The War of Liberation took innumerable lives away from families in Bangladesh. My family was fortunate enough to have been spared; but I came very close to losing my father, a man who led not only our household but our entire neighbourhood. Having completed all his duties to his family and society, my father breathed his last at the age of 84 in January 2003. But he was nearly killed in 1971 when he was only 50.
On the rainy night of July 27, 1971, members of the Pakistani occupying forces, their accomplices, and local collaborators dragged my father out of our home, holding him at gunpoint.
My brother was an Intermediate student at the time, and I was supposed to take my SSC exams in April that year. But we had to leave our hometown of Tangail on March 31 for our village home in Maguria, Nagarpur. My parents decided to stay back in order to protect our home from being usurped by the anti-liberation forces, and for my father to continue providing for us as a senior accountant at the Tangail Collectorate. The Pakistani occupying forces, after establishing their stronghold in Dhaka, had begun to flex their muscles in other areas of the country. After capturing the Gazipur Ordinance Factory, they had entered Tangail on April 2. Nitai Chakrabarti, our neighbour in Biswas Betka in the outskirts of Tangail, was the first victim of the Pak Army's onslaught. His body was later dumped in a canal going through the town, and a few days later, his decomposed body was cremated in a rush in his adopted father's home.
The then military administration set a revised schedule to hold the SSC exams later than planned in July, so as to show the world that a peaceful and congenial atmosphere prevailed in the country. An instruction (virtually a threat) was issued by the military-backed administration that everyone who failed to send their eligible children to the examination halls, especially government officials, would be sent to jail.
I was surprised one night when, at our ancestral home in Maguria, my father asked me to travel with him the following morning to Tangail to appear for my SSC exams. I had a congenital heart ailment and couldn't prepare for my exams, but I had to surrender to my father's decision.
The last exam on 'Pakistan and its Culture', compulsory for SSC students at the time, was scheduled to be held on July 27. I was due to go back home after completing the exam. But later that night, some armed men broke through our main gate, entered our house by force, and whisked my father away to an unknown place. We had no idea what his crime was, apart from the fact that he was Hindu. Our cries for help went unanswered; everyone was too afraid to step in.
My mother and I had to wait until the next morning to find out about my father's whereabouts, or whether he was even alive. At around 9 am the next morning, with the help of MI Chowdhury, the then magistrate of Tangail, we learnt that my father was being kept in a small room at the Zilla Sadar Headquarters being used as a makeshift cantonment of the Pakistani army. Ironically, some of these men were people I had played with during my school life in our neighbourhood. We learnt that my father would be taken to a killing field that night to be shot, and that he had requested us to say the final prayers for him.
My mother went straight to the then Deputy Commissioner of Tangail, Jalaluddin Chowdhury, urging him to help save my father. But the DC seemed more interested in earning the trust of the Pakistanis than dealing with the problems of a 'low-level official'.
That very day, my mother approached HN Ashiqur Rahman, the young Additional Deputy Commissioner who later joined the Awami League, was elected a Member of Parliament in 1996, and is presently the treasurer of the party. Taking matters into his own hands, he convinced the in-charge of the District Military Administration of the imprudence of arresting a government official, especially while trying to present a scene of normalcy to the international community. After spending three days in confinement without food, water, light and with little air, thanks to Mr Rahman, my father was finally freed.
After that, I returned and stayed in my village for the remainder of the war, unaware of the horrors my family was facing in the meantime. On December 19, three days after the country was liberated, my elder brother told me something that shook me to my core. During the last month of the War of Liberation, the local razakars and members of the Shanti Committee headed by “Professor” Abdul Khaleque, a former lecturer of the Moulana Muhammad Ali College of Tangail, had drawn an evil plan to convert the entire Hindu community of Tangail town to Muslims. Accordingly, my parents and other Hindus of Tangail had been forced to “embrace” Islam. They were forced to go to the main mosque of Tangail to say their prayers. My father, Hiralal Roy, was forced to change his name to Helaluddin Khan. My mother, Hemangini Roy, was forcefully renamed Hamida Begum.
However, the collaborators were still unconvinced of the Hindu community's commitment to their new religion. They planned luncheon on Friday where all Hindus would be forced to eat beef after Jummah prayers. The plan was thankfully never realised; it was to be carried out on December 17, 1971, but Tangail was freed from Pakistani occupation on December 12, with the country gaining independence on December 16.
These incidents haunt me, my hometown neighbours, and my family to this day. I cannot fathom the extent of hatred against a religious community. But I feel very proud of my father, who never lost his nerve during that testing time. He was fortunate to have survived, but his resilience in the face of tragedy can never be measured.
'Professor' Abdul Khaleque lived in Narayanganj for some time after the defeat of Pakistan. He has never been brought to justice. Along with many other razakars, he too was responsible for turning Tangail into a killing field. I only hope that the International Crimes Tribunal investigates the atrocities committed by this so-called professor, and brings him to justice.
The writer is Chairman, Department of Printing and Publication Studies, University of Dhaka.