Anwara Ferdousi, a septuagenarian, can still remember the trivial details of the morning of January 20, 1969.
“Asad Bhai used to wear Khadi punjabi and trousers all the time. But on that day, he wore a cream-colored shirt,” said Ferdousi.”
A few hours later, Asad was gunned down by the police. This one death turned a seemingly non-threatening student movement into a mass upsurge.
Around 49 years later, Ferdousi still can’t shift her focus from that shirt. “One of my elder brothers brought it from Karachi, but he never wore it before as he didn’t like expensive clothing.”
Eminent poet Shamsur Rahman wrote his famous poem “Asader Shirt” after Asad’s death - “Like bunches of blood-red oleander, like flaming clouds at sunset, Asad's shirt flutters, in the gusty wind, in the limitless blue.”
Recognition of a forgotten martyr
This year, the government has given an Independence Award—the highest civilian award of the country— to Amanullah Mohammad Asaduzzaman, popularly known as Shaheed Asad, a martyr of 1969.
One of Asad’s brothers, historian Professor HM Muniruzzaman, believes the mass upsurge has become a neglected footnote of our history. “But the truth is, without it, the Liberation War might not have taken place.”
Born in Shibpur, Narshingdi, Asaduzzaman enrolled in the University of Dhaka for a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in 1966 and a Masters of Arts (MA) in 1967. During that time, he organized the Krishak Samity in Shibpur, Monohardi, Raipura and Narsingdi areas under the direction of Maulana Bhashani.
In 1966, Awami League president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced a six-point demand - virtually the blueprint for the core constitutional rights of Bengalis. December 1968 and January 1969 were marked with strikes and a new and popular movement led by student organisations that combined calls for federalism with passionate assertions of Bengali nationalism.
On January 4, 1969 the new Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad was formed. They announced an 11-point charter for self-governance in East Pakistan. Immediately after, eight political parties, including Awami League and NAP (Muzaffar), formed an alliance known as the Democratic Action Committee (DAC).
The DAC demanded the federal form of government, election on the basis of universal adult franchise, immediate withdrawal of the declaration of emergency and the release of all political detainees.
An unsung hero
On January 20, 1969, the government imposed Section 144 of the constitution, prohibiting the assembly of more than four persons. A final year MA student at the time, Asad had long been involved with the student movement. “He always stood up for the underdogs. He used to say that West Pakistan would never look after our interests,” said Prof Zaman.
“Death wasn’t something that he was afraid of. He was, from head to toe, a politically conscious person. He believed that true independence would not come without any bloodshed and he was ready to sacrifice his own blood.”
Asad knew that he was targeted as a student leader. “Even on the morning of January 20, he knew something was going to happen. He left the house after having said goodbye to his family,” reminisced Zaman.
On January 20, nearly 10,000 students from different colleges gathered at the university campus and brought out a procession, effectively violating Section 144.
“Asad was leading a procession that reached in front of Dhaka Medical College when the police charged. After nearly an hour of scrimmage, he tried to lead the procession towards the centre of town. Right then, police officer Bahauddin fired on Asad, killing him instantaneously,” Zaman recalled.
The provincial government of Governor Monem Khan tried to cover up the death, releasing a press note stating - “Asad was a terrorist.” What happened afterwards was something that the government couldn’t and didn’t envision. Thousands of students rushed to Dhaka Medical College. A vast mourning procession was brought out. As the female student procession moved forward, the common people joined them. The spontaneous, two-mile long procession trailed through various roads, and finally rested at Shaheed Minar.
The Central Action Committee announced three days of mourning, and spearheaded hartals and protest processions spanning the next four days. The situation went out of control.
In many places people, of their own accord, brought down the nameplates of Ayub Khan and replaced them with Asad’s name. Ayub Gate turned into Asad Gate and Ayub Avenue became Asad Avenue. “Since then, the name of Asad has been a symbol for struggle against repression,” said Zaman.
A symbol of freedom
Engr FM Rashiduzzaman, project engineer of Bangladesh's national parliament building and Asad's brother (who bought Asad his shirt), said that Asad was not only a student organizer but also an earnest social worker.
“Whenever he came to the village (Dhanua), he didn’t stay at home. He went to the houses of the poor farmers, talked with them, ate with them, and tried to make them aware of their rights.
A man of fierce fighting spirit, Asad considered democracy to be the only path to the emancipation of our people.”
Asad considered education to be a necessity to uplift the masses, and established a night school with the help of the members of the Students Union at Shibpur to educate the poor and local labourers.
Rashiduzzaman said that Asad was also keenly aware of the necessity of a party with developed political ideas. “He wrote about the formation of a study circle for carrying on the politics of the Sarbahara class in 1968. He was also one of the leading organisers of the Coordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries of East Bengal.”
“Asad’s role during 1969 and his other contributions are beyond what the pages of history say. He envisaged an oppression and exploitation free nation and that was the cause he gave his life for. And surely, he deserved much more than the homage we pay him,” Rashiduzzaman ruminated sadly.
Faisal Mahmud is a journalist and nephew of Shaheed Asad