25th March 1971
A Bangalee in Karachi

Khademul Islam

Actually, 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'.

We 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.

We Bengalis of course looked at things differently. But only inside our homes.

'They 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.

'Yes, we heard,' my father had replied.

'A. S. M. Abdur Rab,' Murtaza Uncle had continued. 'The time had come, he said, and raised it.'

'Yes. I think Jang ran a photo of it.'

'Ah, 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.

This 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.

And 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.

This 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 last night.'

I was stunned. Nobody else said anything in response.

After 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.

Then Bonny spoke again, looking downward, 'The army arrested Mujib. They are bringing him here.'

Still 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.

'How do you know?' I asked Bonny.

'My father just told me. He heard it on the radio.'

I 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.

'Aray, 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.

March 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.

Chotu, 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.

At 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.

'They have arrested Sheikh Mujib,' I blurted out.

Their faces turned towards me. Eyes dilated, faces draining of colour.

'Bloody 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.

I 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.

'Sorry, bhabi,' Anis Uncle eventually said to my mother, who just nodded, 'for spoiling your food. But I can't eat anything right now.'

He 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 inside.

Not knowing what was going to happen next.

That was my day of shock, my March 25th, 1971.
The author is the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

A memoir of March '71

Ashfaq Wares Khan

At 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 Islam Selim.

Now 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.

Leading 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.

"We 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.

One 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.

"We 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," recalls Selim.

He 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.

"The 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," Selim remembers.

These preparations led some members, including Selim, to organise a bit more militant namely, explosives and more advanced training with live munitions.

"A 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," Selim adds.

That 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.

Spurred 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.

Selim 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 itself.

"We 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.

At 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.

From 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.

"On 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.

Chronicling 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."

The 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.

Selim 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.

"We 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!"

Then 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.

"Unnerved, 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.

Hundreds 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.

Selim 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.

"Stunned 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."

Luckily, 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.

"It 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."

Selim, 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.

"Politically, 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.

Selim 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.

Nine 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.

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