Understanding a freedom fighter’s prison letters
Imprisoned in various torture chambers by the Pakistan Army during Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971, Mohiuddin Ahmed, MP, wrote numerous letters to his wife, describing the systemic cruelties of his oppressors. Taken together, these letters paint a granular picture of how traumatic and dehumanising life was inside these wartime black holes.
I had the good fortune of reading Mohiuddin Ahmed's prison letters, carefully archived by his daughter. At one level, these letters simply chronicle a political prisoner's personal anxieties, desperation to see his young family again, and dream to live in a liberated Sonar Bangla. At another level, the letters, written in both Bangla and English, reveal archetypal mysteries of the human condition in incarceration.
I was particularly struck by one letter written on October 16, 1971. In addition to describing the daily brutalities that were inflicted on freedom fighters and political prisoners, Ahmed lamented not being able to see his infant children. He wrote how his captors threatened to kill his children and bring their severed heads to him in the prison unless he divulged information about the resistance movement, its operation centres, and the whereabouts of its leaders.
Understanding the pain of being locked up within four walls for one's political views is heartbreaking. The then Dhaka Central Jail is now being turned into a museum and an urban park following a national design competition, in which my team from Brac University's Department of Architecture and I were a finalist. As participants in the competition, we had a chance to visit the Dhaka Central Jail in Old Dhaka. In the juvenile section of this iconic prison, a wall writing is forever seared into my mind. An adolescent prisoner etched on the wall, "Ma, jail boro koshto (Mother, jail is so much painful)."
I have always wondered how people manage to stay alive in a cage. How does one endure enforced isolation? Is time infinite inside a prison cell? In "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994), one of the most captivating films about jail life, the protagonist Andy Dufresne stated, "Hope is a good thing, may be the best of the things. And a good thing never dies." Does hope power a prisoner to stay alive? Hope of what? Freedom? A chance of reuniting with family? Is the prison a ghetto of the soul? Are political prisoners the quintessential characters of the modern era, characterised by all sorts of ideological conflicts, ethnic strife, and genocidal hostilities?
Mohiuddin Ahmed's home district was Barishal, an area that remained free from the invading Pakistan Army until April 25, 1971. After a massive blitzkrieg in the last week of April, the marauding Pakistani soldiers occupied the district. Ahmed left for India along with other members of Mukti Bahini. They regrouped in a town at the Indian border called Hasnabad, right across the border from Khulna. In the first week of May, they embarked on a stealthy return journey to southern Bangladesh in two launches filled with arms and ammunition. Besides Ahmed, the resistance leadership in the launch included Major Jalil and Nurul Islam Manju. Escorted by an Indian gunboat up to the border, the two launches entered the Bangladesh territory. When they came near Paikgachha in Khulna on the Burigowalini River, the launches came under heavy attack from Pakistani gunboats and eventually sank. The group dispersed in different directions.
Mohiuddin Ahmed, along with 19 other comrades, were captured by one Maulana Salam, a local collaborator of the Pakistan Army and a Jamaat leader, who also served as the local secretary to the notorious Peace Committee. In front of the captive Mukti Bahini members, he pontificated that it was the moral responsibility of all Bengali Muslims to support the political unity of both wings of Pakistan, because the country was founded on the theological nationalism of pan-Islamism. Ahmed and others were declared as the "enemies of Islam," for they opposed the idea of Pakistan and demanded self-rule for Bengalis.
All the prisoners were taken to the Khulna Circuit House and interrogated with different torture methods. Thereafter they were blindfolded, pushed into a truck, and transported to Jashore Cantonment. Ahmed was locked up in the same room where Mashiur Rahman, member of parliament and secretary of Awami League's Jashore unit, had been beaten to death just a few days earlier. His blood stains were still fresh in the room.
A few days later, 17 prisoners, including Mohiuddin Ahmed, were flown to the Dhaka Cantonment in a helicopter. For the next few weeks, all of them suffered extreme torture, including electric shock, indiscriminate beating, and being hung upside down from the ceiling. Shamshuddin Ahmed, sub-divisional officer from Sirajganj, was tortured to death while the captives watched. His body was left in front of their cells for psychological intimidation.
For the next eight months, Mohiuddin Ahmed's life turned into a veritable hell. Not only did he endure inhuman cruelty, but he also heard nonstop screams of imprisoned Bengali women used as sex slaves. One day, one Major Bashir terrorised a group of prisoners by barking what encapsulated the Pakistan Army's central war project in 1971, "We will make this country a land of prostitutes, a land of slaves, a land of beggars."
Ahmed was sent to Dhaka Central Jail in November. His lopsided military trial began on December 6. Under a brief tribunal led by one Colonel Alvi, Mohiuddin Ahmed was formally charged with treason, cooperating with India to disintegrate Pakistan, and aiding Mukti Bahini. On December 9, he was sentenced to death.
Nelson Mandela survived 27 years in prison. Many times, I tried to imagine prison life using him as a lens. The South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist was held in a tiny, two-metre-by-two-metre cell in Robben Island prison, located in Table Bay north of Cape Town, for 18 years. His prison writings offer an insight into how the human mind may or may not process captivity. He wrote, "... We drew strength and sustenance from the knowledge that we were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim… Prison is itself a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is, above all, a test of one's commitment." One of the most intriguing aspects of Mandela's dealing with the inhumanities of long incarceration was his ability to be a father. He often wrote letters to his daughters to comfort both them and himself.
Another political prisoner who produced an extraordinary body of political literature in the jail was Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party and an anti-fascist activist during the period between the two world wars. Gramsci penned more than 30 "prison notebooks" that covered philosophy, political theory, and the politics of history, among other subjects. From the prison, he wrote approximately 500 letters to friends, supporters, and family members. One could map the evolution and the turmoil of his mind through a scrutiny of these letters and his prison notebooks.
Does writing help mitigate the unbearable claustrophobia of confinement? Mohiuddin Ahmed's prison letters are modest in scope, but they shine a bright light on not only the state of a freedom fighter's mind, but also an illogical war's dehumanising effects on people. He found refuge in writing letters to his wife, who relentlessly tried to secure her husband's release from the prison, despite the constant physical threat she endured herself. As he wrote to his wife, Mohiuddin Ahmed imagined the nature of freedom and justice for his beloved country.
I like to argue that as much as we celebrate macro-histories of 1971, we must also robustly preserve its micro-histories—personal narratives, oral histories, prison letters, memories, and diaries—to nurture the spirit of the Liberation War as everyday reckonings.
December 19 was set for Mohiuddin Ahmed's execution. However, three days before his hanging, Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh was liberated. He got lucky to breathe the fresh air of a liberated country, and went on to serve his country as a member of parliament. As a people's politician all his life, he remained committed to the welfare of his constituency with extraordinary loyalty and honesty.
Today, that loyalty and honesty seem increasingly rare. When a state minister threatens an actress over the phone with sexual violence, it is only natural that we find ourselves longing for a renewal of the humanity that powered our victory 50 years ago in this month.
Dr Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and a professor. He teaches in Washington, DC, and also serves as the executive director of the Centre for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at Brac University.