Dispatch from 1971

PAINTING BY SHAHABUDDINZiauddin Choudhury recounts his personal experience of the beginning of the 1971 Liberation War
March 26, 1971 was just another day in Munshiganj, a placid sub-divisional town on the bank of the Dhaleswari, its inhabitants blissfully unaware of the carnage that had begun in Dhaka city the previous night and was continuing in full fury on that day.

People were aware, however, that the Mujib-Yahya talks had failed, and they all had heard the previous evening the ominous Yahya speech vowing stern action against Awami League and its supporters.

But never in their wildest dreams could people think that a nightmare of Gothic proportion was being created in the streets of Dhaka against all residents of that city.

This would be told to the people of Munshiganj hours later by those retreating from the flaming Dhaka city by boat. They were in the thousands — men, women, children, and many old and infirm carried on people’s backs. The majority of them were not from the area, but this was the only place they could think of as shelter since Narayanganj, which was accessible from Dhaka by road, had already been attacked.

As sub-divisional officer of Munshiganj then, I had returned from Dhaka on March 24 after my weekly meeting with the deputy commissioner, with dwindling hopes of a peaceful resolution in the ongoing talks between Yahya and Sheikh Mujib.

Earlier on March 25, I had a premonition of some dire actions by the government after a brief phone conversation with the additional deputy commissioner, who talked about the possible failure of the talks. The evil speech of President Yahya later in the evening confirmed my premonition, and with a heavy heart I had gone to bed not knowing what catastrophe awaited us.

d02The first sign that things had changed for the worse came with the change from Dhaka Radio — the appellation given to Radio Pakistan Dhaka by the Dhaka station radio staff since the beginning of the March 7 non-cooperation movement — back to Radio Pakistan, Dhaka. Gone were the Tagore and Nazrul songs that characterised the non-cooperation movement, as were the inspiring news reports and talks. In their place, only martial music of the 1965 war days was being played constantly. No news was broadcast about the holocaust that was being wrought on Dhaka. It was only after switching to Air India that we found out all hell had broken loose.

Since we were spared the Pakistan army assault on Munshiganj in its first fury as we were literally in the backwaters, we were also ignorant of the nature of the atrocities until refugees started to arrive. As incredible as it was, people in Munshiganj were both appalled and angry as they we were told about the horrendous, unwarranted armed attack on civilians in the streets. The first day was one of shock as well as fear, since the news of the army’s attack on Narayan-ganj reached Munshiganj and apprehension grew of an impending attack on Munshiganj.

While the majority in Munshiganj was in two minds whether to continue to stay in the town or leave for the villages, the youth in town took a completely opposite view. Encouraged by reports of police rebellion in Narayanganj, and aided by students from local colleges, the students of Haraganga College also started to contemplate similar actions. However, I would not know of such militant thoughts of the youths until a few hours later when I was informed that a gathering of angry young people was taking place near the court house where a contingent of police guarded the sub-divisional treasury which stored a small cache of rifles and ammunition.

In Munshiganj town we had two sets of police force; one in the local thana numbering about 30 policemen and officers, and another of about 12 in the sub-division treasury which was under my control as SDO. The treasury held no treasures as such. Its main functions were to store and sell court stamps and house an armoury that consisted of two dozen rifles and several boxes of ammunition. Government cash was kept in the vaults of a government-owned bank.

d03On hearing the disturbing news, I hastened to the court house with the sub-divisional officer in tow. We did not see any students gathering in front of the court house. However, we found the court-house and the sub-treasury without any guards, where normally there would be an armed guard at the entrance. When we stepped inside the barracks there was utter confusion, with all the constables running to and fro in plain clothes. When someone shouted that the SDO or SDPO might come, they seemed nonchalant.

Realising that it would be foolish to encounter any of the constables in this state of frenzy, both of us retreated to my office. We summoned the havildar on duty, who came in a civilian outfit. He clearly indicated that he was in no mood to offer himself as a sacrificial lamb to the army. He wanted to leave his position. After much persuasion, the havildar agreed to remain in the barracks, but on condition that neither he nor his men would don uniforms. They agreed to guard the armoury. The SDPO and I decided to move to my office in the court building.

While the SDPO and I were mulling over wild reports of impending army assault on Munshiganj, a group of young college students burst into the office. They wanted our support to put together a resistance force with local police and, of course, take away the arms in the treasury. It required more than ready wit and gift of the gab to contain the zeal of the impassioned youths. I pleaded with them to wait and see, emphasising particularly that we could not build a resistance force with untrained youth and a paltry number of police, many of whom might have fled already. I suggested that we move according to the need of the hour and not in haste. The young people left the office seemingly tamed, but only temporarily.

I returned to my bungalow for lunch with my younger brother who had decided to keep me company in those desolate days. The engineering university where he taught as a lecturer was closed, like all other educational institutions in Bangladesh at that time. Within an hour of my return, I got a call from the SDPO announcing that the armoury had been looted by the students. Three of us (SDPO, I and my brother) rushed to the treasury, only to find an empty armoury; even the ammunition boxes had disappeared.

A not too unhappy havildar, still in civilian clothes, welcomed us and impassively informed us that the
event was all too sudden. The force was too overpowering, he added. Peering through the window I observed a stray group of youth holding some of the looted rifles, and a friendly group of policemen looking indulgently at them. The complicity was far too obvious to comment on. The SDPO and I exchanged meaningful glances and quietly withdrew to my office chamber. This was not the time nor opportunity to pressgang an unwilling police force to charge the militant youth and recover the arms. Discretion was the better part of valour.

As we contemplated our options in my office chamber, a couple of young people barged in. They announced that Munshiganj students were forming a resistance force and they wanted the police to train them. They made no secret of their part in the looting, and asked us to join the resistance force that had gathered near Munshiganj river bank ready to take on the Pakistan army. Given the passion of the moment, I realised immediately that it was futile to dissuade the youths from this rather quixotic dream of taking on a modern army with a dozen rifles of Second World War vintage. I simply suggested that it was essential to keep the arms safe from criminal elements and that the youth leaders make sure whom they gave the arms to. It would be hard to get any police for training though, the SDPO added, given that much of his force had left their stations. The youths agreed to have the rifle carrying young men in one place and arrange for the safety of the arms. How they would do it was unimaginable for us.

The rest of the remaining day was chaotic. There were a few youths carrying arms parading the main road. Some had actually reached the river bank and were firing the guns rather aimlessly at the river from a prone position. The shooting added to the panic of the people, who were already terrified by the thought of an impending army attack.

The combative mood of the youths and local population, however, began to change the following day when more people started to arrive in Munshiganj, fleeing the army atrocities in Dhaka and Narayanganj. The refugees from these places had just escaped one combat scene, and were looking forward to some safe haven. The sight of young people moving with arms scared them further. They began to dissuade the youths, citing examples of Narayanganj where scores of such youths had tried to barricade the advancing army tanks, but had to flee. Quite a few of the students had died. The advancing army burned all the houses near the scene of the resistance, and followed it by burning other houses in the neighbourhood. (The army also burnt my parental home in Narayanganj; my parents with my young siblings were barely able to escape to Munshiganj a few hours before the attack.)

The chaos in the town worsened when, in their zeal, some young men started firing their rifles at random, scaring the population even more. There were reports of accidental shootings of people. Also, there were reports that some young people had found the burden of the rifles too much and were trying to hand them over to eager people who had less than patriotic motives. Local political leaders also added to the voice of the refugees; their concern was the danger of possible transfer of the rifles to criminal elements.

Everyone requested me to arrange for the safe custody of the arms. This was easier said than done. With virtually no police force to fall back upon, I had to depend on my wits and the support of two youth leaders to bring some sanity to the process and keep the town safer. The youth leaders were eager to cooperate, but they were apparently helpless as they hardly knew who among the youths had the guns and the boxes of ammunitions.

My wise, older SDPO had a suggestion. How about an announcement by the student leaders asking for a rally at the local high school ground? Everyone with arms should report to the rally where they would be registered as volunteers, and after the rally the rifles would be given back to the registered volunteers. The youth leaders agreed but on condition that I address the rally. I agreed without knowing what I was getting into.

During he remaining part of the day, the youth leaders made a public announcement for a “resistance rally” at the high school ground the following day. The youths with arms were especially encouraged to attend.

I arrived at the ground at about 11 in the morning of March 28. There were young people of all descriptions already assembled there, some with rifles, but most others had sticks in their hands. I quickly tried to figure out the number of arms, there were fewer than two dozen. It was clear that not all the arms taken from the armoury were there. Under orders of a youth leader, the assembly fell into columns. The ones with rifles were in front, those with sticks were behind.

I do not recall my words; all I remember was that my voice was choked with deep emotions. I urged discipline and safety and prayed for our success, without knowing how and where it was to be obtained. At the end of my speech, one of the youth leaders stood up and asked the youths with rifles to register. One youth had a book to write down names. As I looked on, the youths started one by one. But instead of depositing their arms they took them back. So much for safekeeping! The plan fizzled out on the ground.

The leaders rushed to the departing youths and asked them to deposit the arms for safekeeping. But where, one of the youths asked? Not back in the armoury? It was after all a government place, and they could not deposit their arms in the same place from where they had taken them! It was illogical, they argued. Nobody would like to take them to their houses. They all looked at me; the SDO’s house, one of them suggested. Before I could even protest this absurd suggestion, the youth leaders supported the proposal. Within minutes, the youths with rifles disappeared.

When I arrived at my bungalow, climbing all forty steps of the Idrakpur Fort, I saw a pile of rifles on the compound near the flag-post, atop which the Bangladesh flag was still fluttering. There were twenty-four rifles — the same number the armoury held. There were a few boxes of ammunition lying nearby. I looked at the arms, and the youths below the fort going back to their homes.

The old rifles lying on the ground seemed so lifeless without the young arms clutching them. They never came back for the rifles; most of them would leave Munshiganj soon and join the real resistance force deep inside Bangladesh villages. My dutiful SDPO came and recouped the World War II rifles later in the evening for safer custody in the armoury, where they belonged.

Ziauddin Choudhury is a former civil servant.

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