A few stories from some of Bangladesh's most valiant freedom fighters
“There are no extraordinary men…just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” -- William Halsey.
The month of March has always been a boisterous period for Bangladeshis, celebrating or commemorating various days with significant historical importances. March 1, 7, 17, 25, 26, and 27 -- all these days evoke emotional sentiments of fury and fervour in the minds of Bangladeshis.
March 7 is one such date that is held in the heart of every Bangladeshi with a deep sense of pride, love, and affection. On this day 50 years ago, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made a clarion call exhorting all the people of the country to be ready to fight the enemy with whatever they could lay their hands on.
The epoch making speech of Bangabandhu on March 7, 1971, essentially set the stage for the War of Liberation, which was foisted upon the Bangladeshis, only days after Bangabandhu’s above mentioned speech, on the darkest night of March 25, 1971. In this context, it may be mentioned that Bangabandhu’s speech on March 7 has not only been included as a Unesco World Heritage document, it has also been included in an uncommon book called, We Shall Fight on the Beaches, containing the 100 major speeches in the world, authored by Jacob F Field.
On March 7, 2021, exactly at 3:15 in the afternoon, the moment when Bangabandhu 50 years ago concluded his historic speech: “Ebarer shongram muktir shongram; ebarer songram shadhinotar shongram (The struggle this time is for emancipation; the struggle this time is for independence), a book entitled We answered the Call: Memoirs of Freedom Fighters, was launched under the auspices of the Bangladesh War Courses Foundation (BWCF), at the Army Golf Club, Kurmitola.
The book includes a foreword by Major General KM Shafiullah, BU, (Retd) first Chief of Staff of the Bangladesh Army, and 36 memoirs written by 30 members of BWCF, two Indian army officers, and Major General Helal Morshed Khan, BB (Retd).
The freedom fighters
The provisional government of Bangladesh during the liberation period, in view of the acute shortage of army officers, decided to increase their strength by inducting capable individuals from the freedom fighters, through a formal recruitment process.
Accordingly, two batches comprising 60 and 71 officer cadets were respectively recruited and sent to Murti, a remote hilly hamlet between the valleys of Bhutan and Sikkim, which was an old installation of the indian army. This place was chosen as the ideal location for the pre-commissioning training of these cadets. The officer cadets came from a cross-section of backgrounds, including college and university students, escapees from the Pakistan military and air force academies, and members of armed forces.
Prominent among these cadets was Sheikh Kamal, the elder son of Bangabandhu, who joined the first batch. The training camp in Murti was manned by Indian army personnel, including the instructors, officers, and JCOs/ NCOs. There were two makeshift training wings in Murti: the Bhashani Wing for officers and the Mujib Wing for other freedom fighters.
As most of the cadets had tested war experience and indeed led a number of successful and daring operations against the enemy, the training curriculum was designed in such a compact manner that within 16 weeks of training it encapsulated the sharpening of the leadership qualities as well as imparting the fundamental elements of tactical skills of both classical and guerilla warfare.
While the first batch could complete their 16-week training program and go back to the fronts in early October, the second batch was still in the middle of their training when the country was liberated.
Memories of war and sacrifice
Each of the articles written by the different authors takes the readers back to the tumultuous weeks and days before the crackdown: How they viewed the emerging situation as it unfolded day by day, what went through their young minds, and what motivated them to sacrifice everything they held dear to them -- their studies or jobs, their parents, the tranquility and comfort of their lives -- and electing to join a war that was inevitably fraught with danger and uncertain future.
It was a war that was not a picnic, nor was it shooting for some drama series or movie. It was real -- real in the sense that there were live bullets being fired, bombs being exploded, and mines being blasted under the feet that could snap the life out of its existence instantly or could maime you for life.
Yet, the love for the motherland was so overwhelming that no danger could dampen their determination. Just consider this: A nation with a population of 75 million, the strength of the eligible fighters exceeding 15 million -- but only about 200,000 young people took part in the War of Liberation. It was a lifetime opportunity, or a litmus test of which side of the divide one stood on.
The memoirs of the young warriors also vividly flashback to their early short training in the FF’s camps in India, before joining the officer cadets academy, and entering the country with the intent to kill the enemy and instill a chilling fear in their hearts. Their daredevil operations were not without cost to their own lives and those of their comrades.
Take the case of Kazi Kamal, formerly a national basketball player of the Pakistan team, who joined the second batch. Before joining as an officer cadet, he led a number of ferocious guerrilla operations in Dhaka, killing a number of enemy soldiers. The Pakistan army intelligence could apprehend one of his associates and extract vital information about the hideouts of the guerrllas from him under severe torture.
Following an operation, as Kamal was resting in one of his hideouts, the house was raided by the Pakistan army at about 3:00am in the morning, when the former was fast asleep. An army captain goaded Kamal from his sleep with his sten gun. As if he was seeing a ghost, a stunned Kamal immediately got his bearings under control and without much thought jumped on the captain, grabbing his sten gun.
In the ensuing scuffle, Kamal’s lungi (sleeping sarong) was unknotted, rendering him stark naked. The spectacle shocked the army captain (I still wonder what the cause of the captain’s shock was). Kamal, oblivious of his anatomical posture, snatched the sten gun, which by then was emptied of all its bullets due to the scuffle, and hit it hard on the captain’s head, knocking him unconscious.
Without any delay, Kamal ran for his life, before reaching another hideout. Kazi Kamal was awarded with Bir Bikram (BB), the second highest gallantry award for the living, for his bravery.
The story of Major Shawkat Alley, BP, of the first batch, who was a second year university student, equally gives you goosebumps. He, along with three of his university friends -- Major Hashmi Mustafa Kamal, Major General Masudur Rahman, BP, and Major Fazlur Rahman -- joined the war with the 8th East Bengal Regiment in Chittagong from its very inception in late March ’71; they fought with the unit bravely before joining the academy.
In his memoir, he shares the harrowing tale of how he evacuated the then Capt Harun Ahmed Chowdhury (later Major General and recipient of Bir Uttam, the highest gallantry award for the living), who was shot by multiple enemy bullets, causing his innards to come out, to a veterinary surgeon some miles away, who used the instruments for operating on the animals to conduct a surgery on Haroon under local anesthesia.
Shawkat also writes about how, a few days later, he and his friend Fazlur Rahman dragged Capt Aftab Quader, who was severely wounded by enemy fire, risking their lives even when volleys of enemy fire were flying over their heads, to safety only to watch Aftab die in his lap. Aftab had married only a few days ago.
Capt Humayun Kabir, BP; Major Arefin; Lt Col Mudassir Khan, BP; and Lt Col Zainul, who escaped from their military and airforce academies in Pakistan before completing their training, only to take part in the Liberation War, took us down their memory lanes. They told us how they, though not fully trained, commanded full-fledged sub-sectors and carried out spectacular operations against the enemy.
A few of the writers also took time to recall their association with Sheikh Kamal and wrote about the persona the latter was.
Many of the members of the above mentioned batches are no longer with us; some embraced martyrdom within days of their pre-commission training, like 2/Lt Ashfaqus Samad, BU, who was killed in a battle with the enemy on November 21, 1971, or like 2/Lt Selim, who was killed in a mopping up operation in the Bihari camp of Mirpur in January 1972. Major General Helal Morshed Khan, BB, penned his lugubrious memoir of the events that unfolded in Mirpur under his watch.
A few were hanged in 1981, following a sham trial in a kangaroo military court, set up by Gen Ershad, for their alleged role or trumped up charges against them in the killing of President Zia, while a few others made their eternal journey.
The book is also not without its share of personal frustration or misfortune. Take for instance the case of one cadet Abdul Hamid Chowdhury, who fled from Pakistan Military Academy, fought in the early days of the war as a sub-sector commander, joined the second batch in Murti, and yet was not granted commission in the Bangladesh army.
Although it’s said, “never judge a book by its cover,” the thoughtful cover of the book, with a picture of Bangabandhu addressing the mammoth meeting on March 7, 1971, will certainly draw the attention of its readers. The book is dedicated to the “young men and women of Bangladesh who would proudly keep the flag flying ever high in service of the nation.”
The back cover of the book, in addition to paying deep gratitude to the Father of the Nation, who surpasses even the glowiest of tributes for his contribution to bringing this country into existence, quotes Captain Mohiuddin Zahangir, BS (Bir Sreshto -- highest gallantry award given posthumously), poignantly counselling one of his junior officers on coping with the war:
“Those freedom fighters who got blown to bits without having achieved anything, without serving any purpose -- if you look at it that way, everything will seem pointless and nothing will make sense. Only when you stop thinking and obey orders with blind instinct will things become more bearable.”
The book could see the light of day after long and arduous effort by a bunch of good samaritan members of the BWCF. In particular, Major General Jibon Kanai Das (former president of BWCF), Brig Gen Jalal Siddiqui (incumbent president of BWCF), and Major Muqtadir Ali (truly the custodian of BWCF), without whose dogged perseverance it would not have been possible to publish the book.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to claim that the book, which certainly isn’t a great literary work nor was it intended as such, will serve as a great treasure trove for future generations thirsty to know the actual history of our Liberation War, and the making of an army of an independent nation. Though, in all honesty, I would admit that it could have been even richer had more members of the BWCF contributed to it with their valuable memoirs.
The book, which is priced at Tk500, is distributed by Magnum Opus, 112 Aziz Super Market, Shahbag, Dhaka -1000.
Ashraf ud Doula is a retired Major and a freedom fighter and belonged to the 2nd batch of officers mentioned above. He left the army in 1977 and joined the Bangladesh foreign service. He is a former Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, government of Bangladesh, former Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan, Vietnam and Laos, and former Bangladesh High Commissioner to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Sri Lanka.