that could barely be heard and it was calling itself Shadhin Bangla Betar (Radio of Free Bengal)! My spirits rose. All was not lost. We had our radio station, but where was it? It announced that Major Ziaur Rahman would come on the air shortly. Who was Major Zia? Ziaur Rahman made his speech in English. He declared Bangladesh an independent country and stated that he was its acting President. Subsequently, he made a modified announcement in which he said he was declaring independence on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Zia's announcement was a great morale booster. At least some Bengali soldiers had revolted and were fighting against the Pakistan Army.

8 East Bengal under Major Ziaur Rahman and EPR under Major Rafiqul Islam fought several pitched battles with the Pakistanis in Chittagong inflicting substantial casualties on the enemy although the trainees and the Chief Instructor of the East Bengal Regimental Centre, Lieutenant Colonel M. R. Chowdhury were killed on the night of March 25/26. One significant battle was in the Kalurghat bridge area where the Pakistanis airlifted a commando battalion in helicopters for the operation (Lieutenant Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, older brother of my classmate Shahan, was injured in this battle and was captured by the Pakistan Army). General Mittha who had been in East Pakistan since the Larkana meeting personally commanded the Pakistanis in this operation. He was ably assisted by a Bengali officer, Major Abdul Mannan, who was picked up by helicopter from Comilla by Mittha.

In Dacca, the following morning [March 28, 1971], curfew broke for a couple of hours and again the same scene: people scrambling from one neighbourhood to another; stocking up on provisions; thousands leaving the city in a mass exodus; and so on. And every night there was gun fire. Details of the dreadful night of March 25/26 began to emerge.

The Pakistan army had demolished the Central Shaheed Minar in the Dacca University campus as if that would wipe away its glorious history. There were big fire fights in the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) barracks in Peelkhana and the Rajarbagh Police Lines where the Pakistan Army attacked Bengali border guards and policemen. Then, there were the mass killings. Shankhari Patti, Hazaribagh and other Hindu areas of Dacca received the worst treatment. Iqbal Hall and Jagganath Hall were principal targets of wrath in the Dacca University campus. No one was spared. Teachers and students met the same fate. My cousin's husband, Dr. Muqtadir, a professor in the geology Department and a House Tutor in Iqbal Hall was dragged out of his residence and shot in front of his pregnant wife. Dr G C Dev, a professor of philosophy and provost of Jagganath Hall was also dragged out of his home and shot. I had a soft corner for Dr Dev. Two years ago, I had heard him speak on the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad. He had such great knowledge about Islam and other religions and spoke with such eloquence about the prophet's virtues that no Muslim cleric I knew could match it. Yet, they killed him. After the mass killings of the night of March 25/26, the army began a mission of targeted killings which continued throughout the 9-month liberation war. Mr. R. P. Saha, a great philanthropist and founder of Bharateswari Homes (a free boarding school for girls) and Kumudini Hospital (a free charitable hospital for the poor), and a son were killed after they were picked up from their home in Narayanganj (R. P. Saha was killed on May 17, 1971).

The Pakistan Army was conducting genocide on the Bengalis of East Pakistan while the world stood in silence. Up until that point, India was the only country that had condemned the Pakistanis and was talking about our plight. The Guinness Book of World Records termed the mass killings of the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh as one of the top five genocides of the twentieth century, comparable to the Nazi extermination of Jews in Europe. Thousands of people were killed by the Pakistan Army in Dacca and surrounding areas on the night of March 25/26 alone. Everyone I knew seemed to have lost a relative or an acquaintance

The atrocities and the exodus out of Dacca continued. As soon as the curfew broke, one would see thousands of people, men, women, children, old and young streaming out of the city on foot carrying whatever they could take with them. Many perished on the way.

The piece is excerpted from A Qayyum Khan's book titled 'Bittersweet Victory: A Freedom Fighter's Tale,' published by University Press Limited, Dhaka, 20213.

Share if you like