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OP-ED: Freedom walk in a long-ago December

  • Published at 11:44 pm December 16th, 2020
1971
COLLECTED

When liberty shone bright across the villages and towns of this beautiful land

It was sudden, took us by happy surprise. In the declining afternoon of December 16, 1971, slogans of Joi Bangla began to reverberate around Malibagh, close to the home we had been living in since August of the year. It was hard to believe that here in Dhaka, after all those months of fear engendered by the Pakistan occupation army and its local collaborators, the nationalistic slogan which defined our ethos was being publicly voiced once again.

General Niazi, who only a couple of days earlier had arrogantly told the foreign media that the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini would take Dhaka over his dead body, had just surrendered to the joint Indo-Bangladesh command at the Race Course. Dhaka Radio, after days of silence, came back to life. It was bliss to hear “aaj srishti shukher ullashe” recited in those early minutes of a liberated Bangladesh. And then, wafting on the air waves, came Abdul Jabbar’s rendition of that song which spoke of Bengal, of its pristine heritage. In “hajar bochhor pore abar eshechhi phire / Bangla’r buuke achhi dnarhiye” the reality of freedom dawned on us. Joi Bangla was now being heard ever more loudly in the alleys and lanes of Malibagh, across the city.

Of a free country

Forty-nine years ago, on this day in 1971, my friend Mominul Haq Monju, a relative of his, and I set out in the morning to get the feeling of what it was to be free citizens of a free country. We walked, but then everyone was walking, everyone was deliriously happy. Those final days of Pakistan, when the soldiers clamped a curfew and compelled us to observe blackouts at night, were behind us. Those nine months of terror were over. 

The fear that Dhaka would be a battle zone for the joint forces and the occupation army, fear that had prompted thousands to move out of the city and towards the countryside, was over. It was an incredible feeling, a catharsis.

A large crowd of happy Bengalis were gathered near a tree, opposite the gates of President’s House (later to be Ganobhaban and Bangabandhu’s first office). We approached the spot, to find two dead Pakistani soldiers on the grass. Clearly, they had been dead since the surrender. No one had any regret over their sorry end. Indeed, many in the crowd were seen thanking the Almighty that Pakistan’s soldiers had finally had their comeuppance. 

We moved toward President’s House, where Indian army officers and jawans mingled with ecstatic Bengalis. A 40-something Bengali held a Sikh officer in a tight hug, letting him know how horrible the Punjabis had been over the preceding nine months. Punjabis were not good people, he said through his tears of joy. The Sikh officer reassured him that not all Punjabis were bad. “Hum bhi to Punjabi hain,” he told our Bengali. It was then that the latter realized that Sikhs too were from Punjab, the Indian side of it.

On that morning, every citizen greeted every other citizen with the Joi Bangla salutation. Hawkers were having a field day selling large posters of Bangabandhu, who wore dark glasses (obviously those pictures I remembered to have seen in the newspapers following his arrival in Rawalpindi for the Round Table Conference called by Ayub Khan in February 1969), and people were cheerfully lapping them up. 

Posters depicting a smiling Indira Gandhi were also all over the place. We moved on, to the road opposite the Intercontinental hotel, outside which a large banner proclaimed its status as a neutral zone. Everyone knew that inside it were the members of the fallen puppet government of Dr AM Malik as well as Pakistani civilian officers and their families. Loud slogans were being raised, with some in the crowd demanding that the collaborators inside be handed over to them for proper justice to be done.

‘Bangladesh comes into being’

Happy crowds were everywhere, before Sakura and on the road leading to the Race Course and Dhaka University. We did not yet have any knowledge of the intellectuals the razakars had murdered in the two days leading up to liberation. No newspapers had yet made an appearance, would not till the next day, December 18. Dainik Pakistan would be Dainik Bangla. 

The Pakistan Observer would appear with its new name, The Observer, with the headline in red: “Bangladesh comes into being,” accompanied by a large photograph of Bangabandhu. Tajuddin Ahmad’s call for restraint was a report on the top left of the page. Niazi’s surrender was captured significantly in a picture, along with a news report on Mrs Gandhi.

But all of that was to be a day later. We walked to the Race Course, where the Pakistan army had acknowledged its military defeat less than 24 hours earlier. I remember telling myself that it was the same place from where Bangabandhu had given out the call for freedom in March. From a short distance away, the ferocity of the occupation forces manifested itself anew: Before us was an eerie emptiness that once had been the Kali Mandir, which the army had destroyed in one of its early instances of rapacious behaviour. 

Some distance away was the ravaged Shaheed Minar, which the genocide men had reduced to rubble on the night of March 25, before setting a few bricks in place with a note that it was now the venue for a mosque. What a perversion of faith it was!

Buried in a mass grave

We trekked down to Mohsin Hall, which had been strafed by the Indian air force in the days before the surrender. I picked up a steel splinter from what certainly had been a bomb and put in my pocket. I was in the Dhaka University area for the very first time in my life, wondering where Jagannath Hall was, the place where teachers and students alike were gunned down in the early hours of the genocide and buried in a mass grave.

We then walked to Nilkhet, where shops dealing in quilts and other winter items were cheerfully laying out their wares. Passing by New Market, we turned back and made our way to Governor’s House (later to be Bangabhaban), hoping to be let in and see for ourselves the consequences of the systematic Indian bombing over the past few days. Those guarding the gates, our very own Bengalis, politely told us we could not go in for reasons of security. “You will have ample time to see it later,” he reassured us. “It belongs to us now, after all.” 

Tired and hungry and thirsty but happy, we went to Shahbagh and from there to Siddheswari, where proud families were welcoming back home their sons, long-haired and bearded guerrillas with guns slung on their shoulders, returning triumphantly from war. We shouted Joi Bangla, which was our collective tribute to those brave young men. 

By the time I came to the graves of Farooq and Iqbal, two young Bengalis killed by the army in March, across from Mouchak Market, the celebrations of freedom were only increasing in intensity. Near Abu Dhar Gifari College, a man in a white suit and dark glasses was stopped by a group of young people, pulled down from the rickshaw he was in and given a thorough beating. It transpired that he had been a collaborator of the occupation army in the Malibagh-Khilgaon area. No one had forgotten his misdeeds.

A cessation of hostilities

Once back home, I spent all evening and most of the night tuning in to the BBC, All-India Radio, and Voice of America for news of Bangabandhu, of whether he was alive or his captors had put him to death. The news we came by late in the day spoke of a ceasefire having taken effect in the western sector. The Indian army, already deep inside West Pakistan, had called a halt to its operations after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had announced a cessation of hostilities.

Over the next few days, we waited for news of Bangabandhu; we waited for the Mujibnagar government to come home. 

The Father of the Nation would be moved from solitary confinement to detention at a rest house outside Rawalpindi on December 22, two days after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had taken over as president and chief martial law administrator of Pakistan from General Yahya Khan. On the same day, December 22, the leaders of the Mujibnagar government would come home to Dhaka.

Meanwhile, the Indian and Bangladesh authorities had already begun the process of transferring Pakistan’s defeated soldiers, now prisoners of war, to India, in order to shield them from Bengali wrath in Bangladesh. 

With crowds of angry Bengalis, my brother and I stood at the Malibagh rail crossing, watching our tormentors go by in fast moving trains. Many in the crowd flung rocks at the train, at the soldiers of a vanquished, oppressive army making their way out of our free country.

Forty-nine Decembers ago, I was a teenager with dreams of the rainbow future of my liberated country. In my 60s, those dreams are as alive, as vibrant, as coruscating as they were when liberty shone bright across the villages and towns of this beautiful land.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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