The “First 61” and the Murtee Days
By early June,1971, the Provisional Government of Bangladesh had realised that it would be very difficult to overcome the Pakistan Army with only the Freedom Fighters (FFs), consisting of rebel Bengalis of Pakistan Army, the para militia and other civilians, due to acute shortage of trained army officers. Meanwhile, the Pakistan military had augmented their strength by creating the Shanti (Peace) Committee, the Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams paramilitary units and assigned them a variety of combat and non-combat tasks. Though there were many people to fight the Pakistani enemies, there were not many military leaders to lead these young FFs. To meet the dearth of military leaders, the Government-in-Exile decided to commission officers from amongst the FFs, to be trained in an Indian military institution under the Indian Army. Bangladesh Army officers selected 60 FFs from different Mukti Bahini Camps with the help of the Indian Army. In June 1974, FF cadets mainly consisted of university students, a few army personnel, college teachers and youth leaders. Almost all of them had some sort of training in weaponry and use of explosives in Mukti Bahini camps, and many of them had taken part in unconventional warfare against the Pakistan army prior to joining the military academy.
In total twelve FFs including me were selected from Melaghar, Agartala under Sector 2 which was commanded by Major Khaled Musharraf. On 21st June 1971, we left Melaghar for 91 BSF HQ at Agartala in Shaktiman trucks. On arrival in Agartala we were received by some Indian officers and Major Bahar, Signals, from Bangladesh Army. An Indian army doctor, who was a Bengali, conducted our medical checkup. One of the Indian officers present there was heard telling other officers that these boys had left their homes, parents, and relations to fight for the country with no pay and with an uncertain future. This was the best criteria for selecting people to be trained as army officers at this stage.
Next day we were transported by truck to Dharmanagar rail station. We boarded the train and reached Guwahati. The journey was long but comfortable. In the train, I met an Indian Army officer who did not believe the reports about the atrocities and rape committed by the Pakistani forces. After a lot of arguments, he told us that he could not believe how a Muslim could be so cruel to another Muslim. I realised that the doctor was a Muslim and I was proved right when he mentioned his name with a 'Syed' prefix. We passed several hours in Guwahati and reached Chalsa, Siliguri, the terminal point, on 24 June 1971. The station master could recognise that we were FFs. He asked me how many non-Bengalis we had killed in East Pakistan. I realised that he might be a non-Bengali Muslim and lied to him that most of the non-Bengali people were with us and there were some Urdu speaking people with us here too. Then he asked me whether we knew Mr. AR Fatmi. I told him that he was our respected teacher and Chairman of Anjuman - e - Tarkki- e- Urdu and I lied to him that he was also in our favour. Actually Mr.Fatmi, a Bihari and ex-Principal of Qaid-e-Azam College, was anti-Bengali.
The Indian Army had established a training academy in the model of Officers' Training School (OTS), in Murtee, Siliguri under Eco Sector, 33 Corps, for training of the Bangladeshi Freedom Fighters. There were training institutes for the general freedom fighters too. The Officer Cadet unit was named Bhashani Wing and the common FF training unit was named Mujib Wing. Brigadier TD Joshi, the local brigade commander was the ex-officio commandant of both the wings. Col Dasgupta and Major Ashman Singh Thapa were the Chief Instructor (CI) and Senior Instructor (SI) respectively. Capt Stahanapaty, Capt Yadav, Capt Chandan, Capt RP Singh, Capt Sajjan Singh and a few others were our instructors. A brigade and some training institutes were also located in Murtee. Murtee had a picturesque landscape. It was a semi-mountainous terrain, flanked by a hilly stream (which becomes very furious during rainy season) named Murtee Nullah, tea gardens and the Dooars Forest bordering Bhutan.
In Murtee, I found 48 other cadets selected from the other Mukti Bahini camps. Amongst them I found my Dhaka College classmate Moin, my old friend Sheikh Kamal, Samad, a class senior in Dhaka University, and the famous Firu Bhai, a Chattra League leader of Dhaka University who had been a terror to the hoodlums of the National Students Federation (NSF). With guidance from Capt. Shawkat Ali (an accused in Agartala Conspiracy Case and Ex- Deputy Speaker) Sheikh Kamal and Tanvir Islam Tanna were running a training camp in Dhanmondi Physical Training Institute from the 2ndweek of March, 1971 while I had been undergoing training in Iqbal Hall football ground under Capt. Jahangir (an Ex PMA Cadet who introduced himself as a retired Army Captain). I asked Kamal regarding Tanna's whereabouts since he had been very interested in armed struggle. Kamal told me that Tanna was in Kolkata but could not join the war directly due to his deteriorating health condition. In the evening, Col Dasgupta, our CI, addressed the cadets and gave the outline of the course. He informed us that only the essential part of the short course of Indian Military training schools would be taught in 18 weeks to prepare us to take on the junior leadership role in fighting the enemy. Drills, dinner nights, military ceremonials, manners and etiquettes etc. which were not required in war would not be taught. There would be extensive night training and training on holidays to cover the military subjects.
The sixty of us were divided into four squadrons headed by one squadron leader under one wing commander, who was selected from amongst us. We used to have regular weapon training, and lecture, demonstration, exercise in battle craft, minor tactics and major operations of war. We had intense firing practice and battle inoculation in Bagdogra Cantonment and our firing capability was of a high standard. At times our spare evenings and holidays were utilised to complete our training schedule. The 33 Corps Commander visited our training activities a few times. General Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command visited us while we were doing obstacle course and appeared to be very pleased with our performance. Several Bengali officers paid us a visit too like Wing Commander Khademul Bashar (later Air Chief), Lt Col Nazrul Haque and Major Nazmul Haque.
But our training was not without a few mishaps. Once while undergoing training in Dooars Forest area, a herd of wild elephants attacked us. Some of us were severely injured and one of them succumbed to his injuries. We ran as fast as we could from the training area and saved our lives. Once in an ambush practice, Wali fired a blank cartridge directly on the fighting patrol party of the other side, and in the process our course mate Niranjan was seriously injured. He had to be evacuated to the hospital in a critical condition.
In the MI Room, there was a Muslim army doctor who used to taunt the sick FFs with objectionable remarks questioning the Bengali prowess to fight, according to him, 'the mighty Muslim Pakistani Army'. We reported this to the Indian higher ups and he was promptly removed from the MI Room.
Md.Abdur Rauf, an MNA and ex-President of Chhatra League and one of the authors of the 11 Point Programme of 1969 Mass Movement, was appointed as our Political Motivator. He was accommodated in one of the rooms in our barrack. As a Chhatra League activist, I had good relationship with him during my university days. He used to occasionally visit us and the FF trainees of the Mujib Wing. On being asked about the location and role of the firebrand leader Maulana Bhashani. He informed us that the Maulana had given whole-hearted support to the liberation war under the Tajuddin Government and he was kept in a health resort in Kashmir. True or false we didn't know but he told us that some people in London were trying to establish a parallel government in exile under Bhashani and our government had kept him at a safe and secure distance from the arena of war and politics so that he couldn't be communicated with and manipulated by the conspirators to sabotage our liberation struggle.
Our food was mainly vegetarian. Occasionally we used to be served mutton. We slept on beds made of bamboo. All of us were used to a far better food and living conditions in Bangladesh. We had a self-service dining hall. Our attire was absolutely of average standard.
Regarding the standard of food, living conditions, and attire, the authorities told us that all those were part of training of a PEOPLE'S ARMY which will have to fight protracted, harsh and brutal war, and at times we may have to live on the land. Our training was mostly in the rainy season. Snakes, insect bites and silent attacks by Tiger Leech were our constant irritants and worries.
We had left our parents, homes and relatives in a very hostile environment under the Pakistani occupation forces. Neither they nor we had any news of one another. Harsh training, low quality of living and food, and emotional despair, inflicted by constant worries about the country, parents and relatives, at times had adverse effect on us. But the dream of a free country sustained our spirits during all these adversities. Apart from that, the common dream of liberating the country, the credo of love, care and share that existed among us, and love and care of our Indian trainers, helped us to forget our sufferings to a great extent.
But that is not to say that our life was all dull and dreary We also had a lot of funny and joyful moments too. Almost all of us had an amusing appellation like Pecha, Chika, Beka, Tera, Bhunda, Aandha, Chapa. At times, we used to be served mutton for our meal. That day was a happy meal day for us. In one such a happy day, our friends were waiting to have mutton for dinner. Sheikh Kamal, Sadeque and I, were preparing to slaughter a goat. Just before that, its tongue came out and got stuck in between its teeth. I did not feel any movement of the goat. I told them that the goat was dead before it was slaughtered, but Sadeque and Kamal insisted that it feigned death to avoid being slaughtered. As we had been craving for meat for a long time, they told me not to tell others about the condition of the goat. But I ran to the barracks and broke the story of the dead goat to other cadets. Some of our friends chased Sadeque and Kamal, who told them that this was only a joke. That night we had a dinner with only “Daal (pulse)” and called it a DAAL NIGHT.
The Indian soldiers used to get Triple X Rum as ration. Generally, they used to mix rum with tea and make a cocktail. Shachin befriended a mess staff and frequently started taking this sweet tea. One late evening, he took too much of the sweet tea from the mess staff and went out of the residential area in ecstasy. He was interrupted by an Indian officer who identified himself as Capt. Hawa Singh. Shachin shouted at him and told him “BLOODY CHAP! Get lost from here Tum idhar sehawa ho jao”. We somehow managed to bring Shachin back to the barrack. Next morning Captain Hawa Singh came in MP uniform in the training area and took Shachin to the SI. Shachin flatly denied that he had done any such thing but confessed that he had taken a lot of sweet tea the previous night and had wonderful feelings. Our SI, Major Ashman Singh Thapa got the joke and awarded punishment to Shachin for the entire duration of the training after closure of training period.
During the 13th week of our training, Mahbub, a PMA cadet of 47th Long Course and a Dhaka College classmate of mine, who escaped from Pakistan to join liberation war, joined us as a trainee. Saifullah Khalid and Bazlur Rashid, two other cadets from the same course, had escaped from Pakistan and joined us at the fag-end of our training. In the beginning of the 14th week, we came to know that our course was being shortened to 15 weeks to the meet urgent demands of officers in the battlefront. Sadly, Saifullah and Bazlur Rashid were not included in our course.
Syed Nazrul Islam, the Acting President, Tajuddin Ahmed, the Prime Minister, and other senior civil officers came to Murtee on October 9, 1971, accompanied by General MAG Osmani, the C-in-C of the Bangladesh Forces for our Passing Out Parade. The Acting President and the C-in-C reviewed the parade after a formal speech and handed over to us the Parchment of Commission in Bangladesh Army. Tajuddin Ahmed categorically told us not to kill Razakars and small office bearers of the Peace Committees, as they might have joined the Pakistani forces out of fear. He further instructed us to protect the dignity of women and children of our enemies. That was the most memorable day of our life as we were formally honoured with the privilege of leading our liberation forces to free the country.
Among the cadets who escaped from PMA and joined us in the latter days of training, only Mahbub Alam was allowed to pass out with us. In total 61 of us got commission in the Infantry Regiment of the Bangladesh Army and headed straight for the battlefront from the training academy. Only Sheikh Kamal was posted as ADC to Gen Osmani, our C-in-C, though he had time and again asked for posting to the battlefront.
Training provides skill- not courage and patriotism. We had a short duration of training but our courage and dedication was inborn. All the 61 applied their skills with courage and dedication in battle, fired at the enemy and was fired back at by the enemy. Our course mate 2/Lt Khandaker Azizul Islam, BB, 2/Lt Ashfaqus Samad, BU and 2/Lt Kamrul Hasan Selim BB made the supreme sacrifice for the country. Our dear friend Sheikh Kamal attained martyrdom on August 15, 1975 along with the entire family of Bangabandhu present at 32 Dhanmondi, Dhaka. War history bears testimony to the fact that duration of training does not play the vital role in any war. Hiroo Onoda of Japan had been trained for 42 days in 1942 and continued his fight for 33 years. Vietnam's General von Nguyen Giap did not have any formal military training, but he led the defeat of the French and the compelled the US troops to withdraw from Vietnam.
With the demolition of Murtee Academy in India that was established solely for the training of Bangladeshi FFs, names and contributions of the 61 will perhaps sink into abysmal depth of oblivion since our names are not engraved in memorial plaques in any institutions like the PMA and the BMA.
We the 61 did not fight for glory, honour, accolades and monetary benefits - we all were deployed in the battlefront, braved death to beat the enemy and won the battles. That was our greatest reward.
The author is a retired Major and Secretary to Government.