Fire in the soul: the predicament of the millions.

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By Jamal Hasan

The twentieth century, more than any other, was witness to the most tumultuous events in the history of the subcontinent. And to many of us, 1971 was the year that proved to be the most momentous of the century in shaping our subcontinent.  Other cataclysms of the century like the fulfillment of the vision of “two-nations” in 1947 and the mass killings and migrations that followed, pale into insignificance when compared to the bloodletting, inflicted on Bangladesh in 1971, that forged its 75 million people into a nation.  That is why it is so very important to accurately document the events of 1971 for a proper understanding of the history of the subcontinent.

The survivors of 1971 have a lot to say of those days of fire and blood in 1971.  Unfortunately we, Bengalis,  have never been media savvy enough to do justice to our history, in general, and to the events of 1971, in particular. Furthermore,  to those that suffered personal tragedies in 1971,  it is often as distasteful as it is painful to recapitulate all the butchery and treachery that culminated in the largest genocide since the days of Hitler. Not surprisingly, all these have served to  leave an unfortunate gap in our understanding of the history of Bangladesh.

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Rafiqul Islam, a professor of Bangla at Dhaka University. He was in USA to attend a Conference on Nazrul in Florida. He was kind enough to  invited me for a meeting with him at his sister’s residence in Maryland. It was my opportunity to come face to face  with history. My visit turned out to be more fruitful than I had ever dared to imagine. I met not just Dr. Rafiqul Islam but also a number of other Bengali-Americans who were activists in 1971 and had lived dangerously in the days of fire and blood. They were men of resolve who had chosen to be led by the fire in their soul even through the thickest gloom.

Professor Nurul Islam is one of them. I found Dr. Rafiqul Islam respectfully addressing him as sir. In fact he seems to be one of the most respected Bengalis among the expatriate folks. Dr. Nurul Islam was kind enough to reminisce about those days for our benefit.

During my university days in Bangladesh, I did not have a clue that Dr. Rafiqul Islam had been jailed by the junta in 1971. I  was aware of the ordeal of a few martyrs who had been jailed (like Shaheed Altaf Mahmud). They had ultimately met their end at the hands of a firing squad. After listening to both Dr. Rafiqul  Islam and Professor Nurul Islam I came to the conclusion that but for the grace of God they could not have lived through 1971 to tell their tales. I will now give readers a few glimpses of the 1971 saga from what I heard from Dr. Rafiqul Islam.

When Professor Nurul Islam was lobbying with Senator Kennedy and others at the Capitol Hill to save the lives of Bengali intellectuals, Dr. Rafiqul Islam and four other Dhaka University professors were already in Pakistani prison at the Dhaka Cantonment. They were in solitary confinement in small cells which looked more like cages than anything else.

Fortunately, political pressure from Washington did have some effect. Zulfiqar Ali  Bhutto conveyed the thinking in Washington to Yahya Khan. The army administrators in the erstwhile province of East Pakistan thought it prudent to  take token measures to reassure the world that not every jailed intellectual would face the firing squad. In September, Moulvi Farid Ahmed visited some of the jailed intellectuals. Late Moulvi Farid Ahmed, who supported a united Pakistan, was not unaware of the brutal measures of the junta. In spite of his ideological commitment to a united Pakistan, he had given  shelter to the family of Professor Ahmed Sharif and to many other individuals who were in the bad books of the junta.

Dr. Rafiqul Islam had known Moulvi Ahmed personally for quite some time.  Just before Moulvi Farid Ahmed’s departure from the detention center, Dr. Rafiqul Islam had whispered to Moulvi Ahmed, ” Can you tell me about the situation outside?” Moulvi Farid Ahmed replied, “Rafiq, we are through. There are 10 to 12 Indian divisions encircling East Pakistan. There is no way we can make it.” This extraordinary conversation took place  in the month of September 1971.

Regarding the disappearance of Zahir Raihan, Dr. Rafiqul Islam said that the late film maker went to Mirpur to see for himself the Al-Badr killing field where his brother had been murdered. According to Dr. Rafiqul Islam, Zahir Raihan was escorted by a group of Bangladeshi soldiers. It may be mentioned that during the liberation war, a regular Bangladesh Army had been formed on Indian soil. This army was destined to fight conventional  warfare with the Pakistani fouz.  The present prime minister’s late brother Sheikh Kamal and Major General Jamil D. Ahsan (currently Director General of Bangladesh  Institute of International and Strategic Studies) and Shaheed Lt. Ataus Samad were products of this army that was born during the war. Dr. Rafiqul Islam said he has visited the spot where Zahir Raihan was killed along with a group of Indian soldiers at a later time.

In the occupied city of Dhaka during the days of blood and thunder, the army administration left no stone unturned to keep track of all the city dwellers suspected of pro-Bangladeshi political leanings. All Bengali businessmen were also under constant scrutiny from Pak army intelligence.

For most of the Ayub and Yahya Khan era (1958-1970), the DIB or Police intelligence in the city of Dhaka had maintained dossiers on suspected political activists.  After the crack down of 25th March, the barbaric Pak army had easy access to those files which came in very handy. A veteran  politician like ex-Awami Leaguer Abul Mansur Ahmed was in no danger, but not because he had sold his soul to the devil. Thanks to the dossier on him, the military rulers were in a position to make sure that Mr. Abul Mansur Ahmed would find it prudent to acquiesce to the rule from Islamabad.

One of my close relatives used to be a local leader of the National Awami Party (Muzaffar) in Comilla town. During the war period he decided not to flee the country. He first sought refuge in his village home. But still feeling insecure, he came back to Dhaka and stayed at our house in Dhaka which was lying empty after we had fled to Tangail.

In September when I came to Dhaka for a brief visit. I saw my relative quite content with living in “exile” in the city under siege. He had decided to turn inactive in the political sense. But, in the end, that wasn’t enough to save him.  One fine morning, in October, the Pak army surrounded our Dhaka house and arrested our relative.  He was taken to the Cantonment prison where he was detained indefinitely and tortured.

Another relative, the Chief Executive Officer of a gramophone record company was luckier. He had not underestimated Pak army intelligence. After the crack down, he took shelter on the outskirts of the city. Later, he lived for a while in a cousin’s house in yet another part of the city. Fortunately, he had obtained a passport during the good old days of Ayub Khan. After the army crack down on 25th March, 1971, everyone had been made to fly via West Pakistan to go overseas.  It seems that the army junta had failed to anticipate that anyone would dare to flee from its clutches by flying into West Pakistan! My relative was astounded by what he saw when he landed in Karachi. Life was quite normal in West Pakistan. There was no curfew in the evenings, no knock on the door in the middle of the night. West Pakistan was oblivious to what was going on in the East wing. My relative had no problem in booking a flight to U.K. from Karachi. He stayed in U.K. till Bangladesh was liberated.  His departure from Pakistan proved to be just in time – a few days after his departure, the army knocked at the doors of his Dhaka shelter only to discover that “chireya bhaag gaya.”

As I was writing this article, the Islamic Circle of North America
concluded its convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Ashrafuzzaman Khan, an accused war criminal of 1971 graced the event with his presence. This soft-spoken Islamic scholar is well respected in the Islamic circle of this region. But his dark past is hard to ignore. He was accused of killing seven Dhaka University professors with his own hands. Mofizuddin, who had chauffeured the accused killer, has testified against Ashrafuzzaman in a court of law.

One of the victims of Ashrafuzzaman was Professor Ghiasuddin Ahmed of the History Department. On 24th September 1997, a complaint case ( case no. 115/1997 Ramana Thana) was filed against Ashrafuzzaman Khan, now resident in USA, and  others,  for alleged crime committed by him in 1971 during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Mrs. Farida Banu, sister of martyred intellectual Professor Ghiasuddin Ahmed, filed the case at the Ramana Police Station in Dhaka under the Penal Code of Bangladesh ( Sections: 120(b), 448, 364, 302, 201, 34, 114). In the  complaint, it was reported  that on  14th December 1971 morning , Professor Ghiasuddin was abducted by Asrafuzzaman Khan, Chowdhury Mueen Uddin ( now resident in London)  and others.  Professor Ghiasuddin was never again seen alive and his dead body was finally found at Rayar Baazar killing Fields on 5th January 1972.

The fire in the soul of millions of Shaheed families is still burning. I mentioned Moulvi Farid Ahmed’s name. Unlike many other supporters of Pakistan’s integrity, politics did not blind him and that is why he saved a number of innocent lives during the war of liberation. His membership in a local Peace Committee gave him some leverage in influencing the auxiliary forces of the Pakistani killing machine. It was almost like Oscar Schindler’s scenario. His son recently mentioned in a news group discussion about his father’s role in 1971. According to him, Moulvi Farid Ahmed made a number of phone calls to various places after Professor Ghiasuddin Ahmed was abducted by “Pakistani paramilitary force.” And that paramilitary force is nothing but the infamous Al-Badr, the military wing of Jamat-i-Islami, now a legitimate party of Bangladesh. Moulvi Farid Ahmed’s life died a  horrible death. According to his son, a faction of overzealous freedom fighters tortured Moulvi Farid Ahmed to death. He didn’t even get a decent burial.

We need to document more and more facts to get a broad perspective of our liberation war. The pains and sorrows of all victims need to be made known to the world.  We have an obligation to tell the world about our ordeal in 1971 so that our cry of, “Never again,” takes on the urgency that it deserves in a world that had watched from the sidelines in 1971 as Islamabad’s army junta perpetrated the most horrendous genocide since the days of Hitler.

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Originally published in NEWS FROM BANGLADESH / Readers’ Opinion / July 6, 2000

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