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Dr Alim: A martyr of 1971

  • Published at 12:54 am October 27th, 2021

Events after the 25th of March. This memoir is published as part of Bangladesh’s 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations. This is the 3rd instalment

As the curfew was gradually lifted, news began to trickle in. In the deluge that followed, we learnt that the Shaheed Minar had been demolished. Dr Govinda Chandra Dev, Professor Moniruzzaman, Dr F R Khan, A Muqtadi -- they were among the many people murdered on the night of the 25th. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta had been taken to Dhaka Medical College after being shot. He later died of his wounds. 

They burnt down Modhu’s Canteen in Dhaka University, and in killing Modhu-Da, they had no qualms. Jagannath Hall was all but demolished, its residents shot and buried in a mass grave. Most student halls had been bombed and fared little better -- where they once stood there was only rubble. So many students lost their lives; so many youths. We have no measure of their numbers. The wrath of the military burned through the city -- the markets of Dhaka, the roadside stalls and slums, they all burned to near incineration. 

The Rajarbagh police had put up a defense against the attacks. With only their three-not-three rifles at hand, they sacrificed their lives to repel the president’s advancing army. The Pakistani battalions arrived in a huge convoy. Preceding them were scrappers to clear the barricades. 

Tanks brought up the rear. The skirmish that followed was brutal -- the exchange of gunfire ending only when the police ran out of cartridges. In the face of machine guns, tanks, and artillery, mere rifles had stood no chance. Having lost even this defense, the police tried to escape. Some succeeded. Most did not.  Those who were captured were taken to the Rajarbagh parade grounds and shot. Later, around half past three in the morning, the police barracks were set on fire. Many burnt to death that night. 

Tanks and machine guns had nearly completely destroyed Iqbal Hall. The soldiers present had brutally killed each and every student they came across. Rooms had been looted -- books and study materials piled into bonfires. The struggle for Bangali liberation had begun at Dhaka University, in Iqbal Hall itself. It was no wonder then, that the army had acted with such ferocious vengeance. 

A city of the dead

The quarters for fourth-grade university employees behind Rokeya Hall, the Polashi bureau of the fire department; Pilkhana, Sadarghat -- all of Dhaka city, covered in corpses. In those nine long months between the 25th of March and December 16th, how many Bangalis lost their lives? There has never been a proper reckoning. Thirty lakh, or even more -- who really knows?

Dhaka had truly become a city of the dead. On March 29, Hafiz made arrangements to leave for his village. He had been Syed Nazrul’s constant companion, and it had been his car that they used when travelling from place to place. Everyone knew him -- it was only a matter of time before there was some trouble. Apa was also adamant about leaving Dhaka with her sons. She refused to stay a moment longer than necessary. 

Alim told Hafiz to leave, and said we would soon follow. We also sent Shwapan with them, as it seemed unsafe to keep him in Dhaka. Pakistani soldiers treated young men the most brutally. My other brother, Shankar, went to stay at his friend Ershad’s house. While there, he went by the name “Mamun.” He would visit us every three or four days -- coming with Ershad on his motorbike and leaving after half an hour or so. 

Once Hafiz and Apa left Dhaka with the others, we set our minds to our own departure. The question of my ailing father concerned Alim immensely. My mother and I tried to allay his fears, reminding him that no one was likely to harm an old man. If there was any chance of danger, it would be for us. 

During this period, we had all abandoned our workplaces to support Sheikh Mujib’s call for non-cooperation, but the government soon issued a statement ordering us all back to work. At the time I was employed as a teacher at the Dhaka English Preparatory School -- now Udayan Bidyalaya -- and Alim was an associate professor at Dhaka Medical College. 

We discussed it with all our friends and family, and everyone agreed that staying in Dhaka meant returning to work. We would draw attention otherwise, and that was a sure way of inviting trouble. After further deliberation, we decided to work for as long as we remained in Dhaka. As soon as an opportune moment presented itself, we would make our quiet escape.

There were patients staying in our home clinic from March till mid-April. They had all had cataract operations. For us, things became increasingly difficult -- we never knew when or to where we might have to depart. Leaving patients behind would only be an added concern. 

With that in mind, Alim stopped admitting new cases while those remaining recovered. With their departure, our first floor became vacant. Alim then decided to close his clinic at 62/2 Purana Paltan and began holding his consultations downstairs. The address of the clinic was 29/1 Purana Paltan. 

My relief was indescribable. At the time, Alim was at the Medical College from eight in the morning. His work at the clinic then followed after. The end of his day was at the Medical Association, and he would return home around 11 at night -- if not later. Moving his practice to the clinic downstairs meant he would be close for more of the day.   

The clinic was quite large and gave us the opportunity to provide shelter to our friends in hiding. One or the other would come and stay for a week or two before moving once again. We enjoyed having them with us. For those few days, if only for a while, we had the chance to speak freely with our friends.  

Life under siege

In those days, only the radio reached the furthest ends of the country. So it was that the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro, the Radio Centre of “Free Bengal,” became the voice of the exiled Bangladeshi government. We would wait expectantly to listen to its programs -- they were our respite as we dwelled in fear under the Pakistani regime. 

Dhaka radio station had been shut down during the terrible days of the blockade. When it resumed operations, however, the only news it broadcast would leave me enraged. On more than one occasion, I felt like smashing our radio set. 

The papers were no better. I would skim through them for useful information, and then immediately set them aside. We developed a hatred for the regime. It was impossible to believe a word they said. Only the news from Shadhin Bangla Betar seemed genuine. Every once in a while, we would get newspapers from India, and particularly from West Bengal. Having those papers in hand felt like grasping the warrant for our liberation.    

On April 17, 1971, the provisional government of Bangladesh was established in the town of Baidyanathtala -- now Mujibnagar -- in Meherpur. This followed from the declaration of independence the month before, and many “East Pakistani” government officials had come to take part in the oath ceremony. 

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was appointed president of the Bangladesh provisional government. Syed Nazrul Islam would serve as vice president, and act in the absence of Sheikh Mujib, while Tajuddin Ahmed became the new Prime Minister. Khondoker Mostaq Ahmad, Mansur Ali, and A H M Kamruzzaman were respectively appointed Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Home Affairs.  Colonel M A Goni Osmani, who later became General, was nominated Commander-in-Chief of our defenses. 

In those turbulent hours of the Liberation War, it was these reports that gave us hope. Our spirits were roused, and our minds, turned from distress, came to anticipate victory. In April, we learnt that General Osmani was organizing guerrilla campaigns and naval commando operations. Their training was complete by May, and by the end of June, our Muktibahini had commenced their assault on the Pakistani forces.

The Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro played a vital role in maintaining the morale of our nation. Through updates called Chorompotro, it gave us reports on the campaigns of the Muktibahini and our advancement towards victory. Listening to this news, I would feel euphoric pride at every success and accomplishment. I knew that I was not alone in these sentiments, for the whole nation was quietly jubilant. 

The edition of the Daily Ittefaq published on 12th Choitro, 1378 -- ie March 26, 1972 -- was a special issue marking Independence Day. In it was an article by Sardar Fazlul Karim, where he had written the following:

Oh lord, will there be no end to this affliction? Will you not grant the prayers of the civilians held hostage in Dhaka? Will such egocentric hubris go unvanquished? Many civilians had been arrested, their sole crime being listeners of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. 

Their sentences were torture and death. Yet those updates on the radio remained our lifeline -- nothing could instil the same sense of hope. So we kept listening to the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra as one might do to a heartbeat, our ears close as we tuned in to the programs. Greetings from the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra …  The sounds of the Radio were much dimmed. 

The voices sounded vulnerable. Still, it was something to rely on -- our survival depended on its existence. In those days, when we passed our time on the precipice between life and death, it kept us alive. It was an elixir to reanimate the captive city of Dhaka, which had become all but dead.

The days and nights would invert themselves and blend. We became accustomed to the nocturnal chorus of grenades. 

Writers are the conscience of a nation: Those words from Fazlul Karim conjured the millions of voices that dreamed of liberty.

Life in Dhaka had become intolerable. Trucks would pass through the city with people piled on top of each other, blindfolded and hands bound.  No one knew where they were going, but once they arrived at their final destination, they were forced to do a number of tasks before being put to death. Some had to dig their own graves. 

We heard that bundled corpses were found floating up the river. Girls being kidnapped became daily news. Every time I went out, my heart trembled in fear. I still had to attend to my work at school. We would exchange news while there. The students and youth would share information about the war in our school. They used to distribute leaflets among us. 

Later, we would hand those leaflets to others secretly. When the battle began in Dhaka, the freedom fighters began to visit our house. We tried to provide them with whatever they asked -- in most cases, this was medicine. My mother and younger sister Dipa would knit jumpers for the youth. They would come to us to collect them. 

My colleague in Udayan School, Mrs Edlin Malaker, would help me maintain contact with them. Once I told Alim about it, and he got annoyed. “Why are you telling me these things?” he said. “You are not supposed to share such information with anyone. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. The success of your work depends on it.”

I realized then my mistake. I would never open my mouth like that to anyone again. This was one of many lessons I learnt from Alim. I have always considered myself privileged to have had his presence in my life.

We could no longer think of leaving Dhaka. Whenever I posed the thought, Alim would simply wave it away. He used to say: “We have so much work to carry on in Dhaka. What would happen if everyone just left?’’ What indeed... 

Alim had the crucial responsibility of providing medical treatment to freedom fighters. We were visited often by freedom fighters and various youth, all seeking medical aid. Alim would also visit them sometimes to provide care. There was an underground hospital where treatment was provided by Dr Fazle Rabbi and several other medical professionals. 

After Alim’s death, one of the freedom fighters visited me. “The bandage Dr Alim put on my eye is still here,” he said. “Yet doctor Alim is no more.”

Alim would begin his work as soon as curfew ended. He collected medicine from various companies and pharmacies, storing it in the boot of his car before distributing it among various safehouses. He also collected donations for the Muktibahini. Of these activities, I had little idea despite living under the same roof. He was always careful to not reveal any information about his work, and never shared these details with me. It was only after his death that I learnt the true extent of his dedication from his friends and colleagues. 

Through the nine months of the Liberation War, Alim worked with such vigour that people began to find his actions threatening. They would shut their doors when they saw his car in the distance, thinking that if someone as recognizable as Alim walked into their house, the Pakistanis would surely arrest them.  

His work made it impossible for him to be home before curfew -- at best, his return would coincide with its start. I would become more and more anxious as the hours went by. Whenever I asked what had caused his delay, he would reply that he got caught up with work. Seeing my unease, he would sometimes try to quell my fears. “The Red Cross logo is displayed on the car,” he once said. “They won’t say anything to me, and they won't kill a doctor. Don’t worry so much.”

His words gave me little comfort. I remained haunted by my fears. Whenever he was out in his car, I worried he would not return. That I might be going about my day, ignorant of his demise until the news reached me -- such were the thoughts that held my mind captive. 

This was something I never revealed to him. Deep inside, I remained in a constant state of agitation. To know that these fears were not unfounded -- to have had them validated as they were -- feels even now like the cruelest mockery. 

By the end of June, the freedom fighters had already begun to knock back the Pakistanis through various guerrilla offensives. The “operations,” as they were called, consisted of sudden strikes against the occupying troops and their stockpiles. Their precipitance and seeming randomness ensured a high success rate. News of these operations filled us with elation and the ready belief that victory would soon be ours. 

The Muktibahini received great support from civilians during the Liberation War. We were always prepared to support them and offered assistance at every opportunity. 

Originally written in Bangla by Shyamoli Nasreen Choudhury, wife of DR Alim Choudhury, recipient of the Ekushey Padak for her contribution in Education. The article is translated by Farah Naz and Manoshi Quayes.

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