would rather die than sign any false statement'
Zeitlin who was The Associated
Press bureau chief in Pakistan when he covered
events leading to the creation of Bangladesh
in 1969 till 1972 gives us accounts of political
manouverings that in his opinion could have
averted the bloody war between East and
before the conflict between East Pakistan
and West Pakistan that became a liberation
war in March 1971, I was the unwitting witness
to a precious, fleeting moment that might
have averted the bloodshed in which Bangladesh
The story started for me
on February 13, 1971 in Rawalpindi, the
morning after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the triumphant
leader in the west of the Pakistan People's
Party, met the country's military dictator,
President Yahya Khan. The evening before
and after meeting Bhutto, Yahya had announced
that the National Assembly would meet on
March 3 in Dhaka to begin the process of
forming a civilian government following
the 1970 election.
That morning I met Bhutto
at the Rawalpindi airport just before he
flew to Peshawar. Bhutto moodily refused
to discuss the presidential announcement.
He appeared annoyed, although friendly.
He suggested I meet him in Peshawar for
a talk, then flew off.
I had not planned to be
in Peshawar but I drove that same day from
Rawalpindi along the Grand Trunk to the
home of Mohammed Hayat Khan Sherpao, the
Frontier PPP leader, where Bhutto was staying.
Bhutto was making the rounds.
He didn't roll into the Sherpao house until
midnight, tipsy from a day of politicking
Because the time was late,
I suggested I return the next morning. No,
Bhutto insisted, "Come upstairs."
Fondling a whiskey, he flopped
in his double-breasted suit on the bed.
While his valet massaged his fully-clothed
limbs, he said:
"My party and I will
not attend the opening of the National Assembly."
This statement, it occurred
to me, was the beginning of the end of undivided
political Pakistan. If there had been doubts
about confrontation with the Bengalis in
the east, the course of the collision was
Bhutto lay back on the bed.
He said he was sure his
party would not attend unless Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman gave way on his insistence on basing
a new constitution on the Six Points.
"It's good to be back
in the saddle again," he said, arching
his back cat-like on the bed. He said he
wasn't sure when or how he would make a
He said he would attend
as soon as Mujib sent him a signal of accommodation.
"I have been considering,"
he volunteered, "a scheme for two prime
The time was 2 a.m. I went
off to write a story. Bhutto left at 8 a.m.
to visit nearby Charsadda where he told
Khan Abdul Wali Khan, the National Awami
Party leader, of his decision.
Wali later recalled, "I
remember Bhutto said that it had been arranged
with the 'powers that are' that in East
Pakistan Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would rule,
and in West Pakistan, Mr. Bhutto would be
the Prime Minister."
In a statement read over
Pakistan radio at 12.05 p.m. March 1, Yahya
called off the start of the National Assembly.
Dhaka went wild. Two days
later, a crowd eager to hear Muijib utter
the word "independence," gathered
on Paltan Maidan. Instead, Mujib shouted
across Paltan Maiden to Bhutto in the west
in a remark little noticed at the time:
"If you do not want to frame one constitition,
let us frame our constitution and you frame
your own. Then let us see if we can live
together as brothers."
Responding to a telephone
call to my room at the Purbani Hotel, I
visited Sheikh the next day at Road No.
32. The house was uncommonly quiet and empty
I entered through the kitchen
and waited in the dark, tiny dining room.
Behind a curtain in the
front room, Sheikh met with several colleagues.
One was Dr. Kamal Hossain, who sat with
me. He asked about Bhutto's two prime ministers.
They had heard about it,
he said, on February 14, Valentine's Day.
I then was ushered in to
see Sheikh. Many times I had been in that
front room with its mouse brown chair coverings
and the photographs of Suhrawardy and Tagore.
It always had been crowded with people listening
or contributing their own wisdom to whatever
This time was different.
Sheikh was alone, curled in the brown arm
chair. He seemed shrunken, his moustache
He listened as I retold
the story of my conversation with Bhutto.
I asked if his reference to two constitutions
and Bhutto's to two prime ministers was
the basis for an agreement between the two
Sheikh shrugged. He lifted
his arms and spread his palms.
"If that is what Mr.
Bhutto wants," he said slowly, "then,
I surrender." He paused, then added:
"And you can tell him that."
I left and immediately cabled
a story to The Associated Press in London
that a basis for agreement to share power
existed between Mujib and Bhutto.
Later, the telephone rang
in my Purbani room. On the phone was Najmul
Haq, a reporter later to die in Dhaka. He
said Sheikh had seen my story, brought to
him from the cable office. Haq said Sheikh
wanted me to withdraw the story.
"It will hurt him in
the west," said Haq.
I asked to talk directly
"This will hurt me
in Karachi," he complained. "It
was not correct."
Of course, it was correct,
I reminded him. He had told me to tell Bhutto.
"Well," he said, "you misunderstood."
I told him I would try to
hold back the story but if it had gone to
London, no way could I explain to my office
why it should not run. It was correct.
I returned to the cable
office. The office was on strike. I returned
to tell Sheikh he was now the only person
in Dhaka who could get into the cable office.
And the story had gone.
The next day, the story
was broadcast on All India Radio. Sheikh
denied it, but in a nice way. He denied
the All India Radio story, not the Arnold
Zeitlin-Associated Press story. Otherwise,
I would have been a marked man in Dhaka.
That seemed to be the last
moment of agreement between Sheikh and Bhutto.
Later that month, there
was talk of two committees to concoct east
and west constitutions, but all the talk
ended in the killings on the night of March
Rafi Raza, one of Bhutto's
deputies in Dhaka that March, later wrote
in a book that Mujib had offered the committees
as a possible solution. I told Rafi about
my February conversation with a tipsy, ebullient
Bhutto and his two prime ministers.
"He never mentioned
that to me," said Rafi, shaking his
That was the end. Bhutto
and Mujib realized better than most politicians
in this frantic days what had to be done
to save lives: politically, in some way,
separate East and West Pakistan. In fact,
that was what the people of Pakistan voted
in the 1970 election.
The two leaders could not
act together, they could not sell the idea
to the army and to other West Pakistani
So it died. And so in the
ensuing months until December 16, 1971,
did hundreds of thousands of Bengalis.
terrifying victory day
an anxious and sleepless night I woke up
from my bed on the early hours of the day,
the 16th of December 197I. I stood on the
balcony of my ancestral home and looked
through the East and West ends of the street
known as Central Road, as far as the eye
could see. It was now about 6 in the morning.
The street was deserted and looked as though
tired and weary. I tuned on the Radio Pakistan,
as usual it continued with its broadcast
of verses from the holy Quran since the
last 48 eight hours or so. I came downstairs
and began to stroll anxiously up and down
the front porch of our house. The voice
of my brother (late) Shaheed Munier Chowdhury
was still ringing in my ears,
after all this, if we are unable to gain
our Independence it is better to die".
What an irony of fate he was kidnapped from
this very house around midday on the 14th
of December 1971 never to be found to this
day. We are here and he is gone. There were
sounds of pistol shots every now and then.
I was rudely jolted by a loud call "Shamsher
Bhai, Joi Bangla", it was 9.15 in the
morning. As I rushed to the balcony I kept
wondering as to who could it be!! Lo and
behold to my utter surprise it was Captain
Nasser Bari of the Pak Army, standing in
an open Jeep. As soon he saw me on the Balcony,
he shouted again at the top of his voice,
"Shamsher Bhai, Joi Bangla".
met Captain Nasser Bari quite accidentally
sometime during early May/June, while I
was working at the then Pakistan SEATO Research
Cholera Lab. Capt Bari was a member of the
Pakistan Army's Corps of Signals, looking
after telecommunication systems of the whole
of East Pakistan. He was all along a great
help and we developed a liking for each
other. During our frequent conversations
right through the start of the war, to my
pleasant surprise, I found out that he was
a strong advocate of the cause of the Bangalees
of the then East Pakistan. Capt. Bari came
to our house immediately after transmitting
the official "message of surrender"
at 0900 Hrs to the Indian Army High Command
from Hotel Intercontinental then declared
as "neutral zone" by ICRC.
was yet to come near his jeep, when suddenly
from nowhere a group of young boys surrounded
the vehicle with all sorts of firearms shooting
in the air and shouting at the top of their
voice "Joi Bangla." Hardly ten
minutes had passed when I was confronted
with another dilemma. This time the crowd
had swelled to nearly 50. In a frenzy, they
began to shout, "Let us kill this Pakistani
bastard and also take this Dalal with us".
Barefooted and dressed in a Lungi and a
T-shirt I was sweating on a winter day like
this. My friend by now got into the act
and was in the process of, delivering a
lecture on the heroic people of Bangladesh
and their great exploits against the coward
Pak soldiers. I clearly remember some of
his deliberations, he said in broken Bangla
"You are a heroic people. I salute
all of you. I am here to congratulate my
brother Shamsher and the most illustrious
family of your nation. Surely you cannot
kill an unarmed helpless man standing in
front of you?"
nervous and thinking of the impending fearful
consequences I too joined Captain Bari.
In the midst of this turmoil I heard a voice
calling my name, "Shamsher Bhai what
is happening"? This was a young man
of the locality who new my family well.
Pushing the crowd aside he came near the
Jeep and whispered into my years, "Please
quickly ask your friend to move away and
disappear, the crowd is growing restive
and may go out of control at any time".
He then in a commanding tone asked the gun
toting young and angry boys to make way
for the Jeep. As the vehicle and Capt Bari
began to move away slowly, I followed the
vehicle, with the unruly mob shouting, dancing,
firing shots in the air in ecstasy and in
euphoria that I have never experienced before.
The vehicle was now approaching the Hatirpool.
Soon Capt Bari disappeared over the bridge.
I had a big sigh of relief but only to be
was now time for the most dreaded and the
longest " journey" of my life,
crossing over a distance of mere 6 to 8
hundred yards, which lay between my residence
and I. As I began to move, each step of
the way, the gun toting band of young boys
were following me, calling names and threatening
to kill me, after all I was to them nothing
but a Pakistani Dalal. In this way, in perpetual
fear of death at any moment, I finally arrived
at the doorstep of my residence, covering
the distance in 30 agonizing minutes, which
normally takes between 5 and 7 minutes.
I bear no grudge against anybody to this
day. Our entire nation is plunged into extreme
turmoil and conflicts of all dimensions.
There are still others whose families had
undergone far more tragedies leading up
to our Independence and Victory Day. As
I look back to that "dreadful day",
I also think of those teeming millions who
continue to live in anguish and extreme
poverty. The fear factor from their lives
may have gone, but the uncertainties of
their existence continue.
is indeed sad that at a time like this we
are indulging ourselves in such political
games of "identifying and issuing certificates"
to what the management calls " genuine
Muktijodhas." etc. As a nation we already
stand bitterly divided. Let us not divide
it any further into pockets of conflicts.
There are various other ways we could honour
our valiant fighters without such deliberate
fanfare. As it is we are engaged in the
bitter struggle of establishing political
supremacy over one another. We are engaged
in the race for money making at "any
cost". We are busy more than ever before
in establishing our values social, moral
and ethical based on the size of cars or
houses we own. The comparatively affluent
section of our society along with the relatively
more conscious section of the civil society
must behave and act more responsibly and
sensibly. Then and then only we may be able
to carve out a sustainable future for our
people at large.