A Bangalee in Karachi
for me the shock came on the 26th. At about
1:30, 2:00 of a brilliant Karachi afternoon,
the sun glancing off a pyramid of blood-red
pomegranates on the cart of the Pathan fruitseller
ambling through our government officers'
housing colony. I, Bonny (Irteza), Fahim,
Chotu (Javed) and Tony (Rashid) were standing
beneath the neem tree in front of Bonny's
house, chatting. We had been 'playing' cricket
on the road beneath the spreading shade
of the trees that dotted the colony, one
of us spinning the ball from eight yards
away, one batting, the other three very
close to the bat for the popped-up catch.
For the last hour the only noise in the
immense noon quiet had been the 'tock' of
ball on bat and our collective 'owzats'.
were the same age, 17, 18 years old. Tony
was Punjabi, Chotu was half-Punjabi, Bonny
and Fahim were Uttar Pradesh migrants, Karachi's
dominant demographic slice. I had lived
side by side with them these last six, seven
years, had done all the usual things with
them that boys growing up do. But we hardly
ever discussed politics. Which, however,
didn't mean we lately hadn't become aware
of it, especially after the 1970 election,
when suddenly Karachi homes were electric
with talk about the country's fate. It became
the dominant topic, front, center and back.
On newspapers, radio and television. The
Pakistan media breathlessly began to report
the latest Bengali outrage against the state,
Islam and the flag; commentators, especially
the Urdu ones, wrote that mobs were running
wild through the streets, that the Awami
League had lost control of things and Bengalis
were taking apart Pakistan brick by brick.
A photograph of Pakistani cricketers, led
by Intikhab Alam, running out of Dhaka stadium
was run over and over again. Dark, short,
chattering Bengalis, sticks, stones, riots
and a mindless rage.
Bengalis of course looked at things differently.
But only inside our homes.
flew the flag,' I remember Mortuza Uncle,
an old friend of my father's in from Dhaka
for a couple of days in March, saying.
we heard,' my father had replied.
S. M. Abdur Rab,' Murtaza Uncle had continued.
'The time had come, he said, and raised
I think Jang ran a photo of it.'
it was fantastic, the roar that went up,
that flag fluttering out there.' My father,
who till the massacre had wanted autonomy,
not independence, for Bengalis, had looked
away. During the 1970 parliamentary elections,
when his elder brother had contested for
the seat from Feni (and had won), he had
proudly ticked off his vote in the absentee
ballot papers for himself, had watched as
my mother had ticked off hers, then had
promptly mailed them off.
was fascinating stuff for me. To be perfectly
truthful, it was only at the the end of
February 1971yes, I was that late--that
I began to revel in the force and might
of Bengali nationalism. Despite speaking
Bengali at home, eating rice every day,
having a father who wore a lungi at home
and mangled Urdu every time he spokea source
of endless hilarity for his childrenthe
living politics of East Pakistan had been
distant thunder in the sky. It was because
I went to an English-medium school, and
therefore was not a part of the Bengali
milieu within the colony, where intense
discussions about politics took place. The
majority of the Bengali kids my age went
to a specially-constituted Bengali-medium
school, and their circle, their books and
talk and interests, even jokes, were completely
different. There were a couple of Bengali
'boys' who had gone to English-medium schools,
and who had, like I and my siblings, assimilated
into Urdu-speaking West Pakistani culture.
As children growing up will. But from February
1971 onward I was drawn to the former group
like a moth to a flame. At Dr. Hasan's house,
which was a hotbed of political adda. Dr.
Hasan sat there pooh-poohing Sheikh Mujib
and the idea of Bangladesh ('Discrimination?'
he would shout, 'You boys have no clue how
Bengalis will practice discrimination on
fellow Bengali'; he stayed back in Pakistan
after 1971), while his sons would go for
his throat. I would sit there taking it
all in. And one day, somebody popped a cassette
into the player, turned it to full blast,
and a second later Sheik Mujib's 7th March
speech deafened us. I had never heard Mujib
before, and I remember the hairs on the
back of my neck stood up as I listened to
his voice. And which made his later betrayal
of ideals incomprehensible to me. But throughout
all this, never did I once think that it
would come to the slaughter that it did,
the killing fields of Operation Searchlight.
so for me, after February, as it had been
for other Bengalis much earlier, discussions
were confined to home. What was there to
talk about with Pakistanis? What would they
know about how Bengalis felt? Because even
if we did talk 'politics', we really wouldn't
be talking about politics; we would be talking
about hurt, anger, discrimination, betrayal,
racism, lying, and stealing.
taboo vanished in a flash as Bonny came
out of his house, where he had gone to drink
a glass of water, and said, to nobody in
particular, 'They arrested Sheikh Mujib
was stunned. Nobody else said anything in
some time I managed to get one word out:
'What?' And looked around. but they wouldn't
meet my eyes. Everybody looked away. Chotu
especially. However differently they might
talk among themselves, they now refused
to exult in front of me.
Bonny spoke again, looking downward, 'The
army arrested Mujib. They are bringing him
nobody would meet my eyes. It seemed impossible
to me. I hadn't been following the events
in Dhaka hour by hour (there was no way
to do it), but even if I had, it would still
have come as a thunderbolt. Perhaps, despite
my recent re-education, I still retained
an innocent belief that these people, whose
sons I played with, in whose midst I had
lived the last six or seven years, wouldn't
actually turn into barbarians overnight.
do you know?' I asked Bonny.
father just told me. He heard it on the
stood rooted to the ground for several moments,
as somewhere a pyramid of flame-red pomegranates
came crashing down, then said 'I have to
go home.' Again, I have to confess that
it did not enter my head that Mujib's arrest
could be the prelude to a systematic assault
on civilians. That would come in the days
ahead, as stories of the attacks on Rajarbagh
police lines, on Dhaka university halls,
of teachers being shot, of neighbourhoods
torched by flamethrowers, of the entire
political leadership of East Pakistan disappearing
at a single stroke would transmit via the
Bengali grapevine. As did later the counter-news
of resistance, of a people united and fighting
back, of a spirit that was emerging that
was much fiercer than what was being inflicted
on them, of a guerilla war of attrition,
of stories of defiance and heroism. In fact,
Murtaza Uncle would again pop up in mid-July
1971 in our drawing room, to recount how
my uncle, Khwaja Ahmed, MNA-Elect from Feni,
same seat as the infamous Joynal Hazari
(oh, how things do come to a pretty pass!),
fought the Pakistan army as it advanced
on the town, managed to halt it for some
time, which gave him and his comrades-in-arm
time to empty the bank of money and cross
over to Agartala.
she ki juddho lichu bagan ai,' Murtaza
Uncle said, one leg crossed over the other,
slick head shining beneath a wall clock
that just then chimed as if in hearty approval.
26 would bring about the final alienation
from all things Pakistan, its ideology and
state, its mullahs and mosques, anthem and
Jinnah caps, from everything in the society
that throbbed and shuddered outside my bedroom
window. But all that still lay ahead, was
in the future. That midday with its diamond-bright
light, Mujib's arrest alone was enough.
who lived in the apartment building in front
of me, said he would come with me. And slowly,
my head down, shocked into absolute silence
I started the walk home. With Chotu, who
was later to join the Pakistan Navy and
rise upwards, beside me. I remember feeling
as if I was walking underwater, putting
one foot in front of the other very deliberately
on Karachi's hard, stony ground. This is
it, I kept thinking, and I felt it in my
bones, the point of no return. Either way
Pakistan was finished for me, for my family,
because the day the dust settled, as settle
it must, we either lived on as cowed slaves
here, which was unthinkable, or somehow
East Pakistan became free and we would move
there. Either way, this sun, this heat,
this sand, this Karachi, lying so quietly
all around me, this city with its horse-drawn
victorias and its museum full of Mughal
miniatures, its camel carts and glasses
of salty lassi, would soon be rendered a
fiction, would not be mine. Already it began
to seem unreal, these people here sleeping
and breathing and eating and leading their
lives so peacefully, so uninhibitedly, so
freely, while the voice of the Bengali people
was in shackles.
the entrance to our front gardenwe lived
on the ground floor of the four-apartment
blockI turned and went inside without saying
goodbye to Chotu, who sloped off without
a word either. Inside, on the verandah,
where we had our dining table, the whole
family plus 'Anis Uncle' (Anisul Haq, who
later in independent Bangladesh started
his own ad company, who died last year and
in whose memory his niece wrote a lovely
piece for The Daily Star), were just sitting
down to lunch. Anis Uncle, sitting with
his back half-turned to me, was chewing
his very first mouthful, some rice in a
hand poised in mid-air. The others were
about to start.
have arrested Sheikh Mujib,' I blurted out.
faces turned towards me. Eyes dilated, faces
draining of colour.
fascists, bloody fascists', Anis Uncle sputtered
in English as he sprang up from his chair,
rice spraying out of his mouth all over
the table. My father stared at me. 'They
said it on the radio,' I added.
remember noting that my father's and Anis
Uncle's eyes then acquired an oddly glazed
look as they absorbed the news, something
fatalistic, as when somebody's worst fears
are realized and there is no other place
to go to. It dawned on me that, unlike me,
they had been anticipating this. And now
were anticipating something far worse, something
that I couldn't quite grasp, and would be
beyond me for at least a day more.
bhabi,' Anis Uncle eventually said to my
mother, who just nodded, 'for spoiling your
food. But I can't eat anything right now.'
went to the bathroom, washed his hands and
went to the drawing room, where my father
had also retreated to. Both of them lit
cigarettes and smoked and looked out of
the window, at the rose bushes nodding in
the heat. At the sky, almost white in the
glare. My mother, I, my brother and sister
sat and looked at them. Then a little later,
Anis Uncle said he had to go, and so we
all accompanied them outside and saw them
off to their car. Then turned and came back
knowing what was going to happen next.
was my day of shock, my March 25th, 1971.
The author is the Literary Editor of The
A memoir of March '71
a point when the struggle for democracy
was rising to its peak and East Bengal was
fuming, a man who's fist would raise in
protest against the Pakistani colonial attitude
as well as grip the pen when asked to be
the brilliant economics student at Dhaka
University, he was at the core of the student
movement that was spearheading the fight
against the injustices perpetrated on Bangalees
in early 1971 was the then East Pakistan
Student's Union (EPSU) President Mujahidul
the General Secretary of the Communist Party
of Bangladesh, Selim, it seems, hasn't given
up the struggle to find justice in the country
that he loves. Back in the early months
of 1971 the demands were not much different
democracy and emancipating the toiling masses,
- but it contained one paramount objective:
autonomy for east Bengal.
up to the night of March 25th, Selim explains
the escalation of mindsets from the rage
on streets to taking up arms against the
Pakistani army was triggered largely on
March 1, 1971. For on that day, the dream
of democracy and to implement Bangalee's
demands through the elected government were
trampled by the abrogation of election results
by Yahya Khan. This act, for Selim, his
comrades and his leadership, turned their
focus to one goal: liberation at any cost.
decided that if Yahya Khan impedes our path
to establish democracy, we will try to establish
the government that people elected even
if it means liberating Bengal as an independent
country," recalls Selim.
of the crucial and concrete examples of
this mindset, Selim notes, is when EPSU
was the first to officially introduce the
demand for "the right to cessation
and autonomous rule" in their manifesto,
and the medium to establish this people's
government, however, brought, for Selim
and a number his leaders, an armed struggle
on the agenda.
then went on to secretly accumulate dummy
rifles to organise massive drills on the
playing fields of Dhaka University every
day with over a 1000 male and female students
enthusiastically participating in them,"
was also one of the main co-ordinators to
inform Dhaka-residents about the armed preparation
the students were taking for a confrontation
with the Pakistani administration, by organising
thousands of students with dummy rifles
poised tautly on their shoulders and martial
attires to march through rapt Dhaka crowds.
streets were full of people who would stop
to look at us and fill their hearts with
pride, it also uplifted a lot of people
who were not aware of the resistance that
was being planned at that time. The message
spread like wildfire these marches and acts
of resistance were replicated throughout
the muffassils within a very short time,"
preparations led some members, including
Selim, to organise a bit more militant namely,
explosives and more advanced training with
group of 15 or 16 of us (EPSU members) took
the initiative to set up a target practice
range in an uninhabited area in Damra on
the outskirts of Dhaka. There, we started
to experiment with live ammunition, and
experimented with assembling the materials
for powerful explosives by collecting chemicals
from Dhaka University chemistry laboratories,"
group of 16, including some top student
leaders from EPSU at that time, failed the
first few attempts at detonating these bombs,
says Selim. But, their first cases of successful
detonations were made at a rubbish heap
next to Modhu's Canteen at DU on February
22 1971, Selim recalls.
on by the blow of Yahya's denial of Mujib's
election victory, and buoyed by the wave
of students and people from all sections
of society participating in active resistance,
Selim was one of the masterminds for a more
ambitious plan that echoed the militant
and revolutionary voices of history.
smirks at what he considers now to be childish
and hilarious. He says that the most militant
and intense activists borrowed from the
strategies of resistance employed in the
Paris communes during the French revolution,
small-condensed resistance in metropolitans.
A mentality that could also be seen as a
precursor to the guerrilla tactics that
were to be employed during the war of liberation
established strong and dense networks in
the suburbs of Dhaka city, where we distributed
handbills among the households, reaching
out to them in order to engage them in the
resistance by throwing everything at the
enemy from pouring hot starch-residue from
cooked rice, to spraying the enemy with
hot spices," said Selim. Reflecting
perhaps some of the naivete among the student
leaders but also a reflecting a depth of
thought in calculating all the available
options to resist the army.
that point, though Selim and his comrades,
knew politically that they had to prepare
for an armed struggle, albeit with primitive
strategies, they had no idea how barbaric
the attack would be or how modern both the
weapons and strategies of the Pakistani
army would be; they were just left to find
out in the next nine months.
the day Yahya declared that parliament will
not be allowed to sit, the students would
hold public briefing sessions every afternoon
on the steps of the Shaheed Minar to update
the audience of ongoing political events
and to announce political programs to activists
about political actions to be taken in different
localities the following day.
March 25th, we started to receive news that
the Pakistani military were concocting some
sinister plans, and in the afternoon we
heard that Yahya and [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto
were set to leave Dhaka and that's when
we got the drift that a climax situation
was in the offing," accounts Selim.
the account of the 25th, Selim continues
"I clearly recall, on that afternoon,
we announced that the next briefing would
be tomorrow morning instead of the afternoon
and we need to amass thousands of students
and public, just not activists."
leaders, including Selim dispersed soon
after, telling other activists not to sleep
at homes in fear of late night arrests and
to keep a look out for further orders.
then went to a house of a fellow activist
where Chatra League, Awami League, Jubo
League, NAP, EPSU, and other activists alongside
renowned artist Kamrul Ahsan gathered to
discuss future plans for action.
had a layman plan setting our eyes on blocking
Pakistani tanks entering the city around
Farmgate and blowing up a small culvert
in Kalabagan," said Selim. He added,
"We didn't have many modern weapons,
so we thought the only way to stop a tank
would be to take a Molotov cocktail close
to the tank and have it thrown into an opening,
it was naï
ve to think it would work, but it was the
only that was available to us!"
an argument broke out over the priority
to protect either their locality or the
whole of Dhaka, but as they were arguing,
however, gunfights had already broken out
in their surrounding suburbs, and soon enough,
they were ringing in their ears in Hatirpool
it was half past seven in the evening.
we immediately called our leaders to ask
for a plan," Selim recalls. The plan
wasn't far from what they had they continued
with the basic plan to make molotov cocktails.
of empty bottles, a barrel of kerosene,
petrol cans, clothes to make the wick for
the cocktail, all appeared within a matter
of minutes, but just as they were about
to prepare the explosives they heard loud
explosions right outside their building.
looked out to see the densely populated
slum near the old-train tracks in Hatirpool
ablaze, and when the situation had become
more grim they decided to go up to the roof
to observe the current state of their locality.
by the array of tracer bullets going in
all directions all around us, we saw that
the army had occupied all the major roads
around us, while the wailing in the slums
were getting stronger," Selim goes
on to describe. But, he adds with concern,
"We were worried that if the army raided
our house, all our ingredients for the molotov
cocktails would be found, so we went about
quickly disposing of most of the materials."
a curfew was imposed around the same time
they had disposed of the materials. Gripped
by uncertainty, and the weight of future
responsibilities, Selim and the others were
not aware of what they were to see as they
emerged from the curfew early in the morning
and set foot on DU campus.
was a macabre scene with scattered bodies
and destruction!" reconstructs Selim.
His experience and intuition as a politician
then impelled immediate action "We
made our necessary top internal contacts,
and dispersed quickly before the curfew
ended within two hours."
then made his way out of Dhaka towards its
outer districts, for which he held an advantage.
Selim had a number of contacts with village
households from working as a relief worker
during the 1970 floods in villages such
as Trimohoni and Dakkhingaon. Following
instructions from top leaders of his party
Selim used the villages as a base to cross
the border into India. The households in
the villages that were close to Selim from
the 1970 relief days, then became hideouts
not only for his close friends, but also
some of the top leaders of his party. Subsequently,
becoming safe houses where the party and
EPSU leadership were to re-think their strategy.
we might have grasped the situation, but
as we came to think more and more about
the military aspects, we realised we couldn't
confront the modern weaponry of the Pakistani
forces without consolidating our force and
better preparation for a much, much bigger
war," says Selim on the state of planning
and preparation of the leaders and activists
during the end of March.
marched off to India to conclude the historic
month of March, 1971 and to face the other
challenging months to follow, Selim went
shoulder to shoulder with his comrades,
chased by bullets from behind, through Narsingdy,
Comilla, past Akhaura towards the Indian
border and the town of Agartala.
months later, after seeing his comrades
fall in battle, after becoming a senior
member of the Operation Planning Committee
of the eastern zone during the war of liberation,
Selim then became a part of the first group
to take a historic oath on the steps of
Shaheed Minar on Decemeber 17, 1971. It
was a long way from March, but Selim alongside
his comrades in arms and spirit, had seen
the first flames of independence and a new
path to march on for his country.