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Bangladesh @ 50: ‘Will you give me a flag of Bangladesh?’

Fifty years ago, in the aftermath of a difficult war in which India played a crucial role, a new nation — Bangladesh — was born. Bangladeshi poet Daud Haider remembers the day when freedom came to his people

Written by Daud Haider |
Updated: December 13, 2021 3:19:07 pm
East Pakistan, Bangladesh freedom, Bangladesh liberation, 1971 Bangladesh war, Bangladesh liberation 1971, first person account, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsDaud Haider (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

December 1, 1971. Pakistani bomber planes have been marauding in the skies of East Pakistan from morning to night. We are on the verge of deafness from their dreadful roars. Everyone everywhere is terrified. We are assuming that war between Pakistan and India is imminent, not just on land and water but also in the air. Radio bulletins on Swadhin Bangladesh Betaar and Akashvani in Kolkata are saying that Dhaka has been surrounded by the liberation army, that a terrible battle is about to begin.

Frequent news bulletins on East Pakistan Dhaka Radio are saying: “Do not be misled by the disinformation being broadcast by the so-called Swadhin Bangladesh Betaar and Akashvani from India. All of East Pakistan is under the control of the Pakistan Army, inshallah.” The television channel in Dhaka is beaming images of normal, everyday life in the city as well as in other district towns. People are out on the streets, shops are doing business, rickshaws and cars are moving about, even cinema halls are open.

What they are not saying is when these images are from. The same scenes are being broadcast repeatedly. Listeners and viewers no longer believe the propaganda. Dhaka is emptying out. Everyone is gathering their belongings, entire families are fleeing to the villages.

We are hearing that Pakistani soldiers are patrolling the streets, pulling people out of buses and rickshaws and beating them up. They are shooting them. Sending them back home. Where will we go? Pabna is a hundred and fifty kilometres from Dhaka, the Padma and Meghna and Jamuna have to be crossed on ferries along the way.

There’s news of Pakistan Air Force planes firing mortars at launches, boats and ferries. Corpses are floating on the river. Eyewitnesses who have managed to escape are sending word back.

We decide it is better to die in Dhaka than in some unknown place in the wild. And in the same house, all of us. We have, however, dug trenches in the garden and the yard. Even if they bomb us from the skies, some of us might survive if we hide in the deepest part of the trenches.

Novelist Rashid Haider’s wife Anisa’s elder brother Tarikul Bari says, not just Road No. 32, but all of Dhanmondi and its surroundings are safe from bombing by the pilots of both the Indian and the Pakistani air forces. Because Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s house is just four or five buildings down the road from the head of Dhanmondi Road No. 32. Although it has not been formally declared a safe zone, it is an unwritten one. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is imprisoned, but his wife, two daughters and young son are under house arrest. Pakistani soldiers are guarding the house and patrolling Dhanmondi round the clock. The additional objective of ensuring Dhanmondi remains untouched is to show the world that Sheikh Mujib and the Mukti Bahini are the enemies of Pakistan, but his family is not. Therefore, their security is being ensured. Many businessmen and government officials from West Pakistan live in Dhanmondi. They are on good terms with the army, belonging as they do to the same land. Tarikul Bari has escaped from Pabna with his family and taken shelter with his elder sister in Dhaka. Both his sons are fighting in the liberation war, and one of them is a sector commander.

From December 12, we observe fewer Pakistani fighter planes in the skies of Dhaka. Surely something will happen within a week. Rumours are spreading furiously, and, along with them, fears. People are filled with dread, they have no idea what to do.

From the afternoon of December 13, there are no more Pakistani planes in the skies. What’s going on? Shortly before evening, two Indian Air Force fly in circles overhead, dropping thousands of leaflets. It’s like snowfall, on the roads and fields and river and trees and roofs and yards. We gather some leaflets from our roof and yard. In large Bangla letters it says: “Leave Dhaka, seek out a safe shelter.” In English, too. Everyone is assured these are not from the Pakistani army, for then the message would have been in Urdu as well.

From the morning of the 14th, we begin to see a different sight. People are fleeing, carrying light luggage. Entire families are on the move, some in cars, some on foot. Dhaka is famous for its rickshaws, but none of them is to be seen now. Everyone seems to be running away without a destination. We remain at home, steeped in anxiety. Bari bhai assures us, “India and Pakistan will have dogfights in the sky over Mujib’s area, but they won’t drop bombs.”

We see planes occasionally on the 14th. From where we are, so far below, we can’t tell which country they belong to. There’s no fighting. The skies are empty.

(No one has an inkling of the horrifying massacre carried out on the night of December 14. Razakars — sympathisers of Pakistan — and the Al-Badr — a Bengali militia group — murder a large number of well-known academics, intellectuals, poets, writers and journalists in an open field in Rayer Bazaar, quite close to Dhanmondi, and leave their bodies in a heap. The incident comes to light only three days later. Since then, December 14 has been observed as Martyred Intellectuals’ Day in Bangladesh.)

On December 15, Dhaka appears sedated. There’s hardly anyone on the streets. Shops opened for just three hours, most of them perfunctorily. Everything closed down by 10 in the morning. There are no aerial sorties by either the Indian or the Pakistan Air Force. The atmosphere is tense, everyone’s holding their breath, silenced by the fear of something about to happen. Pakistan Army trucks roar past occasionally, but there are very few of them, with only the drivers visible as they speed off. No rifles or sten guns or mortars or light cannons aimed at passers-by and houses.

Bulletins on Swadhin Bangladesh Betaar and Akashvani Kolkata are not offering any details, only statements to the effect that it is nearly time for the “Pak forces to surrender”. They are, however, claiming that the surrender will be to the Indian Army. I don’t sleep that night.

The morning of December 16 seems frozen in time. Not a soul on the streets. I cannot see anyone through the window. Two Pakistan Army trucks rush past on Mirpur Road. Fifteen minutes later, 10 more. No other armoured vehicles are to be seen after this.

It’s not yet 10 in the morning. A white jeep appears. On its side, written in large letters, UN. It’s cruising along the road in Mohammadpur at less than 20 miles an hour. There’s no hood. A white woman is standing upright with a megaphone. She’s shouting at the top of her voice: “Bengladeysh free, Bengladeysh free.”

The two words collide with the walls of every house, striking harder than shells from the most powerful cannon. The universe is filled with the sound.

A miracle! The streets are bursting with people in an instant. Old, young, everyone. Shouts of “Joy Bangla”. Many have the flag of Bangladesh. Where were these flags, when were they made? The Pakistani troops, the razakars, the Al-Badr, all of them had searched everyone’s house. How did the flags escape their eyes?

Endless streams of people, cries of victory, flags everywhere. My eyes fill with tears, of pride, of joy, of sheer pleasure. Today is December, 16, 1971. Bangladesh is free.

I’m so beside myself with joy that I leap down from the first floor and twist my ankle. The pain is searing. I toss and turn in bed, screaming. Not a doctor is available anywhere, the pharmacies are closed, there are no cars or rickshaws. Going to the hospital is out of the question. Quackery is all there is, a poultice of raw turmeric paste and a bandage on the ankle. And ice from the fridge, pressed to the spot.

Sometime after noon Bari bhai’s younger son Jaglul Bari appears from somewhere with a vehicle. (It belongs to a Pakistani government official, from whom he has grabbed it after brandishing his sten gun. “Take everything, the car, the money, the jewellery, just don’t kill us.”) “Oh, this is nothing. Do you plan to stay in bed groaning in pain today of all days?” The pain vanishes in a flash. I join them. Seven of us packed into the car. Destination: the race course, where the Pakistan army will surrender to the chief of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. A formal surrender.

We’re late, the Indian armed forces don’t let us in. They have surrounded the race course.

The car turns towards the five-storeyed Hotel Intercontinental. Here, too, the crowds are overflowing. An ocean of people. Hotel Intercontinental is a safe zone. (Many Pakistani commanders have taken shelter here.) Not a toehold to be had on the streets in front of or behind the hotel. Everyone wants to tear apart the Pakistanis. A single cry echoes everywhere,

“Kill the bastards.”

There are many liberation-army fighters in the crowd too. Bearded, with bandannas, carrying stenguns.

Extraordinary scenes, unbelievable sights. Plenty of young women in the crowd, abandoning all shyness, although they don’t even know the muktijoddhas, they’re hugging them in sheer joy, kissing them intimately on their cheeks, their lips. The bounty of independence keeps onlookers from being dismayed.

But suddenly, something terrible happens right in front of the hotel. The Radio Pakistan office is next door. From the roof of the hotel, Pakistani soldiers begin to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. Six people die. Bullets scream past my ears, but I survive. A lovely young woman of 21 or 22 standing next to me does not. Blood spurts out. We throw ourselves to the ground and crawl away. We lie flat on the street. From there, we see four or five young men, freedom fighters all of them, hoisting the Bangladesh flag on the roof of the Radio Pakistan building. The Pakistani soldiers fire at them. Two or three are killed. The young man who has defied death to raise the flag is named Shahabuddin Ahmed. A muktijoddha then, a global artist now. He lives in Paris. I have heard detailed accounts of the day from him.

Next stop: the cantonment, to find out what state the Pakistan army is in. Indian soldiers block our way before we can get there. “Go back,” they tell us in English. “They’re well-armed, they will kill you.” We retrace our steps.

My ankle is aching now. I get out of the car, but it’s still a long way from home. There are so many people on the street that the car can’t progress any further. An old woman, whom I have seen before, begging on the pavement, comes up to me. Holding out her hands, she asks plaintively, “Will you give me a flag of Bangladesh?”

~ As told to Sarjil Bari

~ Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

(Daud Haider is a Bangladeshi poet in exile in Berlin, Germany)

East Pakistan, Bangladesh freedom, Bangladesh liberation, 1971 Bangladesh war, Bangladesh liberation 1971, first person account, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Muktibahini soldiers celebrating the victory, Dhaka 1971. (Photo: Raghu Rai)
Freedom becomes them

This is a photograph of Mukti Bahini soldiers celebrating in Dhaka after the War of Liberation. I was there when General AAK Niazi of Pakistan handed the Instrument of Surrender to Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora of the Indian Army. A victim of the 1947 Partition, this is the first war that I covered as a photojournalist, five years into the profession. At first, I was in the border areas, photographing the refugees and the Mukti Bahini. Later, I entered what was then East Pakistan with the first column of the Indian troops from the Khulna border in December 1971. Pakistani forces were retreating, but, suddenly, they attacked with artillery fire. A bullet went past me, too. During the war, I saw so many being killed -- entire villages were burnt; women raped. There was a mass exodus of refugees, who needed food and protection from diseases such as cholera. When I look back at the images, those memories of pain and suffering come back. I had lost these photographs, till I accidentally rediscovered the negatives in 2010. Over 100 photographs were published in the book Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom (Niyogi Books) in 2013. -- Raghu Rai, photographer

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