On March 25, 1971, when hell’s gates were opened and the marauding Pakistan army launched its war on the civilians of Dhaka, I was in Munshiganj, about 20 miles from Dhaka, but practically several hours away because it was only connected by water with the capital at the time.
Only a day earlier, I had returned from Dhaka after attending the weekly sub-divisional officers’ meeting at the Dhaka Collectorate building near Sadarghat.
That month, all of Dhaka had been abuzz with hectic political activity that included Bangabandhu’s famous March 7 speech and endless speculations about the outcome of the talks between Bangabandhu and Yahya Khan. The talks had started in the middle of the month after Bangabandhu’s ultimatum for holding a national assembly meeting and about his other demands.
The agenda of our weekly meeting that day was only one: Speculation on possible outcome of the talks between Bangabandhu and Yahya Khan. None of us, including my deputy commissioner, had any clue as to what was going to happen only 48 hours later.
Like the vast majority of the Bengalis of East Pakistan, we were hopeful that the talks would lead to a peaceful outcome ending the prospects of an endless confrontation between the elected representatives of East Pakistan and the army junta led by Yahya Khan and their political cohorts in West Pakistan.
In fact, there were signs revealed through the media (very incorrectly, of course) that Sheikh Mujib and Yahya Khan had reached a broad agreement on handover of power to the two provincial governments.
We, in fact, talked about the need to restart our governmental duties in the sub-divisions like reopening courts, revenue offices, etc, and an end to the stalemate. But we were foolishly cheerful.
On the morning of March 25, I had tried to speak with my deputy commissioner, but spoke with one of the additional deputy commissioners instead, who was from West Pakistan instead. The officer, senior in rank to me, sounded vague when I asked him about the results of the talk. He said he had no information, but he asked me not to put too much hope for a positive outcome.
I wanted to quiz him further on his pessimism, but he avoided further discussion. He wished me well and hung up. I had no reason to analyze his remarks in a negative way. I had kept my hopes up and gone to bed.
The first warning of something going terribly wrong came to me early on the morning of March 26. I was awakened from sleep by the bungalow peon saying that the sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) wanted to speak to me urgently.
In those days, phones were manually managed by operators who connected speakers at both ends when asked. When connected with the SDPO, he narrated to me in an agitated voice what he had heard from the police headquarters in Dhaka.
The Pakistani Army had launched an armed attack the previous night all over Dhaka, killing at random. The police line at Rajarbagh (the main police barrack of Dhaka) was demolished as the army drove its tanks through the barracks. Instead of spending any more time on phone, I asked him to meet with me at my bungalow.
As hours went by thousands of people landed on the shores of Munshiganj. They spoke of unheard terror, of armed soldiers firing at night at houses, shops, and homeless people on the sidewalks
The SDPO came to see me wearing pajamas and a shirt, instead of his uniform, with a disheveled look. He said he had received a message through police wireless a couple of hours before with a warning that the Pakistan Army was spreading all over the district and could soon come to Munshiganj.
He was asked by a police officer from Dhaka to take all precaution to save his police force and to warn civilians to move away as no one would be safe. He was further told that the army had already killed hundreds of students after raiding DU residential halls.
I could not believe a word of what the SDPO was telling me.
How could such a dangerous and horrendous event take place when the entire country was expecting a happy outcome from the talks? I asked the SDPO if what he was saying was true, and if so, what had happened to Sheikh Mujib and his colleagues who were holding the talks.
The SDPO had no answer to my last question except his assumption that all of them, including Bangabandhu, might have been arrested.
I could not ascertain the truth by calling Dhaka -- as the operator said phone lines were dead. I went to my office with the SDPO where we were greeted by a dozen police men without uniform who were in charge of protecting the sub-divisional treasury going to and fro greatly excited.
in charge informed us, in great agitation, that they had heard that the Pakistan Army was killing all Bengali police, and that they would have to leave the place to protect themselves.
The SDPO found it hard to console or reassure the frightened police constables since he himself was not sure of his safety. The chaos of the moment was further compounded as a group of highly agitated young men came to my office and demanded that they be given firearms to protect the town from the army.
I was dumbfounded by this astounding request. How on earth would a group of young students fight an army, and that too with outdated World War II rifles?
Somehow I was able to argue them out of their demand at that moment citing a need for gathering all sub-divisional police force to build a resistance. But that was not for long.
As soon as we left the office, the students re-entered the sub-treasury and took away the two dozen rifles in the armory there, with no resistance from the fearful police contingent.
The day would not end there.
As hours went by, thousands of people landed on the shores of Munshiganj coming from Dhaka in boats, motor launches, and fishing vessels. They spoke of unheard of terror, of armed soldiers firing at night at houses, shops, and homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks.
They spoke of rocket bombs, smoldering buildings, and dead bodies they saw while fleeing. As the day progressed, rumours of an impending army attack started to spread like wildfire. Panic struck everyone in that small town and local leaders started to ponder whether to flee or face the invading army.
I did not leave, or rather could not leave, because I had nowhere to go. The villages would not be a sanctuary, if the army decided to invade, and leaving for another country was out of the question (at least at that time). I decided to wait it out along with the SDPO.
But the army did not come to Munshiganj that day or the next few days. They fanned out of Dhaka to other parts of Bangladesh. Munshiganj was spared the wrath and fury of the Pakistan Army in the frenzied days of March. Instead, we dealt with families fleeing from Dhaka and Narayanganj (including my own), with fear and anxiety of an army attack for the next two months.
The army did arrive in Munshiganj in May when it was sufficiently satisfied that it had reestablished authority. Munshiganj was spared the rage of Dhaka, but not the hatred the army carried for the Bengali population, that would come out through three weeks of a cleansing “operation” it would carry out in Munshiganj and neighbouring thanas
I was investigated for my role in March and later interrogated in Dhaka Cantonment for over a month. I was later cleared to return as SDO, not Munshiganj but to Manikganj, another sub-division of Dhaka that time.
But that is another story.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.