Freedom on-air | The Daily Star
12:10 AM, December 13, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:00 AM, December 13, 2013

Freedom on-air

The unsung heroes of Bangladesh Betar

Ashfaqur Rahman Ashfaqur Rahman

For Quazi Akhtaruzzaman and Mirana Zaman, March 7, held a special meaning.
“That steel cabinet you see there", he would say pointing to the corner of his living room,” was the make-shift vault that held Bangabandhu's historic speech till the night before the army crackdown." At a time when such an act would have led to certain imprisonment, they held on to the document till the time came to pass it on to the officials of Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. Mirana Zaman a cultural activist and a staff of then Radio Pakistan and Zaman, was the circulation manager of Ittefaq in the 70s.
Ashfaqur Rahman, who retired as regional director of Bangladesh Betar, was a witness to the turbulent period at the time of broadcasting the speech on the radio.
“There was hatred brewing up among the two wings of Pakistan. During the tidal wave and natural calamity of Nov 12, 1970, it was further evident that the Pakistani rulers were indifferent about erstwhile East Pakistan. On February 28, 1971, after returning from an official picnic we saw military guards posted at the gate---'it was for security reasons'” they said.
On March 1, while we were relaying a cricket match from the stadium there was an announcement in news that president Yahya Khan had postponed the assembly session. News was broadcast centrally from Karachi then. No sooner was this announced that you could literally feel the wave of fury that spread across the ground. Then there was an utter explosion of the public sentiment, the match was hastily abandoned and the crowd started to pour of the stands and torch whatever they could find as a protest against Yahya's orders.

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freedom on air

“Meanwhile the leader of the majority party Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addressed a press conference and announced the non-cooperation movement from that very day,” said Rahman. Practically the whole country had come to a stand still and Section 144 was implemented after dark.
“From March 4, all the radio stations, which were directly under the central govt., defied all regulations and changed its nomenclature from Radio Pakistan to “Dhaka Betar Kendra”. The other stations in Chittagong, Khulna, Rahshahi, Sylhet and Rangpur followed the lead.
“At this important juncture the then-regional director of radio, Ashrafuzzaman Khan played a vital role in the history of radio of the country,” Rahman went on.
”From this day onwards under the able leadership of Zaman, we brought about a complete change in the schedule and started to broadcast news, documentary, commentary and patriotic songs. News editor Saiful Bari also played an important role during this time.
“Meanwhile a nucleus team was formed with assistant director Mabzulul Hossain ARD, ARD Ahmeduzzaman, PNO Mofizul Huque, (myself) PO, Ashfaqur Rahman, Nassar Ahmed Chowdhury, Kazi Abdur Rafique, Bahram Siddiqui, Shamsul Alam,Taher Sultan. We were given orders to face any eventuality and we stayed during late hours in shifts at the radio station.
“During this time, the agitated students and politicians, journalists and intellectuals had been urging the leaders to take immediate steps to declare independence. The artistes had boycotted the station, but we were able to convince them that the only option for us was to stay united.”
Soon after, as we know, the artistes formed the “Bikkhubdho Shilpi Somaj”. The artistes, journalists, painters took the word to the people, performing on the roads, turning every vantage point into an impromptu stage.
“On March 7, the historic day, it was still undisclosed that we would broadcast the speech live. An OB team (outside broadcasting) was positioned at the Race Course Maidan, now known as Suhruwardy Uddyan. Throughout the day we played patriotic songs. When the time for the broadcast came, we put the telephone receivers down to avoid phone calls from the military authorities.
"Meanwhile, there was a tense situation everywhere. Ashrafuzzaman Khan was constantly in liaison with Bangabandhu. He was at the stage and Bangabandhu was due to arrive at the Race Course Maidan to deliver his speech at 2pm. At the station, the seconds seemed like hours as the clock ticked away and we waited impatiently to relay the speech, live.
“Despite all our well-laid plans, disaster struck minutes before the speech was on. An official had forgotten to take one telephone of the hook and the call came from the higher authority as we'd feared. Someone brought in a "chit" ordering us not to broadcast anything on Sheikh Mujib until further notice.
“However, by 2:35pm Mujib had reached the venue and began his speech to the nation and we were still in a deadlock on whether we could broadcast the speech or not. I was at the studio end as we tried wholeheartedly to contact Ashrafuzzaman for his final orders from Mujib.
“The next few moments were turning points. Ashrafuzzaman went up on the stage to pass on the message to Bangabandhu that we were not allowed to broadcast. He changed his address spontaneously by repeating this to the thousands gathered, urging all from that moment to stop working for the government. Ashrafuzzaman immediately asked us to leave work and come out of the heavily guarded radio station. From there we practically ran to the Race Course. By a stroke of luck, we had an EMI emergency portable recording gear at the stage to record the historic speech.
“There were substations at Kalyanpur, Nayarhat and Mirpur, from where the transmission was carried out in case the main station failed. So when we came out of the office we called up the people in charge of the transmission stations and we asked them to evacuate the place.
“It was for the first time in the history of radio in our country that the transmission came to a total halt.
“The very next day early in the morning we received orders to broadcast the speech at 8:30am and we resumed our broadcast.
“That day was a milestone for more reasons than one. The mood in the stations became defiant and bold. People worked round the clock gathering and relaying news, documentary, speeches anything that would come to the aid of the country. The optimism from that room seemed to become contagious over the airways as it carried news of non cooperation and hope to people in the remotest corners. From muddied trenches to now-empty living rooms, the radio became the day-to-day companion, the one link that tied everyone together.
If it took 3 million courageous lives and countless tragedies to win our war, what we should not forget is that it also took a group of dedicated people, who risked it all, to keep the airways and the spirit of the country alive through it all.

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