Looking back: April 17, 1971
It is tough to ruminate on the past in the stranglehold of the corona virus—an evil apparition that has wrecked our lives and turned the world upside down. However, as I am heading towards the finishing line of life or at least the onset of old age dementia, there seemed no better time to write this piece.
Let me begin with a quick recap of a few events leading up to the swearing-in ceremony of April 17, 1971. I was the SDO of Meherpur. I received information about the attack of the Pak Army on innocent civilians of Dhaka on March 25. It was an anticipated move by them, minus the gruesome mayhem, and so I flipped my allegiance to the freedom struggle, ditching the prospects of the pampered Civil Service of Pakistan. While organising resistance with a handful of Ansars, Mujahids and other activists, I wrote an open letter to India on March 26 on my official letterhead duly signed by me and stamped, asking for help with arms and ammunitions.
On March 29, I was invited to meet Indian officials at Betai Border Out Post (BOP) of India. I was received by Mr. Bhattacharya, DM of Krishnanagar District, and Lt Col Chakrabarty of Indian Border Security Force (BSF). Welcomed as the first "Bangladesh Ambassador" to India with the guard of honour from a contingent of BSF, I was given a patient hearing for help. Half believing my story, they asked to meet again on March 30 at Chengkhali check post along the Kushtia border.
Some other events were unfolding simultaneously. Maj Osman and Capt Azam of EPR at Chuadanga declared their allegiance to Bangladesh. They withdrew East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) personnel under their command from border outposts to Chuadanga and were planning an attack on the Pak Army positions at Kushtia on the morning of March 30. The attack was then deferred by 24 hours. My men from Meherpur and the men from Jhenaidah under Mahbub, SDPO of Jhenaidah and an old high school friend, also joined. Volunteers, students and Awami League activists from neighbouring areas started pouring in, all charged up.
March 30. Mahbub came up with two wary guests, Tajuddin Ahmad and Barrister Amir-ul Islam, in disguise in his jeep at Chuadanga. He introduced them to me and asked whether I could arrange for them to meet Indian officials. Since I was about to head for the meeting set earlier, we started for the check post together. Lt Col Chakrabarty and Golok Majumder, Chief of BSF were waiting. They were excited and eager to meet Tajuddin Ahmad and Barrister Amir-ul Islam upon hearing that they were with us in the jeep. The guests were received with due respect. It was a meeting that would turn out to be hugely consequential for the liberation struggle. With our credibility established, Lt Col Chakrabarty lent us two LMGs and some supply of POL.
Events of the first two weeks of April 1971 moved very fast. 22 Baluch stationed at Kushtia was routed by the attack led by EPR and our boys from Meherpur, Chuadanga, Kushtia, Jhenaidah and neighbouring areas who were christened as freedom fighters under the command of Capt Azam and the overall supervision of Maj Osman. Gradually a large swath of western Bangladesh was liberated, apart from the garrison at Jashore. However, the table soon turned against us as the Pak Army launched a counterattack on our positions with heavy artilleries and air support. We started a disorderly retreat and soon were pushed to Meherpur. Maj Osman, Mahbub and I made calls to Tajuddin Ahmad pleading for a government to be announced on our soil before we made the final retreat. Tajuddin Ahmad assured us that a decision would come soon. Several foreign journalists had made their way into the liberated area of Bangladesh and were asking who we were representing.
On April 16, we were informed that Badyanathtola in Meherpur had been selected for the event. Mahbub and I quickly moved there to take charge of arrangements for the historic occasion. There were good reasons behind this selection. Although the place was only ten miles away from Meherpur, it was difficult to reach by land from Meherpur given the dire condition of the herringboned road. Camouflaged under the thick foliage of mango gardens, the location was safe from air attack although Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jets were then strafing the Chuadanga-Meherpur road, only ten miles away. In case of a highly unlikely air attack, the enemy would have to cross Indian airspace, which they could ill afford. Moreover, Indian army personnel took defensive positions along the perimeter of Badyanathtola.
A modest dais was erected. Chairs were provided by the Italian missionary close by and also by Capt Yadov of BSF. A group of local people started rehearsing the national anthem. Badyanathtola, with the touch of a magic wand, was coming alive to host a momentous occasion. Inquisitive villagers were bewildered by the frenetic activities but could guess that something important was about to occur in their backyard.
At around 10 or 11 in the morning, a motorcade arrived from the Indian side of the border with political leaders and scores of media people. We received Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad and others at the foot of the dais. The ceremony started with recitations from the holy books. Prof Yusuf Ali, who later became a Minister, was duly appointed by the government, which was formed on April 10 by elected representatives from East Pakistan, to read out the Proclamation of Independence and administer the oath of office to Syed Nazrul Islam as the Vice President and Tajuddin Ahmad as the Prime Minister and other ministers. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was declared the President of Bangladesh. The Proclamation laid out the history of our national struggles, the denials perpetrated with brute force and bullets. It established the legitimacy of our independence and sovereign government by the collective decision of the elected representatives from then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh. It went further to announce that this new nation will adhere to international rights and obligations.
The national flag was hoisted as a local group of people sang the national anthem. It was now turn for the acting President (in the absence of the President, the Vice President was to take charge) to take the guard of honour.
In the meantime, a glitch in preparation had occurred. Maj Osman, who was to lead the contingent of EPR for the guard of honour, had not arrived. Time was running out fast. I asked Mahbub whether he could pull his police experience to come up with a solution. Instantly he agreed and started rehearsing with the assortment of Ansar and Mujahids who had been posted at the border outpost to guard it symbolically. In a seamless operation, the guard led by Mahbub was presented to the acting President, who later inspected it. Speeches were then made by leaders befitting the occasion.
I introduced the acting President and the Prime Minister to the civil and military officers present at the occasion. They had converged from surrounding areas where they had taken up arms against the Pak Army. People from the media were swarming all around.
Holding onto a bamboo fence, I was lost for a while as a stream of thoughts rushed into my head. History was being reclaimed at this very location that was about 100 miles away from Plassey, where Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah was defeated by the deceit and chicanery of the British company army, setting the stage for the colonisation of India and the 'glory' of the Raj. The absurd construct called Pakistan, two wings separated by a thousand miles, the last apple of discord planted by the British at the partition of India in 1947 and nurtured by their surrogates, the army-civil oligarchy, was being buried for good with a stinging epitaph.
Soon enough, the ceremony was over, and guests started departing. I congratulated Tajuddin Ahmad and thanked him for having given me the opportunity to witness history. With his measured smile, he corrected me and said: "You are part of history."
Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury Bir Bikram is the Adviser for Energy, Power and Mineral Resources to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.