Thirty-four years have passed, but it feels like it was only yesterday.
We get off the bus at Shahbagh and walk to Madhur Canteen. I feel agitated, yet happy. We are going to march today. We are going to make history.
It’s February 14, and on the 11th we were supposed to besiege Shikkha Bhaban, but it didn’t happen. Students exploded in anger that day when their leaders made this call.
So angry that they tore down the collapsible gate of the DUCSU building. On the 14th, the leaders could not back down any more. We leave Modhur Canteen in a massive procession. I am excited but a little scared too. It’s the foot-soldiers who die first, they say.
Turning at Doyel Chattar, massive barbed wire barricades come into sight in front of Curzon Hall. Behind that, a wall of police.
We begin a hailstorm of brickbats and the police respond with tear gas. Soon, the world becomes foggy and my eyes begin to burn. Some of us run to Curzon Hall, soak our handkerchiefs in water to wipe our eyes.
That was the first day we saw water cannons on the streets of Dhaka. Any minute now, there could be bullets.
This was a military dictatorship. It forbade even the slightest hint of criticism, and here we are, blockading a government office.
Eventually we spread out, battered by the water cannons, eyes stinging from the tear gas, running in all directions.
My friends and I retreat from Curzon Hall and end up in front of DMC. There, we hear that some people have been shot dead by the police.
We peek into the hospital, but there is no one there. Then someone says the dead bodies have been taken to the Arts Building.
We go down Fuller Road. The front yard of the Arts Building is filled with people who have returned from the procession.
I find some of my friends amongst a giant crowd, silent, looks of shock and pain on their faces.
Some people carry martyred Jainal’s body on a stretcher.
All these years and his face still remains fresh in my memory. A handsome young boy, must have been the apple of his parents’ eyes. Would they have known that their dreams for their son would be shattered, that dictator Ershad’s police would shoot him dead for walking in a procession and shouting a few slogans for a reasonable demand?
Students quickly draw posters and put them up everywhere: Ei lash matir niche thakbe na, jege uthbei.
“This crime will not lay buried with the corpses, it will come out in the open.” Did that happen? Was justice done?
Young men and women were slaughtered, tortured, and raped by their own police, not because they had adopted any radical political ideology but because they wanted basic rights
Not only did the murders of February 14 never get to trial, but those who must be held responsible have a seat of honour in our parliament.
Both of our major political parties have played many a merry tune to get Ershad on their side. They forget that the blood of Jainal, Zafar, Dipali Saha, and many others was the price we paid so that they could return to democratic parliamentary politics.
Ershad would stay in power for another seven years until being forced down by the mass uprising of 1990. So many sacrifices, yet no one has been held responsible for any of those murders.
We are standing around the stretcher. All of a sudden, the Arts Building is encircled, we are surrounded, and the crackdown begins. No one has a number for how many students had been killed, wounded, and tortured on that afternoon.
The joint forces have cordoned off the entire area, attacking anyone who tries to escape, and loading their trucks up with students. Anyone that tries to run is beaten up like an animal.
They take us to the Shahbagh police control room. Many who were dragged out collapsed there, but the beatings continued. Who knows what happened to those who fainted from blows to the head? What happened to the girls who were hiding in the classrooms?
As I’m being dragged down from the truck, the beating becomes overwhelming. I collapse on the ground. The police grab me and push me back in line.
I find blood flowing freely from my head. I try to ignore the pain and stay calm. The building inside is no doubt filled with more students. I hear screams of torture coming out of there.
I heard later that several people had died from torture.
The detainees on the grounds are divided into two groups. One group is sent to nearby police stations. People who are seriously hurt are sent to Rajarbagh Police Line Hospital.
I can’t walk or get up. After a while, I feel the need to relieve myself. I tell a policeman walking in the corridor this. He helps me up and walks me to the bathroom with unexpected care. As we walk back, he says: “Do you want to get a message to someone?”
I give him two numbers. At that time, I did not think that the policeman would remember to make the calls. I thought it was simply a brief impulse on his behalf. But he called both the numbers and it was because of him that my brother-in-law, an army major, got me released three days later. As the night creeps in, the hospital grows more crowded. Doctors start patching us up and shipping us out. I am sent to Ramna police station.
Holding cells are packed with students. There is no way we can lie down on the floors. A terrible stench is wafting out of the bathrooms.
We spend the night in the grip of terrible fear. Fear because there is a rumour in the cells that in the morning they will come and kill us all in a shower of bullets.
I later learned that as the protests spread across the country in the next two days, many others were shot dead by the police. Two children were stabbed to death with bayonets. Two students were thrown from the roof of the Polytechnic.
The situation grew out of control. Ershad’s government eventually backed down, cancelling the Majid Khan Education Policy, which originally sparked the protests.
At this age, I realise the terrible irony and tragedy of our past. Young and bright men and women were slaughtered, tortured, and raped by their own police, not because they had adopted any radical political ideology but because they wanted basic democratic rights.
Was that what the nation fought for in 71? Did we really emerge as a civilised, free society on December 16? It has been 46 years, but we are still years away from freedom and democracy. But I haven’t lost hope.
One day we will have a truly democratic society, where a citizen’s dignity and rights will be ensured regardless of race, faith, or political beliefs. So what if young people do not know what happened in 1983?
Two years ago, on February 14, I took my youngest son to the Book Fair. Holding his hand, I walked down the same road on which we marched in 1983. Memories came flooding back into my mind.
It was Valentine’s Day. It was a day to celebrate love. They did not know that to me and many others, this day brought back the memories of great sorrow, of lives lost. But there’s no harm in that. Those who know how to love also know how to stand up for the things they love, to make sacrifices.
Just the other day, young people gathered in Shahbagh and put an end to the politics being played around the trial of war criminals of 71. Some of them even had to sacrifice their lives for that cause.
So I haven’t lost hope.
Translated by Shegufta Hasnine Surur.
Mohammad Rafiqul Hassan is the director of research and policy at Transparency International Bangladesh.