Remembering December 16, 1971
For the people who were holed up in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, the memories of the Victory Day are more of relief from days of nightmarish fear and deep anxiety over an uncertain outcome than joy of victory.
We were sure that the days of the Pakistan army were nearing the end, but we were not sure that would live to see the day. Days before the actual D-day, rumour was rife in the city of a last ditch battle by the retreating Pak army to defend the city, with us the civilians as hostages. Other rumours of the hordes of Razakars and Pakistani loyalists let loose in the city to murder, loot and plunder the Bengali homes drove many to panic to the point that another exodus of the citizenry to the villages began like the one following March 25 army massacre in Dhaka.
I had left my post as sub-divisional officer of Manikganj about two months prior to the Victory Day following a serious difference of opinion with my boss, the deputy commissioner of Dhaka. The difference, which was actually my refusal, was over his demands for undertaking joint "anti-miscreant vigilance missions" with the superintendent of police -- an officer seconded from the Pakistan army.
Since my boss did not leave me any option, I simply turned in an application of leave of absence for an uncertain period on grounds of illness, and left my station. I was prompted in this rather unpremeditated act partly by impetuosity induced by my youth (I was twenty-seven then). But I was also motivated in a large part by reports that I had received through my sources in the field (local UP members and some student operatives) that the final onslaught on Pakistan by the liberation forces now in India would be happening some time in late November. This seemed credible to me as we had heard over BBC that the Indian army was assembling massive troops along then East Pakistan border. I left for Dhaka city where I chose to stay in a cousin's house instead of with my parents to avoid any contact with the boss, who actually reported me as an absconder to the government.
I came to Dhaka hopeful that a large-scale war was looming in the horizon that I thought would be wrought upon the Pakistan army by November. While the situation for the Pakistan army steadily deteriorated in November, the formal fight, however, would not start till December 3 when Pakistan made an air attack on the western side, and India declared war on Pakistan.
For us in Dhaka, the war came in the form of strikes by the Indian air force over PAF base in Tejgaon in the midnight of December 3. We could not sleep the whole night from the wailing sirens, the thunderous sounds of bombs that fell, and the shrieking sound of the jets. We were excited that the war was finally there, but we were equally fearful that we could become victims of collateral damage. Fortunately the accuracy of the bombing over targeted areas spared largely any civilian damage in Dhaka. Over next two-three days, we would witness thrilling low-level dog fights between PAF and IAF jets. The results of the IAF's assault were that by December 7, the PAF in the East was effectively grounded.
In the meanwhile, the Indian army was steadily advancing toward Dhaka with the fall of major Pakistan garrisons, one after another, as well as other major cities and towns.
On December 5 and 6 the Pakistan army abandoned Jessore and went towards Khulna. On December 7 the Indian army encircled the garrison of Comilla. By December 10, the Indian army, which had captured Daudkandi landed a battalion in area east of Sitalakhya opposite Demra. On December 11, another battalion was para-landed near Tangail. That the end was nearly in our sight came from the final coup de grace delivered by the IAF with an attack on the Governor House when the puppet governor Dr. Malek was holding his last cabinet meeting. We realised that the fall of Pakistan was only a matter of days if not hours when the governor and his team took refuge in then Inter Continental Hotel. It is from that point also that our anxiety and fear reached their peaks.
Our dilemma was whether to wait out the war in Dhaka while risking our lives in a last ditch battle by a desperate Pakistan army that would use the city as a last fortress, or to escape to the villages. Thoughts of returning to Manikganj with my parents and siblings also occurred to me. But we had an equally pervasive fear of being in cross fires between the Mukti Bahini and retreating army convoys on the roads, or becoming possible victims of loyalist Pakistani civilians guarding the city roads. My cousin's and our families decided stay put in Dhaka.
The three days preceding the Victory Day -- December 13 to 15 -- were probably the most traumatic and fearful days of our lives in Dhaka. The streets were nearly empty of people, with Razakars and Pakistani loyalist civilians roaming the street. The nights we had curfew, no one dared step outside their homes. Although the sirens had abated since the end of the air war, we would still hear sounds of machine guns and other weapons rattling the night sky.
I think it was December 13 that the Indian army first dropped leaflets from the jets passing over Dhaka asking the Pakistan army to surrender. This they would repeat the next two day also. We actually got copies of the leaflets that were floating like confetti in the sky. We were desperately hoping that the Pakistan army would have finally the good sense and spare us the macabre prospect of street fights and countless civilian deaths. We went to our sleepless night that evening not knowing where we were headed.
The morning of December 16 by itself brought no joy for us, as the radio stations operated by Pakistan government broadcast the same old Pakistani patriotic songs, and manufactured news of strong resistance to India by the Pakistan army. It was not until late in the morning that we would hear (from Indian broadcasts) of the surrender that was negotiated by Maj. Gen. Jacob of the Indian army with Lt.Gen. Niazi, the Pakistan army commander, earlier that morning. We also learnt that General Niazi had accepted the surrender terms and signed the unconditional surrender document at a public ceremony in Dhaka on December 16.
Two incidents that day following this news would always belong to my personal diary of the great Victory Day. First was witnessing two fresh victims of what appeared to be public retaliation on the occupation forces. The second was a near brush with death from the gun of a surviving Pakistani loyalist.
Our immediate impulse after hearing the news of surrender was to go out and visit the Governor House which we had heard was bombarded by IAF a few days earlier. My cousin's neighbour (also a civil servant who was working as director of an autonomous government entity that time) volunteered to drive. We decided to take a less trafficked route to the Governor House via Hare Road with my cousin and me as passengers.
We came across several small processions, mostly of young people, shouting Joi Bangla and carrying the Bangladesh flag as we drove through Mirpur Road. Some of them were carrying guns. Some stopped us, and we shook hands with them and moved on. As we passed by the Inter Continental Hotel and approached Hare Road, we found the streets eerily quiet. There were no people, and no vehicle.
As we moved we soon realised the reason why the streets were so deserted. Right on Hare Road, by the way side, there were two dead bodies in the uniform of EPCAF -- East Pakistan Civil Armed Force -- the entity that had replaced East Pakistan Rifles, and were being used to guard the city of Dhaka. The dead bodies looked rather fresh as they had blood still running. We realised that there were still people being chased and gunned down as we also heard sounds from gunfire from near the street. We decided to turn back without venturing toward the stadium.
On way back we took the old Elephant Road instead of taking the rather deserted Second Capital road (now Manik Mia Avenue). As we entered Elephant Road from the Shahbagh Hotel site (now Bangabandhu Medical College), we saw a man in tell-tale Pakistan militia uniform (grayish black shalwar and kurta) taking aim at our car with a rifle. I screamed and called out to our driver as I saw this from the back of my car. He had seen this too, but before he could brake and reverse the car, the man had his shot at us. He narrowly missed the car, and took a second aim. By this time, the expert that he was, our driver was able to turn around and speed away. The second bullet also missed the car. We did not bother to go back to our main mission, we sped back home thanking dear Lord that we had not fallen to the gun of one surviving Pakistani loyalist on the very day that we had so long waited for.
We could have gone to the public ceremony that was held that afternoon in the Ramna Race Course to witness the great surrender. I wanted to become a witness to history. But the two traumatic experiences earlier that day made us ponder over the wisdom of another venture in a city that was still very frightful. Instead we would hear about it on the radio, and later see it in the first ever TV broadcast in free Bangladesh.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.