16 December in Chittagong
On 16 December 1971 Bangladesh was liberated from the occupying Pakistan armed forces when they unconditionally surrendered in public to the joint command of the Bangladesh-India allied forces. The ceremony was witnessed by thousands of people at the then Dhaka racecourse which is at present known as the Suhrawardy Uddyan.
During the long nine-months of occupation, like many others, I was trapped in Chittagong wishing an end to the genocide and occupation that the Bengali nation was subjected to following Bangabandhu's declaration of independence soon after Yahya and the blood thirsty Pakistani Generals had ordered Operation Search Light to cleanse East Bengal and forcibly retain the land. During this long nine-month those of us who could not join the war of liberation, but remained strong supporters of the independence of Bangladesh, were not safe even for a second. The Pakistani military, along with the infamous al-badrs and razakars, were hounding out Bengalis and killing them. This was what Yahya and his foolish colleagues in the upper echelon of the military had ordered: the elimination of all Bengalis, if required, to forcibly keep Bangladesh as a part of Pakistan.
With enthusiasm and unprecedented joy, we heard over the radio the brief surrender ceremony in Dhaka; and for the first time in nine months hoisted the flag of Bangladesh and openly rejoiced although we had to wait for the night to see the entry of the allied forces in the port city. The “Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendo' (Radio of Independent Bengal) which we were habituated to listening, with great precaution , during the days of occupation was now heard in high volume. Neighbours were gathering and discussing the possible route through which the allied forces would enter Chittagong.
All India Radio and BBC prominently broadcast the surrender in Dhaka which made us confident that Chittagong would soon follow suit. I clearly remember how some of us had walked up to the vicinity of the Circuit House in Chittagong to find out about the real situation. At 4 pm on the winter afternoon of 16 December there were quite a few enthusiastic people in front of the place expecting the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army to arrive any time. I did not see a single Pakistani soldier either in front of the Circuit House or anywhere near.
As we were openly cheering and loudly proclaiming the victory attained after nine month which for all who were trapped in our homeland seemed to be more than nine years. I suddenly saw a couple of Urdu speaking men approaching us. They spoke in Urdu and told us that the enemy (Mukti Bahini and Indian Army) had come as close as Brahmanbaria, but the patriotic army (Pakistani) had driven them back into Indian territory. The pro-Pakistan men also declared the arrival of the US Seventh Fleet and wondered as to why US soldiers could not be seen fighting alongside the Pakistan army.
We gathered courage and told the Pakistanis about the surrender in Dhaka to which they replied that the news was a fabrication of the enemy. When they realized they were outnumbered by us they began to leave the place in a hurry and soon disappeared. We were in no mood to chase them and take revenge. For us liberation from Pakistani occupation was more meaningful than coming down heavily on these ungrateful quislings who lived and prospered on the soil of East Bengal that they never loved as their own homeland which for them was in far away West Pakistan.
In the meantime, we could see a number of trucks carrying Pakistani soldiers moving toward Lalkhan Bazaar where the embarkation headquarters of the military was situated. The defeated army men were looking humiliated and were seated on the trucks trying to hide their faces. This was a clear signal that they had given up and were ready to surrender.
As darkness enveloped Chittagong, I went to a friend's house in Lalkhan Bazaar where I met more friends who were eagerly following the situation in Chittagong even as they were celebrating the liberation of the country marked by the formal surrender in Dhaka. This was when we were lucky to meet four members of the Mukti Bahini who had entered the city ahead of their peers and members of the Indian Army. These brave freedom fighters confirmed the arrival of the allied forces at the outskirts of the city expecting them to enter Chittagong in their full force anytime within five to six hours. Two of the young men were residents of the area and they could not hold back their tears after having visited their parents and family members. More and more people were coming out and assembling on the street loudly chanting the Joy Bangla slogan that had united the Bengali nation under the leadership of the greatest Bengali to be born ever—Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
I was expecting a ceremonial surrender in Chittagong similar to that which took place in Dhaka. None of my friends knew about the possibility of this taking place in Chittagong next day which would be 17 December 1971. One thing I knew for sure was that Pakistan lay buried under the corpses of the 3 million people who were mercilessly butchered during the nine months. Bangladesh has come into being because of the supreme sacrifice of the martyrs, and due to the valour with which the freedom fighters had fought throughout the nine months of our glorious war of liberation.
At home, in the early hours of 17 December, all our family members were remembering Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and were concerned about his safety. A few days earlier we had heard about his farcical trial and incarceration in a Pakistani prison. My father confidently told us the defeated Pakistani government lacked the moral ground to take any kind of action against Bangabandhu. The world would resist any such move he thought.
I wanted to sleep for a while but my excitement of being a living witness to the birth of Bangladesh was such that I wanted to go out in the darkness of the night and rejoice. My mother asked me to stay home: she thought the retreating Pakistani army could still be dangerous.
Early next day on 17 December 1971, I along with my brothers and many neihhbours made a beeline for the circuit house. Thousands of people were coming there from all over Chittagong, and were told about the entry of the Mukti Bahini, along with the Indian soldiers. People of all ages were embracing the brave Bengali soldiers and members of the Indian army and telling about their plight in occupied Bangladesh. Major Rafiqul Islam, Bir Uttam, was surrounded by more than a thousand people, all wanting to embrace him at the same time. The Joy Bangla slogan was being chanted by the Mukti bahini members along with the general people who were normally breathing for the first time in nine months. Suddenly I saw a young boy climbing up to the roof of the Circuit House and hoisting the flag of independent Bangladesh amidst a roaring applause of the thousands of people assembled there. The time if I can still recall correctly was about 9am of 17 December 1971.
Later in the afternoon I once again came back to the Circuit House accompanied by my parents and all my siblings. My father hugged an Indian army officer and spoke to him for sometime as my mother went around the Circuit House looking up at the newly hoisted flag of Bangladesh. Most of the Mukti Bahini members along with Major Rafiq had gone to their respective homes, and we were left to ourselves atop the hillock thinking about the sufferings we had to go through ever since the beginning of the historic war of liberation on march 26 1971 until the liberation of the country, and the unconditional surrender of the Pakistan Army on 16 December 1971.
The day the illegal Pakistani rule ended in Bangladesh of course was the most memorable day in my life. I was a seventeen-year old on that day but I knew what independence really meant. I had dreams not only for myself but for my country as well. I wholeheartedly wanted the independence of Bangladesh as it would allow people opportunities that they never got when East Bengal was a part of Pakistan. I had read Ayub Khan's Friends Not Masters readily realizing the military dictator's racist attitude. He wrote Bengalis were short, dark complexioned, and were lesser Muslims. I could not understand how this racist outlook could be expressed in a book when the military man turned President claimed that Pakistan was one country and East Bengal was the eastern wing of that country.
After reading this book in 1970 and being aware of the Bengali nationalist movement getting full support from the people of East Bengal, I could only think of a future when Bengalis would be in charge of their own destiny. After the result of the 1970 elections, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto betrayed the Bengalis and could convince the military to crack down on East Bengal to make sure that Bengalis didn't have state power. We ultimately became masters of our own fate by defeating the Pakistanis who had committed a genocide by killing 3 million innocent civilians and raping 300, 000 women all in the name of saving Pakistan and protecting Islam.
In independent Bangladesh, I dreamt of a democratic and egalitarian society. I envisioned a Bangladesh where people of all faiths would be given equal opportunities because I had grown up in a culture where Hindu was a curse word to the Pakistanis and where my non-Muslim friends felt deprived and marginalized. Bangladesh was synonymous for me to equality, liberalism and equal opportunity to all citizens. I thought of a new country where religion would not be a tool for exploitation and where people would not hesitate to express their opinions. I thought of an independent Bangladesh where the military would remain under the strict control of a civilian government and would not be given special benefits.
Bangabandhu gave Bangladesh a new constitution that promised to materialize all my dreams. However, the Pakistani ghosts were still haunting us for which a section of the military gunned down Bangabandhu and most members of his family on 15 August 1971. To make sure that the Bangladesh of my dreams did not come alive the four close colleagues of Bangabandhu were also brutally killed inside the safety of a prison. After these unthinkable happenings my dreams have gradually shattered. I have seen the return of martial law, the persecution of minorities, the emergence of a group of looters of national wealth, and the resurrection of a mythical grand narrative of invincibility and inimitable discipline tagged to the armed forces of independent Bangladesh.
The Awami League is now in state power; but this party has gradually careened towards the right for which it did not have the moral strength of scrapping the provision of a state religion in the constitution. Even then under the present government, notwithstanding its many lapses and failures, Bangladesh at present seems to closely resemble the Bangladesh which came into being on 16 December 1971.
The writer teaches English at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.