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Bravest sons of the soil

A Qayyum Khan | March 26, 2024 00:00:00

A training session of a group of young recruits of Mukti Bahini — ABP Archive

In Dacca Platoon, we met people we knew from Dacca University. Notable among them was Aziz, a former Vice President (VP) of Dacca College Students Union and a Chhatra League leader. Fateh Ali and Maya were also in Dacca Platoon. A couple of days later, Shahidullah Khan Badal came to Motinagar. We were some of the youngest in Dacca Platoon; most of the others were senior to us academically. That evening, we got our first taste of the Langar cuisine. People lined up in front of the cookhouse tent for just one helping of rice, lentils and vegetables; really horrible stuff. We received our share in our shanki that we had bought earlier. Others were using cut up grenade boxes as plates. As I took my first bite, I almost lost a tooth. The rice had tiny pebbles and stone chips in it and one had to sift through before taking a mouthful. The vegetable curry was a slurry of God knows what. Nobody complained. We got three meals a day. Lunch and dinner were the same fare although once or twice a week, little strips of mutton would be thrown into the vegetable slurry. Breakfast was a puri and a mug of very sweet tea.

Subedar Major Idris told us that our training would start after Haider returned. In the meantime we should organise our bivouac area as best as we could. “You can go into the surrounding jungle and collect bamboo and other construction materials for your needs,” he said. Immediately, Alam took over. He was a rover scout and knew a lot about setting up camp. He was also very tough physically and could single handledly do the work of several men. Under Alam’s guidance, we built steps to our hill top shelter and made racks for our utensils and personal effects. We made the place as liveable as we could.

In spite of the hardship, people were in high spirits. Everyone seemed to have a sense of humour, cracking jokes and monk eying around. With each passing day, our survival skills and instincts got better. And whenever we got an opportunity, we would go to the tea stall in Motinagar and have roshogollas and parathas. Some resourceful people collected wild bananas and exchanged them for other edibles or for cigarettes. A boiled egg was the most sought after item. We discovered jackfruit to be the most economical. To treat the entire platoon we needed only two or three and would often pitch in and buy some.

We heard about the miraculous survival story of Lieutenant Imamuzzam Chowdhury. He was one class senior to me in Residential Model School before he transferred to Fuazdarhat Cadet College. In 1970, he was commissioned as an artillery officer in the Pakistan Army and was posted in Comilla. On the night of March 25/26, his non-Bengali commanding officer ordered all the Bengali officers of his unit, including Imam, into an office room and had the room locked from the outside. Sometime past midnight, a JCO fired several bursts from his Sten gun through a window. Imam was hit by several bullets and lost consciousness. His captors thought he was dead. After he regained consciousness, he somehow escaped through a window. The sentry fired several times but missed. Severely wounded and bleeding, Imam ran through Comilla Cantonment and then swam across the Gumti River before collapsing in a village. The villagers took him to the Mukti Bahini. He was recuperating in an Indian army hospital and would soon join East Bengal.

Before abandoning their strongholds inside the country, wherever possible, the Mukti Bahini with the help of local officials and bank personnel emptied as many government treasuries as they could1. Money was taken out by the ‘truckloads’. The largest hauls were from Pabna, Bogra, Brahmanbaria and Rangamati. These monies were to be handed over to the provisional government. In most cases most of the money was indeed given to the authorities. However, there were a few instances where individuals did not turn in the entire haul. How much they pocketed was never accounted for. The names of such individuals were well known at that time. I actually came across some of them in India. They seemed to be way more prosperous than the rest. Subsequently, after liberation the lifestyle of these people supports the claim that they had pocketed a good sum.

Haider returned and our training began. He hadn’t fully recovered and his injured arm was still bandaged but that did not stop him from returning to his duties. He was an inspirational leader. Military men seemed different than civilians. They were not whiners. Their attitude was that “this job needs to be done and we’ll get it done with whatever we have; no point complaining about what we don’t have.” They didn’t bother about whose feelings were hurt or being personal.

There were shortages everywhere. For one thing, there weren’t enough weapons or ammunition for the new volunteers. The paucity of heavy weapons such as mortars, rocket launchers, and machine guns was even more acute. These shortages were inhibiting the capability of the Mukti Bahini to launch operations. Haider was a commando and was very good with explosives and that’s where he started with us. The first thing he taught us was how to create road blocks by felling trees with explosives. We were also taught how to blow up bridges and culverts. Most of the training was practical where we would actually handle explosives and blow up stuff. Haider emphasized, that at this time, the most important task for us was to disrupt the Pakistan Army’s movements in any way we can. We learnt about the essentials of laying an ambush. Haider stressed that whenever possible, we should use road blocks with ambush.


As we got familiar with the camp and its inhabitants, we discovered that small groups of newly trained recruits were being infiltrated into the country for sabotage. We met many of them. They were mostly village boys who had received two weeks training on pistols and grenades. A group would typically consist of 3-4 members and everyone carried two grenades. The group leader had a pistol. Their task was to find isolated Pakistan Army outposts and attack them with grenades. As soon as they disposed off their grenades, they were to extricate themselves from the scene. They were not to engage in any other types of fighting. We know very little about these early fighters of the Mukti Bahini. Most of them were either killed or captured and then subjected to inhumane torture before being dispatched. Starting in the last week of May, similar groups were sent to Dacca. A member of the Dacca Platoon, Anwar Hossain a.k.a. Anu, was stopped at an army check post near Gopibagh when he had a grenade on his person. Before the soldiers could search him, he sat down by a sewerage drain as if to take a leak. As he squatted he brought out the grenade hid in his underwear and blew up the check post. He did the same thing a couple of days later in Zindabazar lane.

These desperate suicidal missions were necessary so that the Pakistan Army got no respite. Besides, some operations had to be launched so that the population inside the country did not feel that the Mukti Bahini was routed from the ground. Most importantly, it gave the Mukti Bahini the breathing time it needed to train the new volunteers and reorganise. Trained soldiers of the East Bengal Regiment and the EPR understood the risk in these missions and were reluctant to undertake such desperate operations. The only people who could be sent were the uninitiated and uninformed volunteers mostly from rural and agrarian backgrounds. Most of these early volunteers just sacrificed themselves. They kept the struggle alive through the months of April, May and June and yet nobody knows about these bravest sons of the soil. We don’t even know their names.


Some of us wanted to visit Agartala, capital of Tripura state. Many well known people of Bangladesh, especially residents of Dacca, had taken refuge there. So one day, with permission, we started for Agartala. This was going to be my first visit there. On our way we saw several refugee camps and stopped in one to see for ourselves the plight of those hapless people. The conditions were appalling. Various types of structures; thatched huts, tents, or just shelters made of polythene sheets dotted the camp. It seemed that the camp just grew bit by bit as more and more refugees arrived. The overall condition was extremely unhygienic. Rains had turned the camp into a muddy slush with a strong stench of human waste. The inhabitants were in dire straits. Most looked frail and famished. Majority were penniless. Children were the worst victims. They looked emaciated with their eyes bulging out of their sockets. The Indian volunteers who worked in the camp told us that there were one or two deaths every day, most of them children. There was never enough food or medical supplies for all the inhabitants. Sometimes, the camp ran out of dry rations and had it not been for the donations from various Indian charities, most inhabitants would not even get one meal a day. Notably missing in bringing aid to the refugees were volunteers from Bangladesh.

In Agartala, we could see that the arrival of Bangladeshis had changed the characteristics of the city. It was no longer the sleepy capital of a remote Indian state. It was bustling with people with big crowds at every major intersection. There was a large youth camp in the Polytechnic Institute where many students and prospective volunteers of the Mukti Bahini were housed. On one of the upper floors, several Awami League leaders and workers were housed. We had information that one of our relatives, Kalu Chowdhury, who was elected as a Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) was staying in the Polytechnic Institute.

Every room in the upper floor was taken over by some Bangladeshi ‘VIP’. Several people shared a room. There were several wooden cots in each room; one for each ‘guest’. Every bed was reasonably well stocked in terms of mattresses, mosquito nets, bed sheets, et cetera. The place was crowded. Every MNA and MPA had several cronies with them. They didn’t seem to be doing anything useful. Most of the conversation we overheard was neither about the war nor about any useful role they could undertake in mitigating the hardships of their fellow citizens in India. They seemed more concerned about finding a suitable rental property for their families. Some were moving to Calcutta. They didn’t seem to lack resources. We found Kalu Bhai just as he was getting ready to have lunch. He appeared happy to see us and inquired about our whereabouts. “Oh, Mukti Bahini? You want to fight?” he said in mock admiration. “Good, good.” As we spoke, lunch was being served; rice, chicken curry, vegetables and lentils. Kalu Bhai and his friends started their meal without inviting us to partake. As they ate, we made small talk. We were all equals in this war but I could see some were more equal than others.

The refugee problem was getting severe by the day. Every day tens of thousands of people were crossing over to India with only what they could carry on their heads. Many were old and infirm and needed immediate medical attention. There were young children with every refugee family. Children were the most vulnerable. The refugees required food, housing, medical care, and emergency supplies. International assistance for the refugees had started to come in but it was never sufficient to meet the needs. The attitude of the Nixon Administration to the Bangladesh issue was reflected in US government assistance for the refugees: apathy for their plight. However, the assistance increased significantly after Senator Edward Kennedy’s visit to the refugee camps in August. He persuaded the US Senate to increase the quantum of help. And his advocacy in favour of the people of Bangladesh swung US public opinion.

India was having an extremely difficult time coping with the refugees. Its resources were being stretched to the limit. In some locations, Indian citizens had expressed resentment at the invasion of their towns and villages by Bangladeshi refugees. Although the majority public opinion in India was still overwhelmingly in favor of their Government’s decision to support and assist the Bangladesh struggle, there was no telling when any untoward incident could change all that. Saboteurs were plenty, given that Pakistani intelligence agencies, such as the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), had been working with several Indian secessionist movements in states surrounding Bangladesh for several years1o. Domestically, it was, therefore, important for Indira Gandhi to keep public opinion favourable for Bangladesh.

A Qayyum Khan is a freedom fighter who joined Mukti Bahini the earliy days of the liberation war when he was a student of University of Dhaka. He was commissioned during the war and fought in sector 7 as a second lieutenant. The piece is excerpted from his book titled ‘Bittersweet Victory: A Freedom Fighter’s Tale’ published by University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013.

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