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Book Review

Written in Gold

Quazi Nooruzzaman's war memoir depicts the valour of the masses caught in the complex web of history


A Sector Commander Remembers Bangladesh Liberation War 1971
Quazi Nooruzzaman writers.ink; pp 119; Tk 350

As far as its scope and aspirations are concerned, Bangladesh's struggle for freedom was a true people's war. It was a time when the masses across the world were rising up before their colonialist and imperialist oppressors. In fact, the time had set the tune of the movements of the sixties and seventies of the then East Pakistan. The call was for the establishment of a society free from all forms of exploitations; the Marxist economic principle of 'to each according to what he needs' and 'from each according to his ability' stirred the hearts of millions. Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan), strategically speaking, was at the forefront of the Cold War and there was every chance that the crisis might snowball into a regional war.

What is important now, 39 years after the Pakistani occupying forces fired their first shot on the night of March 25 in 1971, is the history of the masses to be written down. In fact, the history of the Great War that we read, the general people, the toiling masses who took up arms to fight one of the biggest war machines of the world, have remained conspicuously absent. Quazi Nooruzzaman, a retired colonel and one of the 10 sector commanders of the Liberation War, in his memoir of the Muktijuddho, tries to do exactly that, depict the role of the individuals in the war that is. The book, which has a rather lengthy and unimpressive title–A Sector Commander Remembers Bangladesh Liberation War 197– in its every page unfolds a new history of the war.

The exploitations that the ordinary Bengalis wanted to break free in the run up to the war was not merely political and economic in nature. And that too did not limit itself to the lower strata of the society. Exploitation was ever pervasive and Bengali soldiers and army officers faced discrimination of different strands. In a chapter titled 'Why I joined the Liberation War', Nooruzzaman describes one incident that epitomises why as soon as the declaration of independence reached them, Bengalis in uniform, serving the Pakistan army, navy, air force and the East Pakistan Rifles, pointed their guns at their former masters, in support of the people's struggle for freedom:

Ayub Khan, Adjutant General at the time, was also present at the ceremonial dinner hosted by the school. The school commandant introduced me to Ayub Khan. His first question was, “Where are you from?” As soon as I mentioned East Pakistan, he turned to the foreigners and remarked that after the partition of India he had been the first GOC (General Officer Commanding) of East Pakistan. With no logical connection, he added that he had not found any “good” families there, other than the family of the Dhaka Nawab. I became very angry at this and retorted that only people from a good family can recognise others from a good family. The foreigners smiled at my comment and Ayub Khan's face turned beet red. I made a hurried exit.

The book is embedded with anecdotes like this. After the first shot was fired on the dark night of March 25 in 1975 that triggered one of the most gruesome and barbaric genocides in human history, Nooruzzaman decided to join the war. He moved to Mymensingh and met a band of Muktijuoddas led by Major (later Lt General) Shafiullah in disarray. The group later fled to the other side of the border in Agartala where he had to share a room with Awami League leader Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury. No arrangement was made for his food. Nooruzzaman was in distress:

Twice a day a local Marwari would bring tiffin carriers of food for Zahur Shaheb. I would pretend to be reading newspapers in the adjacent bed. He never asked what my eating arrangements were, or if I had eaten, much less offer me any food.

Or a funny aspect of General MAG Osmani's character:
During the meeting, he got into an argument with someone. He flew into a rage, announced his resignation, and asked me to take charge of the Liberation War. He would often announce his resignation in this way.

Sadly, as soon as the book enters into its eighth chapter, the Sector Commander confines his observations mostly to Sector Seven, which he commanded. It, however, does not diminish the interests of the readers. The subsequent chapter describes the valour as well as the cowardice of some who fought for our freedom. Read:

Suddenly one of the boys stood up and said that the next day's operation might turn out to be a big one. The enemy might have extra troops and there might be many casualties. He asked Jahangir (Bir Shrestha Captain Mohiuddin Jahangir), “Sir, if we die, will our names be written in gold, in the history of Bangladesh?

Jahangir snapped at him and said, “We aren't fighting to have our names written in gold. We should be proud to have our blood mix with the soil of our land. You're lucky to have been born at a time when you could die for your country.”

The next day the boy advanced bravely towards the enemy. He came in the line of light machine-gun firing from a bunker. He was martyred.

The operation was itself a success eventually, though not that very day.


When I finally got to the Dinajpur army hospital, I couldn't find Saifullah in the officer's ward. The doctor on duty said that Saif had run away from the hospital. The doctor asked me to meet the commander. The colonel started off by saying that there was no discipline among the officers of the Mukti Bahini.

I asked him to explain. He said Saif had left the hospital without telling anyone, before he was fully recovered. He had never seen anything like it before.

I was astonished. Saif was not one to abandon the war. In a day or two I went to Hamzapur. There was Saif, bandaged, with his arm in a sling. He greeted me with a smile, and had a laugh at the hospital's complaint about him.

He said he couldn't rest in a hospital while the sub-sector was running so many operations with such few officers. He had to run away because he had been denied permission to be discharged. And the wound was just a scratch.


I don't remember the name of the young man who was wounded.

A couple of days later, I went to Hamzapur on a routine inspection. A tall, skinny boy suddenly appeared in front of me and started to unbutton his shirt. He said, “Here I am sir. I'm back” and pointed to six bullet wounds, from chest to abdomen. “I am fine now. Six bullets won't keep me from coming back to fight.

The book also talks about the razakars, some of whom, according to Nooruzzaman, joined the force to avoid torture and even death. In one instance, a razakar helped the Freedom fighters in Hamzapur by giving them valued information, which had helped the Muktijuoddas avoid great casualties. Interestingly, two companies were formed in Sector Seven with around 300 razakars and they fought valiantly in Dinajpur under the command of Second Lieutenants Saifullah and Kaiser Haq.

After the war was over, Nooruzzaman retired from the army and has happily led a civilian life. However, politics has never left him and on different occasions in the nation's life, the former Colonel has made his voice heard. He has been one of the founders of a citizens' movement that has been demanding the arrest and trial of the war criminals. A brave man that he is, Nooruzzaman has never shied away from sticking to what he thinks is right. He believes that it is Ziaur Rahman who declared the country's independence, and he devotes a chapter to that. He saw the Mujib Bahini as a vile force, and eyed them with sheer suspicion, and the book portrays the Bahini members in that light.

Zahiruddin M Alim's translation of the Sector Commander's times during the war is eloquent. The prose never falters and the transition from one chapter to the other is done without foundering.

Four decades after millions of ordinary Bengalis took up arms to free their nation from the clutches of political and economic exploitations, there are hundreds and thousands in independent Bangladesh who live in abject poverty and deprivation. Our liberation struggle is littered with the valour of the ordinary people, who, with the dream of freedom and liberty before of their nation before their eyes, did not think twice to take sprays of bullets on their chest. But the masses took a back seat after the Independence and it is when the casino capitalism has set in. The dream of Shonar Bangla has remained unfulfilled. An unnamed young man in Nooruzzaman's memoir of the war wanted his name written in gold. He died in the war; and if he were alive, it would have shocked him to see the sprit his struggle betrayed. Besides launching a new war to establish a country free from all forms of exploitations, what is important now is the history of the individuals during the war to be told. Quazi Nooruzzaman's war memoir can be the very first step towards that giant long march.



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