Witness to victory | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 10, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 10, 2019

Witness to victory

The struggle for the freedom of Bangladesh was long, bloody, and full of instances of extreme violence and extreme bravery in the face of it. There was also resilience, and defiance. Yet, each and every soul in the country back then saw, felt, heard and experienced the war in their own way.

Collective memories are of course rich anthologies of history, but in it, get lost many individual voices. With the passage of time, we are losing many of the people who were witness to the struggle for independence. Here, we bring you some testimonials of general citizens, of varying ages, describing what they remember of the very first Victory Day, and the lead up to it.

Dhaka city played host to the actual surrender ceremony. Consequently, the city was also witness to pitched battles, random skirmishes, bombings, and all manner of atrocities. In the varying degrees of suffering that the population went through, nobody emerged unscathed, be it in the loss of life itself, loved ones, or trauma of various kinds. As the end of the titanic struggle came near, each individual experienced the days differently.

 

Jayanta Sen

Businessman

(23-year-old youth in 1971)

The final phase of the narrative of victory actually started on 3 December, as the then President Yahya Khan’s troops bombed parts of India, and India formally declared war on Pakistan. Propaganda by the state machinery intensified, claiming that Pakistan’s flag was still proudly flying over Agartala. The war drums had truly started beating, and feelings of it were palpable in the environment.

The shelling of targets inside Dhaka city increased, and it was claimed to be by the Indian army. That was a lie however, as the Pakistani army took off in their own helicopters and randomly shelled parts of the city, without care for the consequent targets, like when an orphanage in Tejgaon was bombed one night. In another such bombing, a culvert near the Darul Kabab hotel, which used to be opposite to where the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Dhaka hotel stands today, was bombed. The next morning, we found pieces of shrapnel stamped with “Made in Pakistan” in the impact ditch. It further cemented what people already knew.

We lived in Eskaton Garden area then, as the Intercontinental Hotel was considered an internationally neutral zone, and the adjacent areas were relatively safer in the city against the sudden raids and action by the Pakistani army.

The days leading to victory were terrifying of course, but the nights were altogether more stirring, and intense. We followed the news on Shadhin Bangla BetarKendra diligently. All sorts of emotions were felt — the radio waves carried missives of victory by the freedom fighters in different spots, but it also brought us missives of targeted abductions, and the disappearances of many of the brilliant and public figures of the nation.

The night skies would often light up brilliantly, as the Indian air force dropped down lights that looked like paper lanterns, before the actual attack, to illuminate and properly identify the targets.

In the city, we started to hear shots and mortars from the Demra side from 10 December onwards, as the freedom fighters started to make their way here.

One of my most striking memories is of the Victory Day itself. As the Pakistani army was making their way to the surrender ceremony, to be held at the Racecourse, a sizable number of political figures and the Indian army had stationed themselves in and around the Intercontinental in Shahbagh.

We were in the spectators as well. Back then, there used to be red-bricked minister’s quarters opposite the hotel. All of a sudden, while marching towards the ceremony, the Pakistani army opened fire on the Indians, who also retaliated. There were injuries on both sides. But as we rushed to take shelter away from the firing, many of us ran towards the ministers’ quarters compound.

I literally picked up a lady and helped by shoving her over the wall to safety, and climbed over as well. We immediately saw that the landing had actually broken her leg, and yet, I found her smiling through the pain, glad to think of the victory and freedom that we could all feel within our grasp already. 

Perhaps that is a perfect description of the nation’s emotions; the pain, scars and tears were all there, but so was the joy of liberation won.

However, after all these years, what saddens me the most when I think about those days of the war and struggle by the entire nation, is that the very spirit of being a nation is no more there. We had all come together then, with Bengali brotherhood. People sacrificed their own lives to save others, then. The same nation today, has fallen so low, that there are people trying to become wealthy or influential by trampling the rights and dignity of others. I feel the spirit and values of freedom, and of the liberation movement, are lost.

 

Sharmeen Murshid

Human rights activist and CEO of Brotee

(Finished Class 10 in 1971) 

The immediate feeling upon learning of the surrender by the Pakistan army, and the consequent victory of Bangladesh, was indescribable joy, and elation. Yet, even as a young school girl, I questioned why had that army not surrendered to the actual people it had trampled, tortured, and then lost to?

My feelings will perhaps be clear with a bit of background on my circumstances during the war. My mother was an elected MP, through the general elections held in 1970, but the winners of that election never got to form a government, as was their due. All members of my family— my father, sister, brother, and I, were thoroughly embroiled in the struggle for independence, and it gave me, even as a teenager barely out of school, a unique and intimate view of the entire movement, even before the armed struggle began. Bangladesh had been gearing towards a full confrontation much before that March onslaught by the army, and I feel every conscious member of the society was subconsciously aware of that.

In truth, I feel that open conflict began the very day West Pakistanis refused to hand over power to the elected government, and war began exactly when they unleashed their military might to occupy us.

Both my parents being part of the government in exile, we heard about the surrender immediately as it happened. The sheer joy of knowing that we could now return home cannot be expressed in words, as the fear of not being able to return had been a very real one, until that moment.

People everywhere began to rush out and look for their missing loved ones. Gradually, we learnt of all the people we had lost. Seven of our very close friends, and 14 members of our extended family were gone forever. Learned men I used to call ‘chacha,’ them being friends of my father, were cruelly butchered as part of the drive to deprive us of our intellectuals.

The just ecstasy of a hard-earned victory was, of course, marred by the grief, emotions which perhaps winners of all wars, will attest to. Also, we need to remember, there were pockets of Bangladesh’s area still occupied, and skirmishes and battles raged in various places as late as January 1972.

And yet, just as on the first Victory Day, today in 2019, I still uestion why the losing army did not surrender to the people of Bangladesh, as I feel it should have. The general, simple people of Bangladesh had taken the organised Pakistani army, one of the most well-equipped in the developing world, and fatigued, demoralised, and destroyed it, bringing the behemoth to its knees. At that point of the struggle, our Indian allies swooped in to help with the final push.

While being duly grateful for that, I still question as to why it should be termed as a victory of India over Pakistan in an Indo-Pak war, rather than being acknowledged as the achievement of the freedom fighters, that is the population of Bangladesh? Especially, since this is the only occasion when Pakistan truly surrendered, unlike any other wars that the neighbours have fought since 1947. The efforts of the Muktijoddha population of Bangladesh need to be acknowledged, as Victory only came because our people did a grand job.

 

Tahsina Shamsunnahar

School teacher

(Student of Class 1, in 1971)

There were trucks full of revellers, chanting slogans and being merry, in what I can recall clearly of the first Victory Day. I was a child then, a student of class 1. The next day, we returned to our flat on the Dhaka University Campus. Some of my memories are hazy, yet some are clear as day, perhaps for the impact they had on me.

Two days prior to Victory day, on 14 December, I had been sitting in the veranda in my father, Late Prof Aminul Islam’s home, — then a teacher in the department of Soil Science, in the teachers’ quarters on Isa Khan road, opposite today’s British Council. I had a fever, I remember. Suddenly, a minibus came and stopped outside the gate, and some men with guns came out. One of them looked up and saw me, and told me, flicking his gun, to go inside. I ran, minding to wear the sweater, as otherwise, father would scold me, and announcing along to everyone that the military had come. Later in the evening, we heard that the people had taken with them Santosh Chandra Bhattacharyya, then a professor of History at Dhaka University, and Rashidul Hasan, of the same university’s English department, and Anwar Pasha, of the Bangla department. Santosh Bhattacharyya used to live in our building, and I remember their family, especially his wife and daughter, coming to our home in the evening, worried and crying. There was nothing we could do then, regretfully.

The next day, my aunt’s (boro khala’s) house, a few buildings away, was bombed, and my father moved us children to a home in Bakshibazar, and stayed behind himself. Just a day later, I remember walking about the streets, loudly reverberating with victorious slogans and cheerful and relieved outpouring of emotions from people everywhere.

 

Israr Ahmad Khan

Businessman

(College student in 1971)

We arrived in Dhaka sometime in late May, 1971. My father was a government official posted in Islamabad, West Pakistan. In Dhaka, we lived in the Sobhanbagh colony. After war was officially declared, we would often hear bombs being dropped by the Indian forces. My brother, and a friend, especially, were very adventurous, and would go out to see what was happening. I sometimes went to the roof, and witnessed the bombs being dropped a few times. Honestly, it was quite scary.

One of my most vivid memories is of 6 December, 1971 (Bhutan, and then India had recognised Bangladesh formally on that day). One of my friends from the colony told me that India had finally recognised Bangladesh officially, and out of sheer delight, I yelled out “Joy Bangla,” to the horror of the people present, as even then, saying the words out loud was dangerous.

As the war intensified, it was feared that direct fighting could break out in the vicinity of our home, as Sobhanbagh colony was right on the main road, so father sent us to live with relatives in the Science Laboratory quarters. Ironically, the very next day, the Indian forces bombed part of the Dhaka University student halls, so we were much nearer to danger than we had been at Sobhanbagh!

It was utter relief to hear of the impending surrender. We had been confined to our houses, and the entire city was locked down. Upon hearing of the scheduled surrender, to be held at the then racecourse field, I decided to go and see the ceremony. With that intent, I set out in the afternoon towards the field, only to see people coming back in droves. Upon asking, I learnt that the ceremony was already over, and I had missed my chance to be a witness to that historic moment and worse still, the walk back home was quite uneventful!

 

Begum Nazmun Nahar Bazlee

Homemaker

(Student of class VII in 1971)

We lived in the Lalbagh area of the Old Town then, on the day we heard that Pakistan had surrendered and that Bangladesh was now an independent country. Hundreds of people thronged the streets, chanting slogans, but our house was still quiet, worrying for my brother. Through the entire nine months, Abba had refused to bring down the flag on the roof that my brother had hoisted before he left to join the fight.

My two older brothers were very die-hard supporters of Chhatra Union, and so, we heard a lot about the political environment and the on-goings in the country. In March, right after the flag of Bangladesh made its appearance, my two brothers brought home a large piece of green cloth, and painted the red circle and the yellow map on it, in our veranda, and hoisted it on the roof. The paint they used was so strong, it left patches on the floor. My second brother, Mahfuz, left to join the Mukti Bahini on 29 March, and since then, we had been waiting to hear from him. Throughout the war, my father refused to take the flag down, saying only Mahfuz would do it, on his return. He finally did come back, on 29 December, and that was when we truly celebrated victory. Sadly, he later left to settle in America, deeply hurt and disillusioned by the state of affairs he saw in Bangladesh, and passed away there.

 

Interviewed by Sania Aiman

Special thanks to Jayanta Sen, Sharmeen Murshid, Tahsina Shamsunnahar, Israr Ahmad Khan, and Begum Nazmun Nahar Bazlee.

 

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