A People’s War

Volume 8 Issue 98 | December 18, 2009 |

Cover Story

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood

On the morning of March 27, 1971, the American Consul General at the embassy in Dhaka, Archer Kent Blood:


Victory Day should bring a renewed vow to resist oppression and corruption.

Blood cabled a top secret telegram to the State Department in Washington DC. In it Blood wrote: “Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror of the Pak military … Dacca University students shot down in rooms or mowed down when they came out of building in groups… University files burnt by army in what appeared purposeful move to eliminate current ‘trouble-making’ generation.”

The Blood Telegrams, declassified in 2003, used the words “selective genocide” and genocide. The telegram from the consulate was the first independent acknowledgement of the beginning of a massacre that would claim millions of lives. Blood also wrote prophetically: “I believe the most likely eventual outcome of the struggle under way in East Pakistan is a Bengali victory and the consequent establishment of an independent Bangladesh.

the secrecy of Operation Searchlight would have been compromised. Besides, Dhaka garrison had no reserve forces to spare.

Consul Archer Kent Blood was referring to “Operation Searchlight” by the Pakistan Army. On the night of March 25, 1971 Gen Tikka Khan’s troops launched a terror campaign calculated to intimidate the Bengalis into submission. Pakistani troops, backed by tanks and artillery, fell on a defenseless population. Wholesale slaughter took place in and around Dhaka, with the Dhaka University and old parts of the city bearing the brunt of the carnage. The brave street protests of the previous days were swept away in a hail of bullets. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and taken to West Pakistan.

Bangladesh was stunned. After the Awami League had won a decisive majority, Yahya Khan postponed the assembly meeting scheduled for March. On March 7, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered a speech at the Racecourse Ground (now called the Suhrawardy Udyan). In the landmark speech, Bangabandhu urged the nation to turn every house into a fort of resistance. He ended his speech saying, "This struggle is for freedom. This struggle is for independence.”

Unwilling to transfer power to Bangabandhu, and loath to lose face by backing down in front of a movement of non-cooperation, the generals chose the military option. According to an article published in the Asia Times, Yahya Khan declared at a meeting of the top brass: “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.”

Although the Pakistani army’s scorched earth policy temporarily stunned Bangladesh, resistance soon grew out of the ashes. Most of the political leadership evaded the security net and headed for the Indian border. Students and grassroots leaders started to regroup in the countryside. Members of the regular army troops — the East Bengal Regiments — and the East Pakistan Rifles (later BDR) escaped the crackdown and the beginnings of a guerrilla resistance emerged. At 7.45 PM on March 27, 1971, Major Ziaur Rahman, second in command of the 8th East Bengal Regiment based in Chittagong, made a radio broadcast proclaiming independence on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and calling on the nation to resist the Pakistanis.

But for many, the war had begun a week earlier. In his book East Pakistan – the End Game Pakistani Brigadier AR Siddiqui, adviser to Yahya Khan, wrote about the rebellion by a unit of the 2nd East Bengal Regiment in Joydevpur on March 19. The 2nd EBR was posted in Joydevpur to the north of Dhaka, and had detachments posted in the strategically important Gazipur Ordinance factory. When a detachment of soldiers led by West Pakistani Brigadier Jahanzeb Arbab came to take control, they were mobbed by a Bengali crowd. Brigadier Arbab ordered the soldiers to open fire, but the young Bengali Major in charge refused to carry out the order. Arbab himself fired on the crowd, killing several people. The Pakistani troops then fled towards Dhaka leaving the Bengali soldiers in control.

The Bengali officer who had defied Brig Arbab was Major Moin, later Major General Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, Bir Bikrom, the first adjutant general of the Bangladesh Army. “From March 19 onwards, we were virtually in control of Joydevpur,” says Moinul Hossain Chowdhury. “The Pakistani army command in Dhaka dare not attack us then because

People from different religions, political beliefs, and walks of life united to bring victory.

Victory was achieved at a terrible price.

Photos: Naibuddin Ahmed

“By midnight of March 26, Dhaka was burning. We knew war was on us, and should the Pakistanis win, we would probably be shot as mutineers. But for us there was no turning back. We had passed the point of no return. For me, there were two choices I could lead a life of slavery on my knees, or I could take a chance. I decided to take a chance.”

According to Moinul Hossain Chowdhury, he had sensed something in the air ever since March 7. “I had the opportunity to know the intention of the Pakistani Army high-ups, since for two years I served as the Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to the Chief Martial Law Administrator of East Pakistan Major General Khadem Hossain Raja before joining the Second East Bengal Regiment at Joydevpur in 1970. It was clear to me that the Army would not accept the six-point demand and other political movements of Bangladesh Awami League. After the March 7 speech of Bangabandhu I thought a war might be imminent. But without a signal from the political leadership we could do nothing. Meanwhile the Pakistani army built up its troop levels, although rumours that Bengali soldiers were disarmed early on are not true.”


The Blood Telegrams.

Major General Chowdhury and his troops used the week leading up to March 26 to prepare for battle. “We gathered arms and ammunition, and sent the women and children to the villages. I was a bachelor, but I had to take care of my men. Many have asked me why I didn’t move out immediately or even why I didn’t try to defend Dhaka. That would have been suicide. As a result of our careful preparation, we were only one of two EBR battalions to enter the war with full strength. Most of the others were attacked before they could go into battle.”

Eight East Bengal Regiments revolted, with only 2nd Bengal and 4th Bengal unit under Khaled Mosharraf in Comilla remaining at anything near full strength. The 10th Bengal inside Dhaka cantonment was easily disarmed and later eliminated.

On the night of March 25, Pakistani forces launched a surprise assault on the East Bengal Regimental Centre and neutralized the troops in Chittagong. Many civilians were also killed. 8th EBR troops who were at Sholoshahar outside the cantonment were unaware of the attack on EBRC. When some of the EBRC survivors reached 8 EBR lines begging for help, Captain Oli Ahmad began recalling EBR troops to Sholoshahar and arrested all Pakistani soldiers and officers of the unit. Major Zia managed to arrest his Punjabi escort and ordered Bengali troops to move out.

“We left the city and took position across the Kalurghat bridge around 1:30 AM,” says Lt. General (retd) Mir Shaukat Ali, then Major Shaukat. “I don’t think anyone anticipated this assault, and we were caught off guard initially. But soon we formed small groups and started guerrilla warfare.”

Although by the end of March the military initiative was with the Pakistani forces, Bengali resistance was


Bangabandhu with General Osmany and Major Moin after liberation. Photo: The Daily Star Archives

beginning to firm up. Alongside the regular army and EPR units was irregular guerrilla bands were beginning to spring up around the country. Under the leadership of Abdul Kader Siddiqui Tangail became a hotbed of resistance, and exhibited the kind of resilience that made the war of liberation a People’s War.

“Muktijuddho didn’t start from 25th March 1971,” says Kader Siddiqui, later known as Tiger Kader Siddiqui. “Titumir’s bamboo fortress that held out for so long against the British was a battle for liberation. In 1947, when the British left, that was another step in our quest for self determination. I prefer to think that the love of freedom is in the blood of Bengalis.”

According to Kader Siddiqui, 1971 was a grassroots war. “Liberation was brought by the common people,” says Tiger Siddiqui. “Who was I — a mere student leader at a Mufassil college! I had war thrust upon me. Bangabandhu’s 7th March speech inspired the nation, and it’s true we were doing cadet-type training and mock drills. But I will not deny that we were in shock on March 26 1971. The tragedy stunned us.”

But gradually the grief gave way to a determination to fight back. Kader Siddiqui describes how he came to form the Mukti Bahini group that would strike terror into the heart of the Pakistani forces.

“When the leaders left for India, the field was empty. I was a college student — I was not equipped to lead men in a war. You can call me a fool, but I thought that if I left, people would laugh at me. I remembered the fiery speeches I had made, and thought that I could never show my face again in Tangail if I turned tail. On March 26, I realised that it is easy to talk about giving blood in front of a microphone, but it is tough to do it on the battlefield.”

Ironically the very massacres that Tikka Khan had hoped would subdue the Bengalis hardened the determination of the nation to fight back. Those who were wavering also closed ranks. Apart from a few diehard collaborators, the entire nation became freedom fighters. Not everyone took up arms the active fighters and organisers numbered around 80,000, according to most wartime commanders. But the people united behind the war effort, and the support of the population was crucial in defeating the much better equipped Pakistani army.

The Kaderia Bahini and other irregular outfits employed classic guerrilla tactics. They retreated when the enemy advanced, harassed when he stopped, and pursued when he fled. Among the young politicians who remained in the country after March to organise guerilla movements in their locality was Sheikh Shahidul Islam, Bangabandhu’s nephew and a Chatra League leader. “We not only fought but organised,” says Shahidul Islam, now Secretary General of Jatio Party. “I still get tears in my eyes when I recall the support we received from villagers. One day in late April, we were in a village when there was a Pakistani raid. We went to a thatched hut and the owner, an old lady, hid us. She asked us whether we had eaten, and when we admitted we hadn’t, she cooked rice and chicken for us. I could see that her rice pot was almost empty, and the chicken was probably her only one.”

“I found that old lady after the war,” continues Sheikh Shahid. “I asked her what she wanted from me. She said, son I’m old and it is difficult to go far to get water. Can you just get a tubewell for me?”

Kader Siddiqui built up a grassroots Mukti Bahini.

The Bangladesh forces took on the superior fire power of the Pakistan army.

Tales of selfless heroism abound. Lt General (retd) Mir Shaukat Ali talks about his near capture at the hands of the Pakistani army near Chattak in Sylhet. “Trying to escape I came to a largish house where a wedding was going on. The groom hid me in his bedroom, asking me to lie down under the mosquito net with his bride. I did so, and within a few minutes the Punjabi troops came. They entered the bridal chamber, but decided to back off when the bride stood up and began to scream!”

By July the tide began to turn. “I had told my troops to prepare for a 5-year war,” says Major General (retired) Moinul. “We were fighting with weapons captured from the enemy, although we did receive some support from the Indians. My men fought bravely in the battles of Kamalpur and then Akhaura. I lost many of my comrades there. We were regular troops in uniform and fought like a conventional army.”

The scenario was also changing on the world stage. Although Nixon and Kissinger had pursued a policy of friendship with Pakistan as a means of engaging China, there was growing opposition within the State Department starting with the brave dissent of Archer Blood. Meanwhile, Indian politicians and strategists were clamoring for military intervention. According to an article published in the Indian Express (April 10, 2009), K Subrahmanyam, Director of the Institute of Defense Studies, and an adviser to Indira Gandhi, told the Indian Prime Minister, that a “once in a lifetime opportunity to cut Pakistan to size” must be seized. On December 3, 1971 Indian troops entered Bangladesh from three directions.

“Since it was an allied force it was agreed between the Mujibnagar leadership and the Indian government that whichever officer was senior would have the command,” says Lt General Mir Shaukat Ali. “In most cases our troops were led by young officers, so inevitably the Indians had command.”

In early December the 2nd East Bengal regiment under Major Moin unleashed a series of devastating attacks in the Akhaura area which cleared the way for the Indian columns to enter and move up towards Dhaka. “After we took Azampur and cleared the road to Ashugonj, the Indian army entered and engaged the Pakistani troops near Ashugonj,” recalls Moinul Hossain Chowdhury. “Brigadier Misra who had assumed command because of his seniority ordered me to remain in Narsingdi, and fight a rearguard action while Indian troops pushed on to Dhaka. I ignored his orders and pressed on.”

Meanwhile, Kader Siddiqui also ran into difficulties with his Indian counterpart. “I was told by Brigadier Krer that we should remain in Tangail to guard the rear. I told the Indian officer, I certainly want to be in Dhaka when victory is achieved.”

On December 16, the Pakistani General Niazi surrendered to the Indian commander General Arora. Bangladesh was victorious. Bangabandhu returned home to adulation of the entire nation.

“I laid my weapon at the feet of Bangabandhu,” recalls Kader Siddiqui. “I had taken up arms when my country needed me. When I no longer needed it, I laid it at the feet of my leader. This also meant that weapons were subordinate to the political leadership. It indicated my belief that we would be ruled by our elected representatives and not by the barrel of a gun. But unfortunately, my dream of a true democracy was dashed again and again.”

The war had been won, but the peace did not promise to be easy. The nation fought in 1971 to throw off the yoke of oppression. They dreamt of a society free of exploitation and extremist dogma. The war was won almost four decades ago. But the aims of the war of liberation are yet to be achieved.

“During the war we managed to rise above petty divisions and unite behind a common cause,” says


Photo: Naibuddin Ahmed

Kader Siddiqui. “That was the secret behind our victory. In an independent country, 38 years after liberation, there should not be any question of pro-liberation or anti-liberation force. There should be unity. I am very clear about this. Those who actively worked against liberation in 1971 should not be in politics. Those who committed war crimes should be tried and punished. By the same token, no one who has been born in independent Bangladesh should be labeled anti-liberation. We must find our common humanity. That for me is the true spirit of the War of Liberation. ”

Lt General (retd) Mir Shaukat Ali believes that victory shows us our strength as a nation. “That should be our guiding principle. With a ragtag band of farmers, we managed to defeat one of the world’s modern armies. Once we are united, we can be as strong as anybody. We should know our own strength.”

Victory in 1971 was achieved at a monumental cost in terms of lives and treasure. The martyrs of the war of liberation died so that we might live as free men. They defended freedom against fearsome odds — that will be their lasting legacy.

 

Triumph and Tragedy

As told by Major General (retd) Moinul Hossain Chowdhury

The dawn that followed the dark and frigid night of December 2, 1971, was foggy, dreary, and foreboding to the troops of the 2nd East Bengal Regiment dug in their positions along the front line between Mukundpur and Azampur near Akhaura, a distance of approximately 2 miles, facing the defensive structures of the Pakistani army. The area was held by Pakistan army’s famed 12 FF Regiment.

I looked around at my comrades in arms, and knew that I would be sending many of them in harm’s way. But our mission was clear: we had to clear the area up to Brahmanbaria. That would pave the way for the Indian army to enter and move towards Bhairab.

At 11.45 PM, according to arrangement, the heavy guns opened up on the Indian side of the border. The Indian artillery gunners started a devastating barrage aimed at the 12 FF. Under cover of artillery we advanced rapidly and engaged the enemy.

The fog cut down visibility and the conditions were tough. We closed on their position and sent withering fire into their trenches. The staccato rattle of LMGs and rifles was interspersed with the occasional boom of mortars.

Soon we were fighting a pitched battle at close quarters. We pushed them back and continued to advance. I put lieutenant Badiuzzaman in charge of one of the trenches, and ordered others to press on. But within minutes a fierce counter attack started. As I crawled up, Badiuzzaman left his trench. “We should fall back, sir!” he shouted. “No, hold the position until the rest of the company can catch up,” I yelled back. He obeyed. I moved on to survey other positions. Moments later, an 81 mm mortar shell landed in his trench. Badiuzzaman embraced martyrdom on the spot.

We ran the 12 FF out of Akhaura the next day. The battle was won. But I had to bury my comrade in arms, Shahid Lieutenant Badiuzzaman.

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