Operation Hotel Intercontinental: “HIT & RUN”
Habibul Alam Bir Pratik
The very first guerrilla operation carried out in the heart of Dhaka city by the Mukti Bahini was on the 9th of June, 1971. The place of action was Hotel Inter-Continental (now Hotel Sheraton), and the time was around 7.45 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.
The purpose of our mission was to stop the World Bank Aid Mission and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, head of the UNHCR, from providing financial assistance to the Pakistani junta. The team from the World Bank and the UNHCR had been informed and assured by the Pakistan propaganda machine that everything in the then East Pakistan, especially in Dhaka city, was absolutely normal.
Moreover, they said that the eastern part of Pakistan was totally under the control of the Pakistani rulers and the army.
"I want you to select 17 freedom-fighters including yourself from the student platoons and give the names to Badal. Capt Hyder will brief you in this regard," said our sector commander Major Khaled Musharrof. "I want you to understand that the mission has to be successful at any cost." Maj Khaled told us categorically that there could be no failure. Then, pointing his finger at me, he said, "I may call you later if required. You may go now".
I was afraid and at the same time proud to be appointed by Maj Khaled to lead the first batch of freedom-fighters for specific action inside Dhaka city. I went back to my tent with a beating heart and my head held high.
By the end of May, 1971 quite a number of Dhaka city students and young men had joined the sector. The majority of them were in the 2nd and 3rd platoons. Apart from seven freedom-fighters from the 2nd platoon, the rest were taken from 3rd platoon. The names were provided to Badal as per instruction. After I had handed over the names, he asked me who I wanted as my 2-IC (second-in-command).
It was in the Western movies that we had seen what a guerrilla operation leader does. It had never occurred to me that some day I would do the same in selecting a group's second-in-command. I gave the question very serious thought — it seemed to me that I might hurt the feelings of my newly acquainted freedom-fighter friends if I chose anyone from the 3rd platoon. I couldn't give FF Zia's name, as it was he who had brought me to that place. Taking a little more time, I said, "Is it possible to have FF Shoheed as our 2-IC?" Badal, betraying no reaction to the proposed name, merely said, "Why not?"
I knew that FF Mahbub Ahmed, known to everyone of us by his nickname Shoheed, had joined independently from Dhaka. His father was a close friend of my father's. FF Shoheed and his elder brother were especially close to our family. Moreover, FF Zia also knew him as both their families stayed in the older part of Dhaka. Zia used to stay in 3, Joynag Road and the next road was Umesh Datta Road where Shoheed used to stay. FF Shoheed was very regular with his prayers and kept a small beard, somewhat like a French cut. Later during the rest of the nine months, FF Shoheed used to be called "2-IC Moulana Shoheed".
Hyder Bhai and Badal gave us the briefing. They said, "You should in no way confront the Pakistani army in any manner." This was because, firstly, we were not armed appropriately; secondly, the planning did not include confrontation with the well-trained regular troops of the Pakistan army. Both of them said that they would provide us with only hand grenades and bayonets. Our job would be to lob those grenades inside the targeted area of Hotel Intercontinental and create panic amongst the foreigners who had come to Dhaka to see and assess the situation. They also told us, "You are aware that we want the World Bank team as well as the UNHCR to realise that the city is not normal and not totally under the control of the Pakistani army."
Understanding the weight of our responsibility, I asked, "Once the operation is over, what should we do?" They said that those who would be directly involved with the operation were to come back. The rest could stay back and provide the headquarters with the reports of the movement of the Pakistani army within the city area and their locations around the city. At the same time they should also conduct similar operations within the city, and also try to acquire as much medicine and bandages as possible. Since torches and compasses were essential for night movement, we were to try to get hold of as many of them as possible and send them to the headquarters.
Maj Khaled Musharrof called me again and said, "You will not wait after the operation. Those three, four or five of you who will be directly involved must ensure that you are back safe at our sector headquarters as soon as possible."
"We do not want anyone to get caught by the Pakistani army, because if that happens we will be behind the planned schedule by three to four months," insisted the sector commander.
Wishing us the best of luck, Maj Khaled said, "I want you all to move by tomorrow morning or before, so you can prepare beforehand after having observed the movement of the World Bank team, and conduct the mission accordingly".
FF Ali Ahmed Ziauddin, Mahbub Ahmed (Shoheed), Shyamol, Bhashon, (son of Prof Munir Chowdhury of Dhaka University), Anwar Rahman (Anu), Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury (Maya), Fateh Ali Chowdhury, Abu Sayeed Khan, Engineer Seraj, Gazi Golam Dastagir, Tareq M. R. Chowdhury, Nazibul Haque, Reza (from Dhanmondi), Abdus Samad from Araihazar, Jabbar from Rupganj, Iftekhar and myself were the first seventeen who were fortunate enough to be the first group to enter Dhaka with the first mission ordered by our sector commander, titled "Operation Hotel Intercontinental — Hit & Run".
Our journey began at early dawn. There was a cool breeze and almost everyone else was asleep. Both Capt Hyder and Badal wished us luck and Naik Munir led the way up to the border outpost of Comilla district and left us there. The air there seemed fresher to us than that of the training grounds. The countryside looked greener than on the other side of the border. Even the rain that drizzled down for some time seemed sweeter than that which often drenched us in the training camps.
We were carrying the Indian 'pineapple type' hand grenades, which were a dirty dark brown in colour, and one- fourth the size of local pineapples. Three to five grenades were provided for each person. Two types of bayonets were supplied and one bayonet was given to each person. We had to return the bayonets when we returned to our sector HQ, i.e. if we did. The Indian sub-machine gun (Sten gun) bayonet was shorter in length and a little wider than the three-nought-three bayonets, which was the other type supplied for this operation. I was given one hundred and sixty Pakistani rupees only as incidental expenses for the group, and this was to be used only in extreme situations.
Often while walking on the C&B road, which for the most part runs parallel to the Dhaka-Comilla highway, we checked the grenades to see whether the pin with the ring was in its position. We crossed over to the other side of the highway near Eliotganj. This was due to the fact that the bridge was partially damaged and the old culvert was not safe for freedom fighters since the Pakistani army used it at times. We walked across the paddy fields and made our way through the jute plants, which were mostly in ankle- to knee-deep muddy water. Small fish wiggled their tails at ease, friskily moving around these plants, playing their own games in their own world.
While moving further north-west we crossed one of the paddy field 'walkways'. And there was a four to five feet wide stream we all had to cross. We had to jump across the stream and it was easy for all of us but one. I was completely relaxed and stretched my legs to jump to the other side. I did not realise that my right leg had slipped while taking the jump. The Indian Sten gun bayonet, which was in my right hand, fell on the forefinger of my left hand and pricked it. Blood started oozing out of my forefinger in no time.
I had learned from my grandfather that if one had been cut and did not have any anti-septic lotion nearby, nature often came in handy. I immediately looked for clean and fresh blades of green grass and pulled out a bunch and washed it in the stream. I chewed the grass like chewing gum for about one to two minutes and placed the damp wad over the cut area of my forefinger. I saw the bleeding stop soon. My friends solicitously asked me how I was feeling. I felt quite comfortable once the grass was placed over the cut area. Half an hour later there was no pain. We were still walking and getting closer to Daudkandi and were now on the unfinished 'Food for Work Programme' road that ran parallel to the Dhaka-Comilla highway. By then the wad of grass that was placed over my finger had fallen off somewhere on the way.
We took a country boat and sailed off for Dhaka from Daudkandi. Most of us went straight to sleep once we were inside the boat. Only two to three of us kept ourselves awake to ensure that the boatman did not take us in a wrong direction. It was also necessary in case the Pakistan army, who were already moving along the major rivers in local passenger launches, stopped us. We arrived at around 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. in the morning of the 3rd of June, 1971 at Swarighat, Dhaka.
We left for our own destinations as decided earlier, and I requested Zia and Maya to cross-check with me later in the evening. Maya told us that he could be contacted at the Music College, which was in Segunbagicha. And Zia would see me in the evening.
Once I arrived home at Dilu Road, New Eskaton, my parents and sisters were really surprised. They wanted to know what was happening on the front. They listened to Akash-Bani Kolkata regularly in the afternoon, and at night they tuned in to the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro.
I was also told by Badal before our departure that if any help was required I should contact Shawpon and Bodi. He assured me that both were very much with us. Shawpon resided in Malibagh, very close to the Gulbagh Power Sub-Station. He also had a pistol and could provide any kind of support required. Bodi, for some reason, was in Kishoreganj.
However, things became a little slow. Bhashon got in touch with us and said that his uncle, whose name was Badal and who was a cameraman working in the Film Development Corporation in Dhaka, was very keen to join us. Moreover, he was a very good driver and could drive any kind of vehicle.
I got in touch with Shawpon and told him that we would require a vehicle to do the job and he had to give us the covering fire if required. We knew very little and were unaware that with a pistol one couldn't give covering fire as such. Nevertheless at that time we felt that the covering fire with a pistol was good enough.
FFs Zia, Maya, Shawpon, Bhashon, cameraman Badal Bhai and myself started looking for a car to hijack from Gulshan on the 7th of June. We chose Gulshan first circle because there was no entry from Kemal Ataturk Road to the second circle; in fact this road had not been completed then. The only two entry points to Gulshan were from the Tejgaon industrial area and from Mohakhali.
I drove my father's Triumph Herald and Badal Bhai drove a grey Mazda 2000. Badal Bhai, Shawpon, Bhashon, Zia, Maya and I were waiting near the first circle of Gulshan to hijack a vehicle.
On the very first day about eight to nine vehicles passed us. Bhashon either knew almost all the owners of the vehicles that passed or they knew him. They were either his relatives or his father's friends! On the second day we went a little early, at around 5:30 p.m. As usual Bhashon started his routine of protecting the vehicles. The vehicles could not even pass us, and Bhashon would say that the man in the vehicle was his Chacha, a friend's father. That person in the other vehicle was a relative of his relative or that vehicle we saw coming would have to be left alone since it belonged to his cousins. It seemed to us that he knew the whole of Gulshan. We got fed up and decided to abandon the mission and went back.
Once we were back we discussed the matter among ourselves and decided that the next morning we would not include Bhashon in our group. We replaced Bhashon with another freedom-fighter who could also drive and went to hijack a vehicle for the third time from Gulshan on the 9th of June, 1971 in the evening.
The sun was on the verge of setting, its brightness dying in the western sky. We waited with sharp eyes and looked for our prey. We finally saw a blue Datsun 1000, a brand new car, being driven by the driver alone. Badal Bhai with his Mazda car did not wait as the car passed us and accelerated. He went right behind the Datsun and tailed it. Seeing Badal Bhai's move I started my car. My task was to ensure that when Badal Bhai overtook our prey I should have my car at the back of the Datsun, so that it could not escape us.
We crossed the second circle and moved towards the office of the Consul General of the USSR. Badal Bhai overtook the Datsun with his Mazda. I immediately accelerated and went behind the blue Datsun, boxing it in. Badal Bhai was right in front of the turn of the Road No 79 leading towards the Soviet Consulate, and he blocked the road in the way that we had seen in the movies. The driver by then had understood what was going on and wanted to back and turn his car. I followed immediately and blocked his way and thus pinned the vehicle.
Badal Bhai's car was taken over by the sixth freedom-fighter, and he took control of the Datsun. He asked the driver where he was going and the driver replied that he was on his way to one of the flats of Adamjee, which was at the corner end of the road that he had tried to take. Shawpon sat in front. Maya and Zia sat at the back and the driver, whose eyes were blindfolded with a piece of black cloth, was made to sit between them.
I drove behind them. Cameraman Badal Bhai now drove the Datsun and we moved south of the first circle. The Datsun crossed the first circle and went and stopped in front of the culvert on the road that goes from Gulshan through Tejgaon industrial area (presently the culvert is just before the Aarong Shop between Gulshan and the Tejgaon industrial area). My car followed and stopped behind it. I stepped down and inquired what had happened.
Shawpon stepped out of the car and told me that the driver had recognised one of them at the back. Zia told us that the driver knew us and had to be disposed of. We were left with no choice. I got the driver out of the vehicle and brought him down below the culvert and he was expended.
We drove the Datsun to a house in Siddeshwari and I left my car at Dilu Road and joined the others there. It was around 7:30 p.m. and darkness had fallen and the streetlights of the city had been lit. The blue Datsun rolled out of Siddeshwari and moved towards Hotel Intercontinental.
Cameraman Badal Bhai was driving, and Shawpon sat in front with his pistol. At the back Maya and I sat beside the left and right doors respectively and Zia was between the two of us. We three took nine pineapple hand grenades with us for the operation.
The car crossed the President's house (now Shugandha) and took a right turn, passing the old tree that formed a round island in between the three roads. It took a left turn from where the boundary wall of the Hotel Intercontinental starts. The well-known Sakura Restaurant, with its big and brightly lit signboard, could be seen at the end of the road. While passing at a slow speed we found that the boundary wall of the then Hotel Intercontinental was occupied by people wearing various types of caps and making themselves comfortable by sitting on the wall, facing the portico. It seemed to us that they were waiting eagerly to see or receive some very important visitors.
While we were at the mid-section of Hotel Intercontinental and moving towards Sakura, we heard a siren and saw a police escort vehicle move in from Mymensingh Road with two or three more vehicles behind it. The last car was a white Chevrolet, a mid-sixties model. The car had a chocolate coloured strip going all the way from the middle to the back end. We immediately understood that the occupants were the guests of the Pakistan army for whom we had been dispatched from Motinagar to Dhaka. The escorted entourage passed us and went into Hotel Intercontinental. Badal Bhai had by then taken a sharp U-turn from the end of the Minto Road and again turned his car and stopped at the small gate of the hotel, which stood on the footpath of the road.
Pedestrians could walk in through that small gate, which stood parallel with the portico and the revolving entrance of Hotel Intercontinental. The people who were lazily waiting and sitting on the boundary wall became active all of a sudden and began clapping their hands very happily. They did not bother to look at the Datsun and the four young freedom-fighters coming out quietly and standing near that small gate behind them.
Zia, Maya and I stood about 3 to 4 feet apart, and Shawpon was standing with his right hand inside his shirt, holding his pistol.
By the time I had pulled out the pin from my grenade I saw that Zia had already thrown his grenade. The white Chevrolet rolled into the porch and two people were trying to get out. I threw the second grenade, which landed near the revolving door. Maya lobbed the third grenade that also landed near it.
Zia got his second grenade out and lobbed it at the vehicle. The grenade went in through the side window. All the grenades blasted one after another and all of a sudden we could see that the rear of the heavy Chevrolet car had jumped about 3 to 4 feet above the ground and then fallen flat. Another grenade was thrown, most probably by Maya, which landed on the walkway of the hotel entrance.
It was for the first time that the people who were hanging around Hotel Intercontinental saw with their own eyes that an attack on the government was being made by the freedom-fighters. We did not wait any further and rushed back to our car. We did not even bother to observe the panic that we had created. Once we were all inside, Badal Bhai turned the car again towards its destination.
Our vehicle took the same road and, once on the move, we realised that the people who were on the boundary wall had disappeared in no time. We found lots of sandals, lungis and even caps lying all over Minto Road and Hare Road all the way till we crossed the President's house and took Bailey Road. We turned the vehicle to right towards Motijheel to reach one of the army junta daily paper office Morning News. We lobbed two Grenades over the high raised boundary wall and moved out fast from that place. It was from there that we went towards the Ramna Thana passed it and moved forward to the Moghbazar Kazi office opposite of which was the residence of Jamaat-e-Islam leader Golam Azam, there we also lobbed quickly two grenades over the boundry wall towards the building. We very quickly turned the car from the dead end lane and came back to our destination. We realised that this kind of situation could only take place when an illegal government exploits its own people in the name of religion.
Once we were in Siddeshwari in Badal Bhai's place, we told Shawpon that we would meet again sometime soon. He should keep in touch with Chullu Bhai. I requested Maya and Zia to be in my house tonight so that by 7:30-8:00 a.m. in the morning we three could start together for our destination. And that would enable us to start our journey back to Motinagar early. Once we were back home, my three sisters and my mother got hold of us, and we had to narrate what we had done. Their faces reflected joy and happiness. I also requested Asma, my elder sister, to hand over a chit to Shoheed who would be coming tomorrow to our house after our departure. 2-IC Shoheed was supposed to look after the rest of the freedom-fighters whom we were leaving behind.
On the 10th of June my father, Mr Hafizul Alam, gave us three a lift in his Triumph Herald all the way to Narayanganj. We had a heavy breakfast in our house so that we wouldn't get hungry on our way back. In the car we narrated to my father in full detail what had happened the evening before. He seemed to be very proud of all of us. He dropped us near one of the "gudara ghats", very close to the Narayanganj IWTA ferry terminal.
We begged leave from him and stepped into a country boat, which took us to the other side of the bank of the river Sitalakhya, close to the IWTA Narayanganj Dockyard. It was around 10 a.m. in the morning when we reached the other side of the river and started to walk. We did not stop for a single moment apart from resting for a few minutes inside a mosque, and that too was at around 8 p.m. the same night. We were somewhere close to the border and couldn't rest long inside the mosque due to mosquito bites. Hence, we again started our journey by foot.
It was around 11 p.m. or 12 midnight that we reached Motinagar and reported to Capt ATM Hyder and Shahidullah Khan Badal. They were absolutely delighted to see the three of us safely back in the camp, and informed Maj Khaled Musharrof of our arrival. They had already received the news of our successful mission through BBC and All India Radio. We three felt very proud after the very first and successful operation inside Dhaka city.
We went back to our normal life in the camp. The only change that took place among us and the other freedom-fighters was an explosion of confidence, now that we were back from a mission safe and successful, which mattered most. If we could do it, so could the others.
There were new faces in the camp. We narrated our action to some of our old friends and they were absolutely thrilled to hear about it from the horse's mouth. The sun looked fresh and new to us and seemed to smile on our camp the next morning. Capt Hyder became busy with the training schedule for the old and newly enrolled freedom-fighters. We began receiving further training for the next assignment.
The writer is a Freedom Fighter, Sector-2 and K-Forces.