Witnessing Victory

Harun ur Rashid

Air Vice Marshal(retd) AK Khandker who represented Bangladesh at the surrender ceremony on December 16 talks about the glorious event with Harun ur Rashid of The Daily Star.

If glorious moments are to be chosen from the long legacy of Bangladesh's Liberation War in 1971, one of them must be the ceremony of surrender of the Pakistan army on December 16 at the Race Course (present Suhrawardy Udyan). For, this was the moment when the dream of being liberated came true. A glum Lt Gen AAK Niazi of the Pakistan army, slightly bent forward, signs the surrender deed while Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian army and others look on--the picture will remain ever fresh in the heart of all Bangalis as long as Bangladesh lives.

Air Vice Marshal (retd) AK Khandker was present at the surrender ceremony as a representative of the Mukti Bahini of the newly born Bangladesh.

It is interesting that Khandker did not know that he would have to attend the function. “I was at the Mukti Bahini headquarters in Kolkata at that time. I went out on a job on December 16 that morning and when I returned to the headquarters, everyone jumped at me,” says

Air Vice Marshal(retd) AK Khandker

Khandker. “I came to learn that I would have to represent our side at the surrender function.”

Colonel MAG Osmani, chief of Mukti Bahini, was supposed to represent Bangladesh, but he had been in Sylhet since December 13 and could not be contacted. So, Khandker was chosen for the job as the second most senior officer.

“Obviously, winning the Liberation War was not so easy for us,” Khandker says, “especially because we did not have any regular organised armed forces in the beginning. Col Osmani, Maj Zia, Shafiullah and a few others formed the liberation forces at Teliapara of Chittagong, most probably on April 3. The force was officially incepted on April 17 at Baidyanathtola of Mujibnagar. It was reorganised between July 10-15, dividing the country into 11 sectors.

There were no individual armed forces in the Mukti Bahini, says Khandker. “We had the elements of all the three forces--army, naval and air force--but all under one Mukti Bahini.”

AK Khandker was a group captain of the Pakistan Air Force in 1971, stationed at the East Pakistan headquarters in Dhaka as second-in-command. Khandker witnessed Gen Yahya's clandestine leaving of Dhaka in the evening of March 25. “There was a special telephone number of the Awami League at that time where any information could be notified. So, I informed the incident at that number and all Bangalee officers in the cantonment,” says Khandker. “I somewhat sensed something is going to happen at night,” he recalls the dread of the genocide executed by the Pakistan army.

“My first two attempts to join he Mukti Bahini went unsuccessful, but on the third try on May 15, 10 of us Air Force officers finally reached Agartola of Indian state Tripura. The next day, I went to Kolkata with Gen Kalkat Singh of Indian army and Major Shafayat Jamil of the Mukti Bahini,” says Khandker. There he met the ministers of the newly formed Bangladesh government in exile and Colonel Osmani. Khandker was made the deputy chief of staff of the Mukti Bahini and was given the responsibility of training and operations.

Since the very beginning of his taking charge, Khandker had been asking Osmani and Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed for acquiring some aircraft for the air element of the Mukti Bahini. There were around 10-12 pilots, including the Bangalee pilots of the Pakistan International Airlines, at that time.

In the middle of August, Indian air Force chief Marshal PC Lal, defence secretary RB Lal and a few more officials called on PM Tajuddin, who requested them for some aircraft.

“On September 28, with three aircraft--a DC-3, an Otter and a helicopter--and around 50 Bangladeshi technicians and airmen, we formed the first air fleet of the Bangladesh Air Force at an abandoned Dimapur airfield of Nagaland,” recalls Khandker. India supplied all the aircraft, guns, rockets, fuel and other ammunition.

“The airfield was surrounded by thick jungles. We started training on bombing, rocketing and strafing with a parachute laid on a hilltop as the target.” All these were very difficult for the crew in that “jungle-surrounded, snake-infested land”, during the monsoon, and “without any navigational aid”. “No one but a pilot can realise it,” says Khandker.

“It must be remembered that this very fleet struck first when all-out attack on the Pakistan forces began on December 3,” proudly says Khandker. “We destroyed two fuel dumps--one at Godnail of Narayanganj and another in Chittagong--in that strike. It caused severe damage to the movement of the Pakistan army.”

Pakistan gave the first hint of surrender on December 9, within just six days of the joint attacks of the Indian armed forces and the Mukti Bahini began. Finally, they surrendered unconditionally on December 16.

Immediately after learning that he would have to represent the Bangladesh side at the surrender signing ceremony, Khandker left for the Dumdum Airport in West Bengal. Gen Aurora and other officials also came there and they all started towards Dhaka. “But the runway was so damaged that we could not land in Dhaka and had to go to Agartola, from where we boarded a helicopter and came to Dhaka,” recalls Khandker. “We arrived in Dhaka at around 3:30pm. We reached the Race Course on a jeep from Tejgaon.”

Thousands of people on both sides of the road welcomed the victorious leaders with slogans and cheers. Thousands more had already been waiting at the Race Course. “The signing ceremony was strikingly brief,” says Khandker. “It took about 15 minutes.”

On his observation of Gen Niazi, Khandker says, “Niazi seemed nervous and his face grave. His hands were shaking when he handed his revolver to Gen Aurora as the symbol of the surrender.” Niazi left the ground as soon as the signing was over. “The Mukti Bahini and Mitra Bahini soldiers escorted the surrendering Pakistan soldiers off the ground so that no one could harm them,” Khandker adds.

How did this war hero feel to be a witness to the historic surrender of Pakistan? “When I got down from the helicopter at Tejgaon, I only felt very happy that I could finally return to my homeland…my liberated country. And that was important to me--to see the free motherland from the claws of Pakistani aggression.”

 

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