Old images from a long-ago war
March is a good month to remember history.
Beginning in April 1971, the Bengali resistance to the Pakistan occupation army Mukti Bahini would be swelled by increasing numbers of Bengali deserters from the Pakistan armed forces as well as the police and East Pakistan Rifles. But the bulk of Mukti Bahini strength throughout the weeks and months to liberation would come from Bengali youths in the villages and district towns of the occupied country.
Among the officers who would take charge of the eleven sectors of war were Major K.M. Safiullah, Major Ziaur Rahman, Major Khaled Musharraf, Major M.A. Manzoor, Lt. Col. Abu Taher, Major Nuruzzaman, and Major Rafiqul Islam. Of the group, Manzoor and Taher would escape from cantonments in West Pakistan they were posted in and make their way to Mujibnagar. From the air force, there were A.K. Khondokar and Khademul Bashar. Over a period of time, other military officers would turn up and join the war effort.
There were many others who, while trying to cross over to India from West Pakistan, were detected by Pakistan's border forces and placed under arrest. In August of the year, Flight Lieutenant Matiur Rahman, a Bengali based at the air force station in Karachi, took off on what was to be a training flight for his Pakistani junior officer in his care, Rashed Minhaz. Once in the air, Rahman tried to seize the jet fighter from his pupil and steer it towards the border with India, his obvious objective being to go over to Bangladesh. An apparent struggle between the two men led to the plane crashing in the deserts of Sind.
Apart from the operations launched by the Mukti Bahini against the Pakistani forces in various parts of Bangladesh, other guerrilla groups such as Abdul Kader Siddiqui's Kaderia Bahini operated inside Bangladesh and never crossed the border into India. The ferocity of the Kaderia Bahini in time became the stuff of legend and even had Pakistan's soldiers encamped in Kader Siddiqui's native Tangail district fearing for their safety.
Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni and the younger elements formed a new group of freedom fighters they called the Mujib Bahini. Broadly speaking, it was the Mukti Bahini that provided the thrust of the movement against the Pakistani forces. The guerrillas, coming from middle class Bengali families in the country's rural regions, quickly gained a reputation for swiftness of movement and precision attacks on the soldiers.
Old photographs of Bangladesh's War of Liberation show carrion feeding on the bloated bodies of Bengali civilians along the rivers and marshes of the country. And among these pictures is the odd spectacle of grinning Bengali villagers holding up the severed head of a Pakistani soldier killed by the Mukti Bahini. Those members of the force caught by the army were subjected to medieval forms of torture before the life went out of them. Many were the tales of Bengali civil and military officers being picked up by the soldiers and carted off to death or prolonged torture.
Colonel Ziaur Rahman, a Bengali officer in the Pakistan army medical corps and principal of Sylhet medical college in north-eastern Bangladesh, was picked up and never seen again. Alamgir Rahman, representative of Burmah Shell, was confined to the cantonment and tortured for the entire duration of the war. He survived, just, but the torture had clearly taken its toll. The husband and son of Jahanara Imam were picked up by the Pakistan army. The son never came back. A few days after his release, her badly tortured husband died. In the early stages of the war of liberation, a young lieutenant in the army, Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, was captured by the soldiers and tortured throughout the nine months of the war. He miraculously survived and emerged free once Pakistan surrendered
The War of Liberation turned out to be an inclusive affair that united Bengalis across the spectrum and beyond the confines of the occupied country. Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the vice chancellor of Dhaka University representing Pakistan at a human rights conference in Geneva at the time of the crackdown, denounced the military action and switched his allegiance to the Bangladesh cause. He was later deputed to take charge of the Bangladesh mission in London, where he played an instrumental role in organising overseas Bengalis towards disseminating information about the national cause in Europe.
Bengali diplomats in Pakistani embassies abroad began to defect to the independence cause within days of the crackdown and the declaration of independence. K.M. Shahabuddin and Amjad Hossain, stationed in the Pakistani consulate in Bombay, in a public statement condemned the atrocities committed by the army and switched loyalty to the Bengali cause. In Calcutta, the Bengali deputy high commissioner for Pakistan, Hossain Ali, hoisted the Bangladesh flag atop the building housing the mission and claimed it for his occupied country. When the Pakistan government, despite its efforts, was unable to reclaim the building, it simply closed down the mission. The office then became one of the focal points of the Bengali struggle.
In the West, A.F.M. Abul Fateh, the senior-most Bengali in an ambassadorial position, declared his rejection of Pakistan. Infuriated, the Islamabad authorities tried to have him recalled to Islamabad and failed in trying to do so. Shah A.M.S. Kibria, Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, A.H. Mahmood Ali, M.M. Rezaul Karim, Waliur Rahman and Mohiuddin Ahmed, among a number of others, swiftly opted to serve the government-in-exile through public condemnation of Pakistan's actions in Bangladesh.
The sinister nature of the war was not lost on a senior West Pakistani diplomat, Iqbal Athar. In a move that amazed not only his own country but also the Bengalis, he defected to the Bangladesh cause. In independent Bangladesh, he was to serve as ambassador in a number of important countries until his death.
In China, Khwaja Mohammad Kaiser, who belonged to the Nawab family of old Dhaka, faced a particular dilemma. He was Pakistan's trusted envoy in Beijing and highly regarded by the Chinese authorities. Clearly inclined to identify with the Bengali cause, he was unable to find the means to do it, given particularly the vocal support China was giving Pakistan over the Bangladesh crisis. It was for Premier Zhou En-lai to advise him to carry on as best he could, a job he fulfilled till the end. In later years, Kaiser was to go back to Beijing, this time to serve as Bangladesh's ambassador in a country where he had for a long time upheld the interests of Pakistan.
Within West Pakistan, a very large number of Bengali military as well as civilian officers were stranded as a result of the war. In the case of the military personnel, the authorities exercised particular measures to prevent them from escaping or acting in a way that could recreate the sense of crisis caused by the Matiur Rahman affair. The most senior officer in the army was again a man with roots in East Pakistan. Khwaja Wasiuddin, a son of Ayub Khan's minister for information Khwaja Shahabuddin, served as a lieutenant general in the Pakistan army. Respected by his Pakistani colleagues, nevertheless during the entire duration of the war, he remained deprived of any specific responsibility. He was repatriated to Bangladesh after the war and honourably retired from the army. The government sent him off to Kuwait as the new country's ambassador.