Remembering two key 1971 commanders we just lost
At a time when Bangladesh is planning the historic celebration of the 50th anniversary of independence next year, the demises, in quick succession, of two great commanders of the Liberation War, are too shocking. Major General Chittaranjan Dutta, Bir Uttam, best known as CR Dutta, who led Sector 4 in the Sylhet region, and Lieutenant Colonel Abu Osman Chowdhury, the commander of Sector 8 covering Kustia, Jhenaidah and Chuadanga, passed away on August 25 and September 5, 2020 respectively.
The nation paid tributes to the two key Mukti Bahini commanders who served in the Pakistan army but revolted at the call of the nation. Their bravery and patriotism are printed not only in the pages of history; I am certain they will remain a source of inspiration for all Bangladeshi generations to come.
I didn't have a personal acquaintance with the two commanders during the war, as I was on a different warfront in sector 11, which covered parts of greater Mymensingh, including northern Gaibandha and Kurigram. But I had the opportunity to know them quite closely in the crucial post-1975 era, when the newborn country was witnessing a severe trauma following the brutal assassination of the nation's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. The acquaintance deepened when the Sector Commanders' Forum-Liberation War 71' was launched as a national platform under the leaderships of all the living war commanders from that time.
I recall, despite conflicting political standings that divided them, thanks to the post-1975 military and pseudo-democratic rulers, all the key war commanders of 1971 came out in unison to defend our history, and to restore the blood soaked ideals of three million people who laid down their lives for the cause of freedom and justice.
It was in 2006 when those ideals were publicly challenged by the resurfaced collaborators of the genocidal Pakistan army and their political backers, who pronounced in public that there were no Muktijoddha in Bangladesh, and what happened in 1971 was a "civil war". The Liberation War commanders, like Air Vice Marshal A K Khandakar, Major General K M Shafifullah, Major General CR Dutta, Colonel Kazi Nuruzzaman, Lieutenant General Mir Shawakat Ali, Lieutenant Colonel Abu Osman Chowdhury and Major Rafiqul Islam, most of whom are the second highest gallantry award holders, stood united for trials of war criminals who had actively collaborated with the marauding Pakistan army to commit a brutal genocide (including mass rape and destruction) against unarmed Bengali civilians.
CR Dutta was an exceptional officer who entered into the army when the Bengalis in general, and religious minorities in particular, were meticulously excluded in Pakistan. His love for the land he belonged to was unflinching. After the Partition of British India in 1947, the young man from a Hindu family did not migrate to India, which he could easily. As a true soldier, he took part in the 1965 India-Pakistan War. But having awakened to the reality of the dire situation, Dutta, then a Major, could not abandon his people. He believed it was time to stand up against West Pakistani colonialism, to seek justice.
In many private conversations with us, he said, whilst he was enjoying a long leave in his hometown in Habiganj, he heard the thunderous March 7 speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He made up his mind then, and after consultations with retired Colonel MA Rab, who later became the Chief of Staff of the Mukti Bahini, Dutta joined the war against Pakistan.
In fact, Habiganj had a rare combination of a lucky trio: Colonel MA Rab and Commandant Manik Chowdhury, both members of national assembly, and Major CR Dutta. They raised a resistance force against the Pakistani occupation army who were then burning houses, raping women and murdering unarmed civilians to suppress the Bengali rebellion for freedom. The war sector that Dutta had led, manned by 2,000 regular army members and 8,000 guerrillas, was comprised of the areas between Sylhet Sadar in the north and Kanaighat in the south. The border area extended 100 miles along the India-Bangladesh border.
After the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani army to the joint command of Bangladesh and India on December 16, 1971, Dutta held various vital military positions in the new country. He built up the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) as the force's first Director General, and was the chief of the Muktijoddha Kalyan Trust. He retired in 1984 after over 30 years of service.
In the latter part of his eventful life, General Dutta advocated for the rights of minorities, which made him a target for religious extremists. The successive military regimes gradually removed the founding state principles of secularism, and in 1988, Islam was declared as the state religion. Dutta, along with key minority leaders, founded the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council and campaigned for the return of the properties of the Hindus confiscated under the Vested Property Act to their rightful owners. Unlike many others of his time, he was not willing to compromise on the principles he believed in. He shared those principles with the fellow war veterans at the Sector Commanders Forum.
Now a few remarks about Colonel Abu Osman Chowdhury, whose leadership in the Mukti Bahini from March to September 1971, was unparalleled. Colonel Osman, as I knew him closely, was a hero plagued by tragedy. This was not only for the reason that his wife, a fellow freedom fighter, was shot dead by renegade soldiers during the so-called "revolution" on November 7, 1975, but also for the painful oversight of being the lone Sector Commander who was not conferred with a gallantry award, despite the heroic role he played in the Liberation War. That Colonel Osman was not given the gallantry award that he rightfully deserved, is a tragedy in our history. He was later awarded with the Swadhinata Padak (Independence Award).
Osman, a Major in 1971, was in command of the 4th EPR Wing in Chuadanga. He was staying at Kushtia on the night of March 25 to March 26 when the news of the Pakistani genocide in Dhaka reached him. Sensing imminent danger, he left Kushtia for Chuadanga. On March 27, the Pakistani flag flying at the EPR Wing headquarters, was ceremoniously lowered and the tri-colour Bangladeshi flag was hoisted by Major Osman. His deputy, Captain AR Azam Chowdhury, also played a valiant role here.
The whole of the region west of the Padma was under his command, comprising of parts of Kushtia, and parts of Faridpur, Jessore and nearby Khulna. The Bengali personnel from the defence, paramilitary, police, ansar, mujahid and students of the area were all under Osman's command. They attacked the 27 Baluch of the Pakistan Army stationed in Kushtia, and after hours of fierce fighting, eliminated almost two company strengths of the Pakistani army occupying Kushtia. The battle of Kushtia was later an important part of our war history.
Major Osman held the position till the division of war commands into 11 sectors by the Mujibnagar government in mid-July 1971. The South Western Command was renamed Sector 8, with some revision of the command area, and Osman continued to hold the position of Sector Commander till Major Abul Manjur, another war hero, took over in September 1971. After his premature retirement in 1976, Osman was engaged as a vocal advocate for democracy and justice.
After the demise of two such widely known sector commanders of the Liberation War, the nation recalled them with profound respect. I am sure, thousands would have been in the Dhaka streets to bid farewell to the heroes had there been no pandemic. The unimpeachable roles they played in 1971 will give us the courage to preserve the ideals and the spirit of the War of Liberation.
Both General Dutta and Colonel Osman were the Vice Chairmen of the Sector Commanders' Forum that I also belong to. Both of them were direct witnesses to the tortures that the Pakistani state inflicted upon the Bengalis during the 23 years of united existence. And they were convinced, like all their fellow freedom fighters, that a land of liberty and constitutional rule, supported by the core principles of secularism and democracy, would emerge for the Bangladeshi generations. I hope we will continue to show the greatest respect for these unforgettable war heroes.
Haroon Habib is a freedom fighter, writer, researcher and journalist.