Here is a fact you cannot quite ignore: in independent Bangladesh's history, the Rakkhi Bahini has been a much maligned name, especially among those who have traditionally been inveterate Awami League-haters. And count along with this group those political elements which have by and large been associated with, or been supporters of, the various extremist leftwing outfits waging war against the government between 1972 and 1975. Even today, there will be former followers of Abdul Haq recounting the many 'atrocities' the Rakkhi Bahini committed in the name of maintaining national security. More dangerously, there have always been people who have regularly peddled the spurious idea that the Rakkhi Bahini was established in 1972 to undermine the army.
There is little question that certain excesses were committed by the Rakkhi Bahini. It did harass people, it did put opposition elements, of the radical leftwing sort, into trouble. But to look upon the force as symbolic of all that was dark and reprehensible in the early years of Bangladesh's freedom would be stretching the point a little too far. That is the line which Anwar Ul Alam, one of the senior officers of the Rakkhi Bahini when it was formed and right till the moment when the force was absorbed into the army, takes in his revealing Rakkhi Bahini'r Shotto-Mittha. Alam, who at a later stage served as a diplomat for the country, does not attempt to absolve the Bahini of any wrong. He is too suave to do that. But he does make it clear that within weeks of the liberation of the country in 1971 the formation of a national militia, as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman saw it, had become necessary. Alam recounts his meeting with Bangabandhu at Ganobhavan on 28 January 1972, where he was asked by the prime minister to stay in Dhaka and get in touch with Major ANM Nuruzzaman. It was on 31 January, again at Ganobhavan, that Alam met Nuruzzaman for the first time. The Rakkhi Bahini, through an extraordinary gazette on 8 March 1972, came into existence.
Alam's account of the Rakkhi Bahini goes beyond a mere telling of the story behind the establishment and operation of the force. There are anecdotes aplenty which certainly will be of immense benefit to students of Bangladesh's history. The writer mentions in particular the case of Taslim Ahmed, the home secretary in Bangabandhu's government. Ahmed, says Alam, was one individual who served the Pakistan government with dedication throughout 1971. That is a good way of reminding readers of the many other Bengalis loyal to Pakistan who were absorbed in sovereign Bangladesh's government per courtesy of Bangabandhu, people who would later reveal their actual political background. Syed Najmuddin Hashim, stranded in Pakistan after 1971, in his Bondishala Pakistan, made good note of such Bengali officers of the Pakistan government, who fulminated against Bangabandhu and Bangladesh even as they suffered in Pakistan and who would go on to occupy high positions in Dhaka once they were repatriated from Islamabad. Alam's complaint about Taslim Ahmed then becomes understandable.
Alam narrates too the story behind the mutiny by non-freedom fighter personnel of the former East Pakistan Rifles (later renamed Bangladesh Rifles) soon after liberation. Nuruzzaman and Alam were compelled into a hostage-like situation. The mutineers seized weapons from the armoury and began shooting indiscriminately. To be sure, the freedom fighter personnel of the force fired back and succeeded in freeing the two officers. In all this commotion, General Osmany was unable to enter Peelkhana to defuse the situation, to a point where Bangabandhu himself had to turn up at the place. Once it became known that Bangabandhu had entered Peelkhana, the firing between the two sides ceased immediately.
There are other facts which the writer comes forth with. In the post-August1975 situation, as a clamour went up for a dissolution of the Rakkhi Bahini, General Ziaur Rahman, the new army chief, suggested at a meeting at Bangabhavan that was attended by Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, General Osmany, Major General Khalilur Rahman and Brigadier Nuruzzaman, that in order to augment the strength of the army all officers and men of the Rakkhi Bahini be absorbed into it. Moshtaque lost his temper and was positively rude with Zia, who nevertheless persisted in explaining to the group that the task of transforming the five brigades of the army into five divisions would take years. If, however, the sixteen battalions of the Rakkhi Bahini were absorbed into the army, it would be possible to set up, almost immediately, five divisions of the force. In the event, Zia succeeded in convincing the participants at the meeting to accept his proposal. On 5 October 1975, 'The Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (Absorption in the Army) Ordinance, 1975' was issued.
Anwar Ul Alam has much to relate about the tragedy of 15 August and its ramifications. On the evening of 15 August, Brigadier Khaled Musharraf summoned Alam and his colleague Sarwar to Bangabhavan for what he called important consultations. On reaching the presidential palace, the two men found Musharraf hugely busy in an 'operations room'. Information was pouring in from the border regions. In the writer's words, “Khaled Musharraf and other officers appeared so busy at work that it seemed India was about to attack Bangladesh and these officers were preparing to repulse that attack”.
The writer recalls numerous other incidents in relation to August 1975. Called to Bangabhavan by Osmany, by then defence advisor to Moshtaque, within days of the coup, Alam noticed a depressed Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, appointed foreign minister only a day earlier, sitting in a corner of the room. Alam and his colleague Sarwar, who had also been asked to be at Bangabhavan, sat down in a small room with Osmany. The general, who had led the Bangladesh forces during the War of Liberation and then served as a minister in Bangabandhu's government, startled the two men by asking them, “How many Hindus are there in Rakkhi Bahini?” The writer's comment is telling: only a year previously Osmany had requested the chief of the Rakkhi Bahini to take a Hindu young from Sylhet as leader (that was an official designation in the force) into the para-military force!
Rakkhi Bahini'r Shotto-Mittha is a work we have been waiting for. After all these years and after having gone through Alam's account, the reader has one clear thought emerging from his reading: too little effort and planning went into a consolidation of the force. Had the Rakkhi Bahini been more effective and effectual, more properly indoctrinated in the spirit of the 1971 war, history would have been different.
History took a nosedive when the Rakkhi Bahini, together with the army, air force and navy, failed to act against the uniformed assassins of August-November 1975.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is with The Daily Star