Those who sacrificed it all

A saga of patriotism, bravery, misfortune, and tragedy

Life without liberty is like a body without spirit

 -- Khalil Gibran. 

War of liberation comes but only once in the history of a nation. Our beloved motherland Bangladesh had also bathed in the blood of millions of martyrs for its freedom from the Pakistani oppressors.

On March 25, 1971, when the marauding Pakistan army suddenly souped on the innocent and unarmed people of the country in the dark of the night, especially at key places in Dhaka City: Dhaka University, the Rajarbagh police line, and the EPR Headquarters in Peelkhana, killing tens of thousands of people, it effectively ignited the fire of the War of Liberation in the country. 

Disoriented and dismayed for a day or two by the extent of cruelty and mayhem, the Bangali elements of the armed forces, the police, the ansars, the common people of the country gathered their bearings and began to confront the enemy with whatever they could lay their hands on. 

The War of Liberation had begun in full swing. 

It was the time for a litmus test, it was time to discover where your heart lies, it was a time to display one’s patriotism to fight for the country’s liberation or look the other way around. It was an article of faith, of loyalty, and a supreme display of patriotism. Our War of Liberation, while producing some cowards, collaborators, and mere spectators, also produced a group of brilliant sons and daughters of the soil to not only fight the enemy but also to lay down their lives for the cause of the nation. 

As the War of Liberation gained traction, the paucity of officers in the Mukti Bahini was felt acutely and the provisional government decided to expand the officer's corps by recruiting competent and able candidates from amongst the freedom fighters, who had already gained some battlefield experience by that time. There were two batches of officer cadets: 1st Short Service (SS) and 2nd SS.

The 1st SS cadets joined the training camp in Murtee, an Indian secluded, high mountainous hamlet straddling between Sikkim and Bhutan in June 1971 and was commissioned on October 9, 1971. Two officers of this course embraced martyrdom during the war. The 2nd SS joined the Murtee in the first week of November 1971 but  the country was liberated on December 16, 1971, before they received their Commission. Subsequently, the second batch of officers was given commission in independent Bangladesh on August 5, 1972, following a three-month compact course. 

A look at the composition of these two courses will give a mind-boggling revelation that 90% of them who were university and college students, not only were city dwellers -- prosperous and from strong family backgrounds -- but all of them were extraordinarily brilliant students, with the potential of reaching any height in their future careers. Some of them were also the members of the daredevil crack platoon of Dhaka, whose name sent a chill down the spine of the enemy. This small group of patriots, unlike their many peers, decided to sacrifice the comfort and safety of their lives, their present and their future to free their country. Just to mention two names: Sheikh Kamal, the elder son of Bangabandhu joined the 1st SS, and Mahfuz Anam (current editor of The Daily Star), son of renowned lawyer, author, and politician Abul Mansur Ahmed, joined the 2nd SS. No amount of accolades or rewards can truly measure up to their courage and display of patriotism. 

Several officers of these two batches who displayed their valour, bravery, and fighting skills were also bestowed with gallantry awards, including BU (01), BB (03), and BP (21) as recognition of their contributions. Following the independence of Bangladesh, a group of cadets from 2nd SS decided to leave the army to pursue their chosen careers, while another group of 15 cadets from the same batch were denied  commission, which was a heartless decision to say the least. The rest of the officers who stayed back in the army played the most pivotal role in founding the structure of a professional army of an independent nation.  

Though these officers didn’t have adequate training from a formal military academy, emerging from the crucible of war and honed in the anvil of the rigorous training in Murtee, they rose to the occasion to dedicate themselves to the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country. They proved their worth and high professional quality and standards in building the army and carrying out their responsibilities competently as demanded of a peacetime army. 

Some of these officers were also appointed as instructors in the newly established Bangladesh Military Academy (BMA) and other training institutions. As the lightning rods of the nascent army, they also topped many courses in the country and in the world-famous military training institutions in countries such as the US, the UK, China, India, Malaysia etc, bringing admiration for their own nation. Had these officers stayed in the army or, so to say, been allowed to stay in the army, more than half of them would have reached the rank of general including some adorning the exalted office of the chief of staff. 

Alas, that was not to be. Soon, many of them fell victim to the conspiratorial machinations of the forces, the majority of which were repatriated from Pakistan and were jealous of the former. 

The first such sword fell on them when Lt Sheikh Kamal was assassinated by a group of misguided army officers along with his father, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on the fateful night of August 15, 1975, beginning the process of elimination of the officers of the above-mentioned two batches, one after another. On November 3, 1975, Brig Khaled Mosharraf BU, then CGS, took over the command of the army, sidelining General Zia, who was Chief of Staff, to oust the assassins of Bangabandhu from the Bangabhaban and bring them to justice. 

Though his primary mission was a success, he lost his life along with several other decorated freedom fighter officers consequent to a counter-coup launched by another group of army officers, in collusion with a political party. Several officers from the 1st and 2nd SSs who joined Khaled Mosharraf lost their jobs, and all of them were of the fledgling rank of captains. Then the final onslaught came following the killing of President Zia on May 30, 1981. This provided the perfect opportunity to the conspirators -- who, by then, had seized state power -- of getting rid of this group of officers in one go. Eventually, not only were a large number of officers prematurely removed from the army, destroying their careers, but also some of them were sent to the gallows on fictitious charges of complicity in the murder of President Zia -- a clear manifestation of the hatred those forces harboured in their hearts against the heroes of the nation.

The remaining handful of those officers somehow managed to survive even in an atmosphere of conspicuously open hostility and discrimination, and were under constant trepidation of facing dismissal. Still, some of them scaled up the ranks of one or two-star generals through a harsh and severely complicated process of promotion, by the virtue of their merits. Some of the officers who left the army and joined the civil service also left their footprints, reaching the heights of additional secretaries and even secretaries. While a few who dared to enter politics became MPs and ministers.

The officers of these two courses, who left the army voluntarily, were denied commission, and had lost their jobs prematurely following the tragic events of November 1975 and May 1981, decided to form a social platform to keep in close contact and camaraderie among themselves and also to provide financial support to the foundation members in need. With this view in mind, the group created an organization, the Bangladesh War Courses Foundation (BWCF), in the mid-80s. 

Since its inception, the foundation members have been gathering regularly four times a year, attending the Foundation Day on October 9, commemorating the commissioning day of the 1st SS; Fellowship Day on August 5, celebrating the commissioning day of the 2nd SS; a Victory Day dinner hosted by Major Matin Choudhury; and an Independence Day dinner hosted by Lt Col Zainul Abedin. While Zainul's dinner is primarily attended by the foundation members, their spouses, children, and sometimes grandchildren, Matin's dinner adds extra flair in that the freedom fighters from other walks of life, as well as the visiting war veterans of India -- who fought alongside us during the war -- and their wives, attend the event, making it more colourful and international.  

The foundation has an executive committee elected every two years and the posts of the president and secretary general are rotated between the two courses. The position of the chief patron of the foundation is held by Major Abdul Matin Choudhury, in recognition of his critical role in its formation. The members of the foundation have also undertaken several philanthropic activities individually as well as under the organization's banner throughout the country.  

Lest this glorious chapter of our nation be forgotten, the BWCF published a book titled We Answered the Call: Memoirs of Freedom Fighters, containing short versions of the war memoirs  of several members, on March 7, 2021, coinciding with  the historic address of Bangabandhu at the Ramna Racecourse 50 years ago. Another similar book is also on its way to being published soon. A good number of members have also separately published their accounts of the war, which are available at bookstores. 

The members of the foundation -- most of us are over the age of 70 now -- at the latest count 43 of the war veterans who have made their journey for the eternal abode while a few others are fighting age-related health complications. We have reached the last lap of our lives. As we look back, it vindicates our decision, when we were young, to join the war and fight for our independence. It gives us immense pleasure to witness the prosperity the nation has gained over the years earning genuine accolades both nationally and internationally. Yet, there is a hidden pin that pricks our conscience that the state of the affairs of the nation, perhaps, could be better. That is, however, for another day to reflect on. 

Major Ashraf ud Doula (Retd) is a member of 2nd the SS, a retired secretary to the government and has served as ambassador to several countries.

 

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