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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reminiscing March 26, 1971, after all these year


THERE COMES a time in everyone's life that defines a turning point in one's life. You tend to remember that moment, that event until the day you die. You ask an American of my generation to tell you such a defining moment of his or her life, he, or she will most likely answer by saying that November 22, 1963, was that day when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. However, to a Russian the defining moment could very well be the day when USSR successfully launched the world's first artificial satellite into the outer space on October 4, 1957. For my father's generation that defining moment could have been the day Bengal was separated into two parts solely based on religion on that fateful day of August 14, 1947.

For my generation that defining moment finally arrived on a tenebrous day on March 26, 1971. If you would ask any Bengalis from Bangladesh who is now 38 years and above where he or she was on that day, he or she will be able to answer you in some detail. Well, my kismet brought me to America about 560 days earlier to March 26, 1971. Thus, I was far removed from the epicentre of Bangladesh movement.

Somehow, however, I was able to connect mentally to what was going on in Dhaka and elsewhere in occupied Bangladesh during those tumultuous days. The western news agencies did a superlative job informing the rest of the world the unfolding events especially after the historic speech of Sheikh Mujib at Ramna Race Course on March 7. From Television news and daily newspaper stories, we knew that there was an impasse in transfer of power to the Bengalis who had own the general election of December 10, 1970.

But little did I know how Pakistani army generals as Yahya Khan, Hamid Khan, Gul Hassan, Tikka Khan, A.A. Niazi, Rao Farman Ali, Mitha, Rahim Khan and scores of Brigadiers were secretly meeting in Rawalpindi Cantonment to draw the blueprint of Bangladesh genocide. To unleash an unprecedented reign of terror, Pakistani military was transferring thousands of army men round the clock from the garrisons of West Pakistan to Dhaka and Chittagong by commercial airlines (PIA) and sea vessels. These generals even told their enlisted men that East Pakistanis were becoming Hindus; soon they will join India. Thus, it is up to them to secure the integrity of this nation emancipated by Quiaid-e-Azam. The future of Jinnah's Pakistan rests in their hand.

Sitting far away from East Pakistan little did I know the resolve of the Pakistani military. Nevertheless, when the final blow came in the midnight of March 26, 1971, I was 700 miles away from my campus in Ohio. I was in Daytona Beach, Florida with a group of American students to get away from the harsh Midwestern winter weather. It was an inter-session break. We just arrived to Atlantic coast of Florida two days ago. Cold winter rain shower drenched us in Daytona Beach. We decided to move inland to Sarasota, which is on the Gulf Coast, to get away from Atlantic rain showers. I did not hear any significant news about the political impasse in the radio, although I heard in the radio that Pakistani military President M. Aga Yahya was in Dhaka trying to break the impasse. The press reports emanating from Dhaka were trying to convey that message to the rest of the world. In reality, however, Pakistani military was busily building up a force of 90,000 men to quell the "rebellion" in the breakaway province. They were not ready in the first or second week of March. So, to buyout the time they had to bring the spoiler politician from Sindh (Z.A. Bhutto) and his partner in crime - General Yahya to Dhaka telling rest of the world that they are making progress as a sinister plot to wipe out 3 millions Bengalis was about to unfold.

Brigadier Z.A. Khan in his memoir "The way it was" mentioned ruefully that
East Pakistan was lost because Pakistani army moved too late on March 26, 1971. He opined that if Pakistani army had moved in early March, perhaps East Pakistan would be now under their fold. What a preposterous idea!

In the early morning of March 26, I was asleep inside a tent. I didn't realize that my tent-mate, Dave, and Rodney slipped away earlier to get some freshly brewed coffee and check the weather outside. My slumber was broken by some noise outside the tent. My friend Dave yelled, "Jaffor, Jaffor, wake up man.

You've got a new country now call Bang.. Bangla Desh."

I hurriedly woke up and came outside the tent. I saw both Dave and Rodney holding up the unfolded newspaper (A newspaper published from Tampa, Florida, whose name I cannot recall now) and reading the news intently. Dave said, "The army had butchered quite a few Bengalis last night in Dacca. Tanks are everywhere that's what the report says."

Rodney said, "Pakistani army had taken control of Dacca. Son of a gun, your leader Sheikh had already slipped into neighbouring India." Although my heart froze hearing the news of deaths and destruction, the news of Sheikh Mujib in safe haven in West Bengal brought immense joy and happiness to my ailing heart.

I forcefully took the main section of the newspaper and could not believe my eyes seeing the headline in big bold three inches lettering. It said, "Rebel leader declares Bangla Desh. Army took control of capital." What I gleaned from the report was following: On behalf of Sheikh Mujib, the rebel leader, radio announcements were made from "Independent Bangladesh Radio" asking people to resist Pakistani army aggression. Dhaka City was under the control of Pakistani army and there was loss of lives in the wee hours of March 26.

The news report mentioned the wholesale desertion of Bengali soldiers from Bengal Regiment of Pakistani army and East Pakistan Rifles both stationed in Chittagong. Thus, in one respect Chittagong was our last hope for newly born country. The announcements from Independent Bangladesh Radio did a phenomenal job in boosting the morals of Bengalis all over Bangladesh. My friends from back home told me that the radio announcements mentioned the name of Brigadier Mazumdar and Major Ziaur Rahman. The announcement said something like this - "Brigadier Mazumdar and Major Ziaur Rahman of Swadhin Bangladesh army are asking our people to come to Lal-dighi'r Maidan (in Chittagong City) with any arms they may have to resist Pak army's aggression."

Later we learned that both Brigadier Mazumdar and Sheikh Mujib were arrested immediately before March 26 and shipped to West Pakistan. The course of Bangladesh liberation war would have been a different one if Brigadier Mazumdar could be there in Chittagong in control of Bengal regiment. The other consequence of this would have been on Major Zia's career in future Bangladesh army. With senior officer as Brigadier Mazumdar sidelined by Pakistani army, the career of certain junior officers (Ziaur Rahman and Khaled Mussharrof in particular) took a sharp upward move right after December 16, 1971. I do not know whether Brigadier Mazumdar is aware that his absence from Chittagong during 1971 changed the course of Bangladesh history.

Newly formed Bangladesh army needed veteran officers like Brigadier Mazumdar to keep the aspiring future generals in check. History is the silent observer of what did go wrong in Bangladesh army. The young nation paid a very dear price for the restlessness of a few rogue officers.

While different thoughts were rushing through my mind (like whether my family members in Dhaka were okay or not), my American college friends stepped in to cheer me up. Rodney said, "We should celebrate the declaration of independence of Bangla Desh. What do you say, Jaffor?"

I replied, "I'm afraid Rodney, the human cost would be too great to establish Bangladesh. The civil war just got started and who knows how long this will continue." I asked my friends whether it would be possible for us to head home to Ohio. I remember very well that while my American friends were frolicking on the beach, I was glued to the car radio listening to the hourly CBS news update, every hour for the next twenty-four hours. The news report on Bangladesh was sketchy at most. Most news was coming from Calcutta.

My American friends realized that I was not enjoying this trip anymore. On
March 27, we packed our camping gears and headed back home to Ohio. We drove non-stop from Sarasota to Cincinnati, a distance of about 900 miles. On March 28, I reached Cincinnati. I immediate contacted two other students from East Pakistan, namely, Hasan Ali and Jamal Khan. Both of them were devastated hearing the news of death and destruction in Dhaka. Jamal Khan being an alumnus of Dhaka University was very upset hearing Pak military led destruction of Halls and staff quarter.

At the time I used to share a house with two students from West Pakistan, namely Junaid Siddique from Karachi, and Muhammad Idrees from Lahore. Junaid being a Muhajir was very sympathetic to our cause, but Idrees who was from Punjab was very anti-Mujib. He blamed Mujib and India for all the problem of East Pakistan.' I did not want to become involved in a fracas with Idrees. However, I remember clearly telling Idrees that East Pakistan' was a history by then and it was just a matter of time before Bangladesh becomes an independent sovereign nation. Apparently, he did not like my comments. On the same very day I took my belongings out of that house and moved in with Hasan Ali, my old college roommate.

Within days, all Bengali students from East Pakistan in Midwestern states
telephoned each other to exchange rapidly developing news from occupied
Bangladesh. We contacted Prof. Aminul Islam, a veteran Bengali Professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. We decided to meet in his house in the first week of April. When we arrived his home, we saw another Bengali person nervously pacing the living room. He came from Richmond, Indiana, a nearby town. He introduced him as Mohammed Yunus - a professor of Economics at Richmond College (now the head of Grameen Bank). Professor Gyanendra Bhattacharyia also joined us from Oxford, Ohio. Two female students from Oxford, Ohio also joined us; they were Ameerah Huq and Uma Shaha (grand daughter of R.P. Shaha). Hamidul Huq Chowdhury's youngest daughter was also attending the same college with Ameerah and Uma, but she decided not to join Pro-Bangladesh movement in the Midwest. We always suspected that Miss Huq would not join us because her father was in cahoots with Pakistanis in Dhaka. Thus, within first week of April 1971 an organization was established in Dayton, Ohio, to promote the independence of Bangladesh. Similar organization was formed in University of Indiana at Bloomington, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in Chicago. Dr. F.R. Khan, the acclaimed structural Engineer who designed the tallest sears Tower in Chicago, was instrumental in forming a bigger organization to promote the independence of Bangladesh in the US.

Jamal Khan and I were invited by to participate in a radio interview with the NPR affiliate station at University of Cincinnati (WGUC). After our interview was broadcasted, Pakistani students went to the station asking for an equal time. But their request was declined. With a minor victory at the campus, we worked diligently until the middle of December 1971 when it was all but clear that Bangladesh is a political reality. In the nine-month period, our campaign took us 750 miles away to New York City and 300 miles north to Chicago.

Our resources were very limited those days yet we worked assiduously. Our plaudits and panegyric essays for an independent sovereign nation caught the imagination of quite a few Americans. We have visited so many local churches, high schools, and colleges to spread the word of army atrocities that I lost count. We urged the citizens to write letters to their senators and congressmen to stop supplying arms to Pakistan. And it did work. Senator Frank Church of Idaho and Senator Walter Mondel of Minnesota passed a resolution in senate in April or May to block all arms aid to Pakistan thereby stifling the efforts of President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. A local radio station in Cincinnati ran some free ads for Bangladesh in the summer of 1971. Money was pouring in to help Bangla refugees in West Bengal. We collected over $20,000 effortlessly in just few short days.

Looking back twenty-eight years from today, I feel that it was rather difficult to remain equanimous in the face of impertinence shown by Pakistani military leaders. We had the courage to speak up. And we did.

Amongst us, however, we had perfidious lover of Pakistan. They didn't join Bangladesh movement. Some of them even aided the Pakistanis by speaking glowingly in favour of Jinnah's Two-Nation theory in seminars in New York City. Some of them are still vocal. They would rather see a Taliban-style Jihad taking place in Bangladesh instead of spread of secular thoughts. The adage - "Once an enemy, always an enemy" fits their temperament quite well.

The spirit of Seventy-one still lingers in my mind. It's like an opiate. Musingly, it recurs in my thought all the time. In the Bengali ethos, the scar of seventy-one would always bring bad memories. About three million people gave their lives for the freedom, but as a nation, we have almost forgotten their sacrifice. While some of the planners and executioners of Bangladesh Genocide trots this globe, we do nothing. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh even sits in the same room with the Prime Minister of this killer nation. What a pity! How many more articles do we have to write before the Prime Minister of Bangladesh will realize that it is about the time she should do something to bring the killers of three million Bengalis to justice. Is it mere a pernicious thought?

I would be the happiest person in the world, if we could only get one person of the stature of General Niazi or General Gul Hassan to court to stand trial for the perdition of three million Bengali souls. With this thought, I close my essay on "Reminiscing March 26, 1971." #

A.H. Jaffor Ullah writes from New Orleans, Louisiana, USA His e-mail address:

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