The Bengali brigadier in Pakistan's army | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 03, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 03, 2007

The Bengali brigadier in Pakistan's army

Syed Badrul Ahsan is appreciative of a work on 1971

Purbapor 1971
Pakistani Shena-Gohobor Theke Dekha
Major General (Retd) Muhammad Khalilur Rahman
Shahitya Prakash

The war of 1971 remains a point of reference for Bengalis, especially those with first hand experience of the conflict as it built up and then moved towards a denouement. With men like Khalilur Rahman, the War of Liberation was at once a distant affair, fundamentally because they were away in West Pakistan when the Pakistan army launched its genocide in occupied Bangladesh in March. And yet there was a closeness, in spirit and temperament at least, where comprehending the issues involved was concerned. Rahman was a senior Bengali officer, a brigadier, in the Pakistan army and stationed in West Pakistan at the time. It certainly was not the best of times or the best of places for any Bengali to be in. Like Rahman, there were hundreds of other Bengali officers and sepoys stuck in a place from where all the salvoes were being fired at their compatriots in occupied Bangladesh. And then there were the thousands of civilian officials, employees and their families stranded in what was definitely hostile territory for Bengalis. Briefly, West Pakistan after March 1971 was a place where Bengalis were treated with open disdain and, almost always, as traitors to the country Jinnah had built in 1947.
General Khalilur Rahman's account of the period is essentially composed of two streams of thought. The first relates to the attitude he saw manifested in his fellow officers, all West Pakistanis, toward the crisis in Bangladesh. And the second was his observation of the privations, psychological as well as physical, that Bengalis went through in West Pakistan not only in 1971 but also through the entire length of time they remained stranded there after Pakistan's eastern wing emerged as the sovereign state of Bangladesh in December 1971. Within the ambit of his observations, Rahman recapitulates incidents and remembers personalities he met and shared thoughts with about the war, for the war was the one issue that mattered at the time. He relates the tale of General Shaukat Reza, a decent Pakistani who did not hesitate to quit his job when he found General Niazi willing to pass off the criminality of his men in Bangladesh as the spoils of war. Reza was a gentleman to whom the military's atrocities in East Pakistan were having the opposite of the intended effect. Niazi, however, did not appear perturbed. 'This is a low lying country', he said blandly. 'People here are low and they lie'.
The anecdotal forms a significant part of Khalilur Rahman's story. Colonel Qayyum Chowdhury's refusal to identify with the Bangladesh struggle, despite the fact that he was the brother of Munier Chowdhury, comes in for comment in the work. Rahman is informed by Major Mannan Siddiqui (who later became a major general in the Bangladesh army) that Qayyum Chowdhury had gone to Berlin to attend a military training course. He could have defected from there. He did not and instead used the occasion to berate the imprisoned Sheikh Mujibur Rahman over his role in the making of the crisis. Qayyum Chowdhury's prejudice against his fellow Bengalis remained so deeply ingrained in him that he was quite willing to believe that Munier Chowdhury had been murdered by the Mukti Bahini!
And that is not all. The author recalls the arrival of Justice Nurul Islam, then chairman of the East Pakistan Red Cross, in Rawalpindi in July or August 1971 in the company of Dr. Deen Mohammad of Dhaka University. Both men were on their way to Europe, clearly to argue Pakistan's case in war-torn Bangladesh. At one point, Islam breaks into tears and then quickly collects himself as Deen Mohammad (having finished his prayers in the adjoining room!) walks in. An interesting footnote to the meeting is provided by Rahman when he notes that in 1973, Justice Nurul Islam requested him to provide evidence that he had not gone to Geneva of his own volition in 1971! The author makes note as well of his meeting with the Bengali diplomat Reaz Rahman in Rawalpindi at around the same time. Khalilur Rahman and Brigadier Majidul Haq walk into deputy secretary Hedayet Ahmed's home in Rawalpindi, only to find Reaz Rahman seated there. Earlier, banner headlines had appeared in West Pakistani newspapers about the 'courage' demonstrated by Reaz Rahman in defying the 'miscreants' (the term Pakistan employed for Bengali freedom fighters) and arriving in Karachi from his posting at the Pakistan high commission in Delhi. The diplomat takes issue with the writer about the genocide in Bangladesh. Obviously, he is unwilling to accept realities. The conversation ends on a bitter note. In 1973, following his repatriation to Bangladesh, Khalilur Rahman spots the same Reaz Rahman occupying a key position in the Bangladesh Foreign Office!
Rahman's book asserts the old idea once more of how times of critical essence can end up defining the roles individuals play in contradistinction to one another. While on the one hand he recoils in disgust at memories of those Bengalis who collaborated with the Yahya Khan junta, on the other he recalls the immense sufferings that a number of Bengali army officers went through in West Pakistan all through 1971. Much pain underlies the recapitulation of the agony men like Brigadier Majumdar, Colonel Masud and Colonel Yasin were put through. All of them were put under detention in Bangladesh, brought over to West Pakistan and then subjected to the most intense kind of humiliation that could be imagined. Their fault? They refused to be dictated into saying that they had known of the 'conspiracy' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League had 'hatched' to dismember Pakistan. The interrogation yielded no credible results, except that one of the men was eventually compelled to read out a 'statement', before the special military court trying the Bengali leader, relating to the 'conspiracy'. As he read the document prepared for him by the army, a bemused Mujib, pipe between his lips, looked on.
Khalilur Rahman would stay on in Pakistan, a captive officer, until 1973. It was his good, or bad, fortune to be around when only days after Pakistan's surrender in Bangladesh a large group of angry, young military officers heckled General Abdul Hamid Khan into silence. Rahman was still in uniform, a position he would give up within a short while through exercising his option for Bangladesh. And then would come the months of waiting, in a camp in Mandi Bahauddin with his family. The rest is a tale we are all too familiar with.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.

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