How nationalist imaginaries were reconstituted in 1971
It was March 1971, some day between the 7th and the 25th. I was a student of class ten, listening with amazement to the subversive language flying among the crowd gathered in front of General Post Office in Dhaka, next to what is now known as the Zero Point. The schools were shut, and so were the offices. I was with my uncle, a few years older than I, mingling with the crowd, listening to the language they used in complete astonishment. This is not what I was taught at school. Yes, I loved Pakistan with all my heart, and it maddened me to hear the seditious language of the crowd. Unable to control myself, I commented to my uncle that the people are utterly wrong. Pakistan had to be saved from such an unruly mob! In the instant of an eye blink, as they say, an incensed crowd encircled me and my uncle. He had to plead with all his inherited skills of a lawyer's son to whisk me away to safety.
A few days later, at around 2 am on 26th March 1971, my father woke me up to show me from the verandah of our second-storey flat in Siddheswari, how the southern horizon of Dhaka city was ablaze. On the morning of 27th March, when the curfew imposed on the city was briefly lifted, I rushed out to see for myself what had actually happened. Shantinagar Bazar from where I always fetched fish, meat and groceries, Gulistan movie theatre intersection, and Nayabazar, the timber market – all were deserted. A few crows flew past, an occasional dog strolled leisurely, or a solitary human figure rushed furtively. Shantinagar Bazar was roofless and charred, with a few burnt-out tall wooden posts still standing. A corpse lay near Gulistan crossing. The head was cracked open like a wood apple, with flies buzzing busily. These images of death and destruction triggered an avalanche of disbelief at the very notion of 'Pakistan'. Finally, on the evening of 30th March, I heard on Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra the voice of Major Zia declaring independence on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib. It took no further reasoning as to what my course of action should be, because the call to action matched the inhuman brutality of the State. I joined the war as a guerilla and operated in Dhaka city.
Our house was a safe haven for arms cache and the attic lodged a cyclostyle machine to print Guerilla, a newsletter on news of the war, which I distributed early in the morning to locations around Siddheswari. I even made an unsuccessful attempt to cross over to Melaghar near Agartala to train myself as a freedom fighter. Nevertheless, my chance to operate as an urban guerilla came about a few months later. On 29th August Rumi and his comrades of the Crack Platoon were apprehended, and in early September, they were killed. My school friend Selim Akbar, a freedom fighter trained at Melaghar under Captain Haider and a member of the Crack Platoon, miraculously escaped apprehension as he was staying at his home on the fateful night. Selim got in touch with me and asked if I would join him in carrying out a few operations. As I agreed readily, he explained the simple mechanics of lobbing a hand grenade. It was quite simple: you pull the safety pin to release the spring-loaded striker-lever to hammer the percussion cap. The impact creates a tiny spark to light a slow-burning fuse. It takes five seconds (in some cases, seven seconds) for the fuse to ignite the detonator, which leads to an explosion. As long as I had my fingers clasped around the striker-lever, even if the safety pin was removed, there would be no explosion. I understood the mechanism well enough. However, because I had no practical training, I was apprehensive. How long would it take for me to open the safety pin? I had seen Hollywood heroes clasp the pin with their teeth and lob the grenade. I was not sure that would work in actual life. Besides, I knew that the Pakistan Army was well-trained. What if, during the time I took to dislodge the safety pin and the time it took for the grenade to explode, they shot me or lobbed the grenade back to me? I decided not to risk it, and in all the operations I took part in, and even in reconnaissance missions, I would clasp the striker-lever with my fingers, take off the safety pin, push my clasped fist into the pocket of my trousers, and walk the streets. Nasiruddin Yousuf, the commander of Dhaka North guerilla unit, thoroughly reprimanded me for the way I risked my life with a grenade, when he saw me a few days after 16th December. However, during the war, it mattered little if I died, so long as my death would be after killing a few of the heinous Pakistani soldiers.
I took part in five guerilla operations in Dhaka city, of which two are memorable for the risks involved. The first was a grenade charge at Rajarbagh Police Line. Selim and I recced the roads around the Police Lines, from Shantinagar intersection to Malibagh intersection, then down the Outer Circular Road, DIT Avenue and Shantinagar Road. We decided that the West Gate was the most convenient target because there was a narrow alley across the gate, and the alley would allow us to escape through Shantinagar residential area to Jonaki Cinema Hall. At about ten in the morning of the appointed day, Selim carried a tiny .25 calibre revolver, and I, a hand grenade with a five-second fuse. There were about four or five guards at the West Gate, all para-militia from Pakistan. As Selim covered me, I took a deep breath and lobbed the grenade as hard as I could. Immediately, both of us ran as fast as our legs would carry us, as the grenade exploded behind us, followed by the sound of shots fired from rifles. I outran my friend by a huge distance, and he had a good laugh at me after the operation. "Jamil," he said, "you were really running for your life!"
The other memorable operation was another grenade charge at Pakistani para-militia guarding the gate of Kamrunnesa High School on Abhoy Das Lane, during the SSC examination. I and another friend of mine, Faruque, had met at Selim's, and decided that Faruque would make the grenade charge, and I would cover him. Once again, I had only a .25 calibre revolver with which, ironically, I never had the chance to practice shooting. We recced the area and decided to escape through a side lane branching off the Abhay Das Lane, which would lead us to Ram Krishna Mission Road. However, just before the charge, Faruque said softly, "Jamil, I think I am going to chicken out." I told him not to worry, went to the side lane for Faruque to hand me the grenade, and told him to go. I walked near the gate, took out my grenade and saw that the para-militia had noticed me. I lobbed the grenade as I saw some of them taking aim at me. I was so scared that I ran not across the side lane that I was supposed to, but along Abhay Das Lane. As shots screamed past my legs, I saw a young man riding a bicycle beside me. He told me to jump on his bicycle, which I did, and he shot across Abhay Das Lane to Gopibagh. When it was safe, he stopped, and I alighted, thanking him with all my heart. I would have been dead on this day, had not this unknown young man risked his life to save mine.
More than these hit-and-run operations, the most painful of all war memories was the abduction of Dr. Fazle Rabbee on 15th December. He used to live next to our house in Siddheswari. On the fateful day, sometime in the afternoon, Pakistani soldiers along with Al-Badr and Al-Shams para-militia encircled Dr. Rabbee's house. On that afternoon, quite a few grenades, some land mines and plastic explosives were packed under the bed in my sisters' bedroom. My aunt, who was living with us because of the war and knew of the ammunitions, was so scared that she informed my father as soon as she saw the soldiers at Dr. Rabbee's house. My father was livid with anger, for he said, I had recklessly endangered the lives of all the family members. Swiftly, he carried the landmines and the plastic explosives and threw them from the verandah of our flat to a pond that lay immediately beyond. My mother grabbed the grenades and threw them inside a large drum used for storing water. I saw the soldiers and para-militia leading Dr. Rabbee blindfolded to one of their vehicles. He never returned.
Dear Dr. Rabbee, I never met you in person. But I salute you. May you and all other martyrs of the Liberation War rest in peace. Your sacrifice was never in vain. Today, we are because you were.
Syed Jamil Ahmed is a theatre practitioner, and retired Professor of theatre and performance studies at Dhaka University.