Fleeing from barbarism

"Where are you taking my husband?
My name is Bokul Rani Das. My husband Sunil Chandra Das was a darwan (guard) at Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University. Before going off for duty at 8.p.m.on the night of March 25, he told me, "You go to sleep with the kids." I had a son and a daughter. The girl was two and half years old. The boy was 18 months. At around midnight the firing started. My husband returned home an hour later and said, "Let's escape and hide." I was numb.

The firing was still on. So we decided to go to the Assembly Hall. Ten minutes after we reached there, we found the army entering the hall and starting to search with torches. What could we do? Where could we hide? Their father and others would worship Saraswati Devi. The idol was inside the hall. Many went and hid behind that idol. But the Punjabis hunted them down with torches in the darkness. My girl was in his arms. He called out to me and said, "Hold the child." Then they took him away dragging him by his hands.

My daughter was left on the floor. I asked, " Where are you talking my husband? " They said, "We are not taking your husband anywhere. We will bring him back". They started to move towards the door. I tried to get close to them, but they kicked me down. My daughter also started to cry along with my son. Those who were with us in the Hall picked me up from the floor.

The Punjabis then said, "Nothing will happen to you. Come with us." They were talking in Hindi. I didn't speak Hindi. Others with us there spoke that tongue. They took me near the gates of the assembly hall and asked me to sit down on a stool they brought. I said,

"Bring me my husband". They said, "No, your husband can't be brought back. We have taken your husband away". Others later said, they had taken him near the big tree and shot him there.

Our houses were torched, we had nowhere to go. We all went to the playing ground and sat there the whole night as everything was in flames all around us. When morning came, we saw that people were being taken away to drag the corpses that lay on the field. People were already pulling them across the ground.

But I couldn't find my husband. I sat on the field with my two children. I saw that they had pulled all the dead bodies and laid them on the ground in rows.

"You all sit down, wear Sadarghat saris and shout 'Joy Bangla'," -- this was what the army men said. But nobody shouted the slogan. Then from a hole in the wall they started to fire. When the firing started, we all lay down on the ground. I think I lost my senses. I have no memory of what happened after that. But we stayed there till the afternoon. Later those who were still alive left the Jagannath Hall and walked towards the Medical College leaving the dead behind. Leaving my husband behind.

Bokul Rani Das. Resident of Jagannath hall. Husband was killed on the night of March 25, 1971. Interviewed in 2002.

“It's not safe here. Nobody knows what will happen. What has happened? “
"We had lived in Mohammadpur all our life. We were refugees from India and obtained an allotment in 1962. Our area had a few Bengali families and the line was known as Police line because some of the residents were linked to the police. We were very non-political because in 1946 our family had suffered in the Calcutta riots. I had lost my brother then. We didn't mix much with the Biharis.

But the Biharis were very agitated since the non-cooperation movement of March 1971 began. They were sometimes worried, sometimes angry. I think most people thought that Bhutto would not allow Mujib to take power and nobody knew what would happen after that. But once non-cooperation began many became scared. Suddenly many realised that the Biharis lived in a place surrounded by Bengalis and they didn't like each other.

Actually, some meetings were held to maintain peace amongst all but as it always happens, there were elements that were angry and the mood became more and more sour. We didn't know what was happening. The local Islamic astrologers made several dire predictions about the future. It made us more anxious.

On 25th night I came home early because my garage wasn't busy and my mechanics had gone home, one to old Dhaka and another to Syedpur. They wanted to bring back their families. When the firing started we all thought that a riot had broken out. I think some people were saying "Allahu Akbar" very loudly. We hid in the room behind the main one. We didn't know who was attacking whom. But we slowly understood that it was the army. Only the army had so many guns.

I was very scared about being left by myself. I had a cousin who lived in New Colony and they had a car so I thought we could escape with them. When morning came I asked my wife to put her gold jewels in the bag and start moving towards Asad Avenue. It was not very far. My daughter was away with my wife's sister in Moghbazar.

"Stop", I heard a voice and stood still. It was just dawn and the light was not yet full. We saw the tires and tubes lying on the street and the debris of resistance. We thought we were going to be attacked.

Two men came towards us. They were Biharis and I knew them. But in that light they looked like ferocious strangers. I was scared. They came very close to us. I was wondering what would I do if they tried to take my wife away. The man called Kaleem said, " See what Joy Bangla has done. Who will protect you now? My relatives phoned me. They have killed many people, many students. The army has taken charge and now there will be no peace." He was more morose than angry but his companion Selim began to abuse Sheikh Mujib and blaming him for everything. My wife started to weep. We could hear people coming from behind. I said nothing and taking God's name started to move forward. When they began to shout "Pakistan Zindabad", we ran for our lives.

We entered Zakir Hussain Road and hid behind a trash bin. A while later we started to walk fast towards New Colony.

Suddenly we saw another family, a Bengali family walking towards us. There faces were terrorised. "A group of boys were stopping people and searching them. We saw that and ran." The family -- mother, wife, children began to run towards some unknown direction. Suddenly we saw our cousin hurrying on the road. He was like a man without any blood. I have never seen a blank face like that. He said, "It's not safe here. Nobody knows what has happened, what will happen." He sat down on the road and began to cry.

Late Alfaz Hossain Shahu
Resident of Nazrul Islam Road, Mohammedpur.
Interviewed in 2000.

"Run away, run away”
After the night of March 25 there was a curfew. We didn't know what was going on. We had never thought that the army would attack us like that. We were under so much shock that we could hardly speak. There was no hunger only thirst and fear. Telephones were out of order, I was very worried about our relatives in different parts of Dhaka. On March 27, curfew was lifted and some people began to move. From the 26th morning we saw the poor slum dwellers moving out with whatever they had. But we were too scared to make a move. Suddenly my brother-in-law came panting and sweating. He had come from Elephant Road. He had seen dead bodies of the murgiwallahs at New market and had heard of the attack on the University Halls. He had come to warn us.

"Run away, run away", he kept shouting. We made him sit down. His family had already left, he said, for his ancestral home in Keraniganj. My wife started to cry and then the children joined. I too was terrified as he described a city that was fleeing from itself. I really don't know how we did it but we decided to leave. It can't have taken us more than fifteen minutes before we had the handbags and some cash with us. It was so strange that we made sure that flag of Bangladesh was hidden under the mattress. We didn't have the heart to burn it.

As we took to the streets, we didn't know where we were going but we knew that we were leaving the city. We started to walk holding our children's hand and God's word on our lips. It was such a strange sight. So many people were walking along with us. Suddenly an army truck appeared on the road and we began to run. We were running from death, running from what had become Pakistan.

A man we met as we rested near Malibagh said everyone was going to Sadarghat.

"The army can't cross the river. Bengali army has taken position there; it's safe there. " It seemed to make sense to us all. We started to walk towards the river. We knew we had to reach the place before curfew was imposed again.

Jan Baksh Mollah
Bangla Motor
Interviewed in 2000

Courtesy: Interviews by Afsan Chowdhury from his BBC series on 1971-Liberation War.

1971: Freedom struggle abroad

Mahfuz Parvez

In March 1971, the total number of Bengalis living in the US, including students, visitors, itinerants, employees in the diplomatic missions, and international agencies, could not have been more than 4,000. But despite their meager numerical strength, the community rose to the occasion and made a significant contribution to the cause of the Liberation War.

The Bengali community living in the US in 1971 was a small one, but they all came together to press their demands before a global audience at the crucial time of the national freedom movement in 1971. The Bangladesh League of America (BLA) spearheaded the Liberation War effort in the US. It played a prominent role in voicing the Bangladeshi case, and acted as a kind of guide, coordinator, and leader among the Bengali community living in the US in the early phase of the Liberation War. Moreover, some Bengalis already settled or working in the US moved to India to help the Bangladeshi Government in Exile and participate in the war effort directly.

On March 12, the BLA held a rally in front of the UN headquarters in New York appealing to the world for the right of self-determination for the Bengalis of East Pakistan. They had the uncanny sense of an impending disaster and appealed for prevention of genocide in Bangladesh.

On March 23, pro-liberation activists, primarily the Bengali employees of the Pakistan Embassy, assembled at the residence of Enayet Karim, Deputy Chief of Mission, unfurled the new Bangladeshi flag, sang the future national anthem, and formed a committee to plan a course of action.

On March 29, a big rally was held in Washington in which Bengalis from all over the US participated. The rally was a great success. At the end of the rally nearly 70 participants gathered at the residence of AMA Muhith, erstwhile economic counselor to the Pakistan Embassy, to talk about the future course of action. It was agreed that Bangladesh associations should be set up. Support groups of Americans and other nationals were also to be sponsored to help the struggle with both moral and financial backing, and the US Congress and the administration and national and local media were to be mobilized to support the struggle in every possible way.

On April 1, Senators Harris and Kennedy made the first of the many statements in favor of Bangladesh that the US Congress would hear throughout the year, and on April 15, Senators Case and Mondale moved a resolution to cut off military aid to Pakistan.

On April 26, Mahmood Ali, Vice Consul in the Pakistan Mission in New York, was the first diplomat in the US to transfer allegiance.

On May 6, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Case-Mondale resolution on stopping military aid or sales to Pakistan, and on May 24, Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury arrived in New York as Bangladesh's envoy to the UN.

On May 28, Ustad Ali Akber Khan gave a recital at Berkeley to raise funds for Bangladesh.

The month of June saw the Bangladesh Defense League assume the role of umbrella organization in the US, and both Friends of East Bengal in Philadelphia and the Bangladesh Information Center in Washington started functioning on a formal basis.

On June 10, Senators Church and Saxbe moved an amendment to the Foreign Assistance bill of 1972 to suspend aid to Pakistan;

On June 13, a huge demonstration was organized jointly in New York by the BLA, Committee of Indian Associations, and American Friends of Bangladesh (AFB).

On June 22, there was consternation when the New York Times published the story of the shipment of US arms to Pakistan after the State Department had indicated that all military shipments had been stopped. The information was authentic as it came from Solaiman in the Pakistan Embassy and was passed on to Bangladesh Information Center by Enayet Rahim. On June 26, the national convention of all Bangladesh Leagues in US was held in New York and attended by about 500 delegates.

July witnessed many dramatic developments such as the Friends of East Bengal picketing the Pakistani ship 'Padma' in Baltimore on July 11.

On August 1, George Harrison's historic Concert for Bangla Desh was held in New York. On August 3, the House debated the Foreign Assistance Bill and approved the Gallagher Amendment for denial of aid to Pakistan.

The next day, all Bengali diplomats in the US transferred allegiance to Bangladesh, and on August 5, the Bangladesh Mission in the US was established under the leadership of MR Siddiqui.

AMA Muhith and SAMS Kibria appeared on national television to express the demand for independent Bangladesh. On 26 August 26, Senator Kennedy held a press conference in Washington describing his visit to Bengali refugee camps and accused the US administration of complicity in genocide.

In September, the Bangladeshis organized demonstrations in front of the conference hall where the World Bank was meeting, and on September 30, the third sub-committee hearing on the refugee crisis was held with eminent people giving testimony.

In October several demonstrations and campaigns took place. On October 1, the Bangladeshi Delegation to the UN General Assembly held a press conference in New York, and on the 16th began a 5 day publicity campaign in Washington in favor of Bangladesh. A ten-day demonstration was held in Lafayette Park in front of the White House from October 14.

On October 21, world-famous musician Ustad Ravi Shankar gave a concert in Iowa City for Bangladesh freedom movement, and a week later, Joan Baez gave a concert in Ann Arbour, Michigan to promote the Bangladesh struggle.

On November 3, a nation-wide Fast to Save the People was organized in many educational institutions. The next day, Indian leader Indira Gandhi landed in Washington, and met with President Nixon, Congressional leaders and Bangladesh Mission staff.

On November 5, Senator Harris proposed an emergency meeting of the Security Council to resolve the Bangladesh crisis. On November 8, arms shipments to Pakistan were finally stopped, and two days later, the Senate finally passed the Saxbe-Church amendment;

On November 26, NBC broadcast a two-hour program on Bangladesh which only marshaled more support for the cause. PBS organized a nationally televised program on Bangladesh called Advocate. The Pakistani case was supported by Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, Ambassador Benjamin Ohlert of Pepsi-Cola (who was once ambassador to Pakistan) and a video interview of ZA Bhutto. Rehman Sobhan and John Stonehouse, a British MP advocated the Bangladeshi case, and Acting Ambassador MK Rasgotra explained the Indian position.

On December 3, the criticism of India by the US Administration turned bitter as the Liberation War turned into a sub-continental war. The next day, Senator Harris resubmitted his resolution for a special Security Council initiative for resolving the crisis and seven important senators from both parties supported him.

Time once again came out with a cover story captioned "Conflict in Asia: India versus Pakistan" and simultaneously Newsweek made its cover story "India Attacks: The Battle for Bengal."

On December 9, Congressman McCloskey asked for the recognition of Bangladesh and Congressman Helstosky moved a resolution for granting recognition to Bangladesh.

As it became obvious that Bangladesh would be liberated soon, Kissinger continued to try his best to get the Chinese involved in the war. Nixon and Kissinger delayed the surrender of Pakistani forces by five days and even went to the extent of threatening to move the nuclear vessel Enterprise towards the Bay of Bengal. While the US administration made every effort to save Pakistan, the US Congress and the media displayed neutrality by supporting the birth of Bangladesh.

During 1971, the small Bangladeshi community living in the US performed a significant role in moulding public opinion in favor of the Liberation War. Their activities were focused primarily on organizing the community into groups with the goal of working collectively to raise funds to contribute to refugee relief efforts and to supply equipment to the Bangladesh Government in Exile; collecting and disseminating information to Americans; engaging in lobbying campaigns with policy-makers like the members of Congress, other American establishments, and international agencies; providing support for the creation of a national coordinating committee for developing a concerted plan; and organizing and participating in demonstrations and rallies. Many well wishing Americans also actively participated in all of the above activities.

The staunch and timely support for the cause of Bangladesh, therefore, came from a wide spectrum of people, from academicians and dock-workers, from members of Congress and activists, from media and musicians, from poets and performers. Their advocacy certainly went a long way to creating a favorable popular demand, strong enough to force the US administration to ease their anti-Bangladesh stance over time. The Bengali community living in the US in 1971 and some humanist Americans can certainly claim a share of the credit for the ultimate success of the Liberation War.
The author is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Chittagong.

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