Group Captain (retd) Shamsul Alam Bir Uttam's name is inseparably associated with the birth of Bangladesh Air Force and by extension the history of the country itself. Along with a small number of rebel Bengali officers of the erstwhile Pakistani military, Shamsul Alam formed the very first fighting formation of the nascent Bangladesh Air Force, which was dubbed 'Kilo Flight'. For his historic role in the liberation war he was awarded 'Bir Uttam'. This year the veteran war hero has been awarded the Independence Award.
Now in his 70s, the retired Group Captain strikes as more of an amiable grandfather figure than a former armed force personnel when you meet him in person. Perhaps age has mellowed him a bit but his diction has remained extremely sharp and his perspectives robustly straightforward. Most noticeably, his genuine enthusiasm for discussing history and Bangladesh is contagious.
“Look, you probably want to know all about Kilo Flight. But I talked about that and they put out a video. I'll give you the CD,” said Shamsul Islam, referring to a TV documentary made about the trainings and operation of Kilo Flight. “We will just chat,” he said, looking mischievously gleeful at the prospect of “chit-chatting”.
“Listen, you cannot possibly fathom how incredibly poor we were,” said Shamsul Alam Bir Uttam, referring to the historic Bangladeshi, as he sat on a sofa at his residence, wearing a cream coloured punjabi and white lungi. “After the ‘bongo bhongo’ we got the first ever glimpse or a taste of independence. Because the Muslim majority population in this region never actually had any kind of autonomy. It’s not really a ‘Hindu-Muslim’ thing at the core of it. But that is how the natives of this region felt,” he said.
Being born in 1947, Shamsul Alam had the interesting historical opportunity of observing how the state of Pakistan unfolded and manifested itself. At the same time, he was within close proximity of colonial times and had a real sense of what it was like being the subject of British rule.
“Lord Curzon divided Bengal to weaken the Hindu base,” he said. “We were happy because we felt we would no longer be dominated by and lorded over from Kolkata. We had nothing, nothing! Not any proper school or college,” he went on.
“The Hindus built all the institutions and Muslim students did not have access. That’s just natural, because the local Muslims did not have anything from which they could build. All the scholarships went to the Hindus. Only a few Muslim students managed to enter into good quality mainstream education institutions. We used to ‘nomoshkar’ them, because they owned everything; they were the founder, the principles, the governing body and everything else.”
The point Shamsul Alam was making was that the Bengali people never really knew what it was like to have freedom, what in modern language we call 'self-determination'. However, despite being poor, the Bengali people were more educated than the West Pakistani people.
“Bengal as a region was far superior in education than, for instance, Baluchistan, Punjab, Sindh etc. Although we had rejected education at first thinking English was the language of the 'kafir'. That was our mental destitution. People starting from Titumir, Haji Shariatullah and everyone else was anti-British. But the Hindus accepted the language, so they were able to get jobs with the English administration. We fell behind a few hundred years by not accepting that education."
But life was good for Shamsul Alam as an officer at the Pakistan air force. “As a pilot officer first rank my salary was 1175 rupees. I was only 24 then and that was a lot of money. Let me tell you what that money was worth in 1967. A European refrigerator then cost 600 to 800 rupees. I could buy a brand new Toyota car after a year's saving from my salary. It cost me 11,000 rupees,” explained Shamsul Alam.
But the monstrous brutality of the Pakistan military on March 25 and afterwards made it absolutely clear to Shamsul Alam and his peers that a freedom struggle was the only way left for Bangladeshi people to live with dignity. That propelled him to travel to East Pakistan risking his life. The story of his capture at the Tejgaon airport and subsequent release is no less thrilling than spy novels. Shamsul Alam crossed the border to India to eventually join with his comrades and ultimately form the Kilo Flight. His story would remain as one of the most glowing examples of fighting for what is right.
What does he think of Bangladesh in 2017, the country he helped liberate? “Look, journalists like to print negative news all the time. Yes, you have to report the bad things. Do that. But also let people know about the bright side,” said Shamsul Alam.
“We can now provide free textbooks to millions of students. No one has done that in the sub-continent. We are the fourth largest rice producer in the world, even though land mass has shrunk because of population. The media must gather up the courage to publish these achievements,” he added. As the chit-chatting neared to an end for the day, Shamsul Alam said that Bangladesh can now truly look forward to a future. “Your generation can achieve things that we never could. We are leaving you a country where you can really flourish,” the Bir Uttam said, a look of tranquil satisfaction glinting in his eyes.