Immediately after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s historic March 7 speech, people from all walks of life in Chittagong began preparations to resist the Pakistani occupation forces in whatever capacity they were able.
The port city has carved out a special place for itself in the history of Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom.
Liberation War researcher Dr Mahfuzur Rahman said that it was the March 3 riot between Urdu-speaking Biharis and Bangalis at Pahartali that triggered a war-like situation in Chittagong.
Major Rafiqul Islam, in his book ‘Lokkho Praner Binimoye’, noted that the Pakistani forces not only incited the riot but also actively took part in it.
Liberation War historian Dr Mahfuzur Rahman, in his book 'Bangaleer Jatiyabadi Sangram, Muktijuddhe Chattagram', wrote that Biharis from Jhoutala Wireless Colony chased a boy named Rahmatullah on March 3.
But rumours spread among the Bangalis that the boy had been picked up by the Biharis and that some other Bangalis were also arrested. Hundreds of youths brandishing wood planks, bamboos and sticks marched towards Wireless area, shouting slogans, and pulled down signboards written in Urdu.
The area soon turned into a battleground and the Biharis opened fire on the Bangalis. The Pakistani army sided with the Biharis. Scores of Bangalis were killed on March 3 and 4 at Chittagong’s Wireless and Ambagan.
Dr Rahman says that the provocation of the Biharis incited the riot.
The situation prevailed throughout the war.
The resistance ignites
MV Swat, a Pakistani ship carrying weapons for the occupation forces, had anchored at Chittagong Port.
Freedom fighter and the then BLF Operation Commander AKM Raisul Huq Bahar said that Chittagong’s restive situation worsened matters further with reports of arms and ammunition being unloaded from the ship on March 24.
The ship, carrying a huge cache of weapons in the guise of food grains, anchored at Jetty 17 on February 28. Most of its crew and labourers were Bangalis.
Bangali staff working in Karachi suspected something was afoot that was not good and informed officials of the National Shipping Corporation stationed in Chittagong.
The ship was scheduled to be unloaded on March 24. But the people of Chittagong took to the streets, putting up a strong resistance against its unloading.
Bahar, who grew up in the port area, was one of the key organizers of the resistance. He recalled how hundreds of people, including port labourers, armed with iron rods, besieged the ship.
“The Pakistan army opened fire on us when we reached the Navy Fleet at Double Mooring. We ran for shelter. Three bodies were found on the spot. But the actual number of the dead is definitely much higher,” he said.
Bahar dubbed major Ziaur Rahman “an agent of Pakistani occupation force” saying he was on his way to unload arms and ammunition from Swat on March 25.
Based on the incidents surrounding the ship in early March, noted playwright and theatre personality Mamunur Rashid penned a play ‘Swat’.
The Pakistan army was forced to call for reinforcement from Comilla Cantonment with heavy weapons on March 25 as the unloading faced stiff resistance.
“The reinforcement with several hundred troops too faced resistance as locals dismantled parts of Shuvopur Bridge at Mirsarai and put up barricades on the way to Chittagong by felling wood logs. The Pak army and freedom fighters had a direct encounter at Sitakunda’s Kumira on March 26 and 27,” recalled Mohammad Shahabuddin, Chittagong district unit Commander of Bangladesh Muktijoddha Sangsad.
Gathering of arms
The freedom fighters looted arms from a number of gun shops and warehouses in the port city in March. A gun shop, housed on the ground floor of Awami League office at Anderkilla, was looted on March 15.
Dr Mahfuzur Rahman, who took part in the looting, said they had conducted reconnaissance missions a day before moving in.
“After assembling at the Awami League office, we broke into the shop through the ventilator. The leaders and activists inside the Awami League office were singing “Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomay Bhalobashi” when we were looting arms from the shop,” recalled Rahman, who is also the chairman of Research Centre for Bangladesh Freedom Struggle and Liberation War Trust.
Nationalist spirit spreads quickly
The city’s cultural activists did not lag behind. Imbued with the patriotic spirit following the historic March 7 speech, they set up a platform on March 8 headed by Abul Fazal, Syed Ali Ahsan and Dr Anisuzzaman.
The ‘Artistes-Litterateur Cultural Enthusiasts Resistance Platform’ spread nationalist spirit among the Bangalis through cultural programs from March 15. Their program at Laldighi on that day drew a huge audience.
Between March 16 and 23, they staged the play ‘Ebarer Sangram’ by Mamtaj Uddin Ahmad at every intersection, industrial zone and residential area of the city.
When the play was being staged at Parade Ground on March 24, news arrived that Bangalis had taken to the streets to resist the unloading of weapons. Immediately, the audience and artists, estimated to be around 30,000, marched towards the port to join the resistance.
Broadcast from Kalurghat Radio Station
The Pakistan army took over the Dacca Betar Kendro in the early hours of March 26 and broadcast martial law orders. But their plan to silence the voice of the Bangalis was futile.
A clandestine radio station located at Kalurghat announced to the world: "The Sheikh has declared the 75 million people of East Pakistan as citizens of sovereign independent Bangla Desh."
The station called itself Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro.
According to the book ‘Nationalist Struggle of the Bengalis, Chittagong in Liberation War’, the then Awami League leader MA Hannan was the first person to broadcast declaration of independence at noon on March 26 from Kalurghat.
For the next four days, the radio station engaged in a propaganda battle with the Pakistan army. The radio station was abandoned after it was heavily shelled by the Pakistan Air Force on March 30.
The rise of training camps
During the course of the war, freedom fighters were trained at various places in the district.
Freedom fighters said they had set up a good number of training centres at different places in March, where Bangali volunteers received training during the Liberation War.
The training centres were set up in Medical College, Kakoli, Pannapara City College, MES College, Halishahar, Jamalkhan and Agrabad Colony.