Our freedom struggle and the enemy within

Ziauddin Choudhury
NEXT week we will observe the 37th anniversary of our independence, the day our freedom struggle began, the day blood-letting started with machine guns let loose on our innocent people by the Pakistan military junta. There will be much joy on this hard fought independence day of ours, but there will also be much sorrow remembering the millions who gave their lives for the happiness of the future generations.

Those of us who lived through the harrowing nine months of 1971 will remember with dismay that the enemy that descended on us was not alone. They came in two incarnations; those detectable to the eye, and those who were undetectable.

The Pakistan army embodied the visible enemy, and we could recognise them readily. Our people learnt how to evade them later in the course of our struggle: the bolder among us would even learn how to tackle them. It is the hidden ones that we could not confront, because we did not know who they actually were. They not only looked like us, they were among us. They did not carry any weapons, they even did not look like they could harm you. Yet, they committed the most heinous crimes that one could imagine in a war.

These were collaborators of the dark, who informed on their neighbours and laid traps for those they suspected of supporting the liberation war or simply speaking against the junta. These back-stabbers masked their activities with an outward meekness and blended during the day with their fellow neighbours, but met their masters under cover of the night to help them in their next murderous operation.

Unfortunately for us all, most of these perpetrators escaped post-liberation retribution, as they never left any footprints behind. Most blended with the rest of us, and rehabilitated themselves with money and political support.

The motivation of these malevolent characters for turning against their own people differed. Some were obviously inspired by ideology (religion, Pakistan); others were driven by the opportunity to generate wealth and influence with closer proximity to authority, however brutal it was. And there were others who simply enjoyed their new found role as informers.

During the strife-torn nine months, when I happened to serve as a sub-divisional officer in two places, I came across a few such characters. One was a young businessman who had a family business of water and land transportation.

I came across him, or rather a Pakistani army commander who was my interrogator introduced him to me in Dhaka cantonment. In May 1971, the army command had asked me to report to Dhaka cantonment at the conclusion of its offensive in Munshiganj. I was lucky the army did not take me there in chains, I was only asked to present myself to the battalion commander and answer some questions. What I did not know was that I would be required to face this weekly interrogation for one whole month.

At the end of the last interview, the battalion commander, a rather corpulent fellow with a fearsome moustache, said that he would like me to meet a very close friend of his. I expected another army officer who would assail me with more questions, but, instead, a meek looking young man came out from the back of his office. He was a Bengali, and the commander introduced him as Montu (not his real name). He commended the young man in front of me for having “saved the army” from starvation in March, when civilian barricades were stopping supplies to Dhaka cantonment during the famous non-cooperation movement launched by Sheikh Mujib.

The young man, I was told by the Lt. Colonel, sneaked supplies to the cantonment with his private trucks through back roads. I remembered instantly some news reports in March that had talked about some fifth-column activities during that period. What we did not know then was that these were acts of our own brethren. I realised in amazement and shock that right in front of me was one of the cronies of our foes, one fellow Bengali who did not care that his masters were perpetrating the most heinous crimes against his own people.

As I was trying to figure out the reasons why I was given this unique privilege of knowing the “army friend,” the Lt. Colonel came out with the explanation. For his loyalty and devotion to Pakistan, the army wanted to show Montu some gratitude. He had been already given some (what he did not explain), but Montu needed more. Montu wanted to have lease of the only cinema hall in Munshiganj, and as SDO of Munshiganj I should give it to him. The cinema hall was owned by a Hindu businessman who had fled the area after the army operation there, and was currently abandoned.

Obviously, Montu had done his intelligence work, and wanted the Lt. Colonel to twist my arm to hand over the cinema hall to him. I reflected on the situation. I could not say no to him sitting there right in the army bastion, particularly when I was still being viewed as a suspect (of being on the other side of the fence).

I also could not say yes since, as an SDO, I did not have governmental authority over any abandoned property, least of all lease it. When I muttered something to the effect that I did not have proper authority to decide on such business, the Lt. Colonel would have none of it. He did not care who had the authority; I should see to it that his friend got what he wanted.

I could extricate myself that morning from the cantonment only by convincing the commander that it was my boss, the deputy commissioner, who had the authority to lease, and that I would follow it up with him.

I expected Montu to follow this up with me later, but he did not. In fact, I did not meet Montu after that day. The businessman that he was, he perhaps himself realised that having the lease of the cinema hall would take him to places that he did not want to visit. Or perhaps, he was amply rewarded with other businesses by a grateful master.

Liberation saw many collaborators summarily disposed off by angry mobs, and others put behind bars. But people like Montu simply blended with the rest of the population. He never had to face any trial, as he had left no footprints to trace back to his crimes. Instead, his wealth grew silently.

I came to know about Montu’s great material success long after liberation. He had succeeded further in business. His water transportation business reached its peak in the early seventies. In the dark days of 1971 he made his money acting as an agent of the forces of oppression. In the later days he made his money by filling the pockets of the new powers.

It is not my intention in these columns to lament or to revive these acts to seek anew any retribution against the perpetrators, many of whom may have passed away. It is only a reminder for us that our enemies of 1971 did not always appear before us with bared fangs. There were many others who betrayed us from within, and survived well.


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