Title: Chariot of Life: Liberation War, Politics and Sojourn in Jail
Publisher: Shrabon Prokashani, Dhaka
Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury was a Pakistani civil servant of Bengali origin, belonging to the elite corps of the Pakistan civil services. In March 1971, as East Pakistan seethed with discontent, Chowdhury was serving on his first assignment, as the sub-divisional magistrate of Meherpur in the northwest, on the border with India. The author chafed at being allotted this insignificant post even though he had stood first among the East Pakistani candidates to the civil services in his year of allotment — Chowdhury attributed it to his speaking up for the rights of East Pakistan as a probationer. It was at Baidyanathtala (subsequently known as Mujibnagar) in his sub-division that the provisional government of Bangladesh was sworn in on April 17, 1971, under his administrative supervision. As the newly sworn in prime minister of Bangladesh, Tajuddin Ahmed, told Chowdhury, he was not only a spectator but a participant in this historic event. In this epic journey, Chowdhury guides us from the first hours of the war of independence to the bloody birth of Bangladesh.
In an account of historical importance, the author recounts hearing the midnight telephonic exchange between the police in his headquarters at Meherpur and the police lines at Rajarbag in Dhaka, on March 25, even as the latter were silenced by the shells of the Pakistani army. Before even the break of dawn, people of all segments had poured onto the streets with cries of “Joy Bangla”. As day broke, the 26-year-old sub-divisional officer penned a few lines to “the Indian brethren” to “please help us with arms”. Copies of his letter were carried across the border by smugglers who were considered the most reliable carriers, and prominently published in the Calcutta papers. In a few days, Chowdhury was scheduled to meet district and intelligence officials across the border to renew his request. With remarkable sang-froid, Chowdhury spoke without authority for a government that did not yet exist, and for a state that was yet to be won.
Chowdhury relates how, after their defeat in Kushtia, the fleeing Baluch regiment was attacked and decimated by villagers armed largely with machetes and sticks. This, and other incidents, vividly bring to life the involvement of the masses in towns and in the countryside, when it came to fighting the occupation army of Pakistan. Understanding this account is important because, purely on perceptional grounds, Indians have seen 1971 as a victory of Indian arms over Pakistan (as indeed have the Pakistanis, with a lasting desire for revenge). Many distinguished freedom fighters have written their accounts of engagements with the enemy. Without any flourish, the author has also underlined the freedom fighter as a common man engaging spontaneously in an uncommon task.
Though the autobiography is a historical account of a specific period in time, the pages are mostly taken up by the author’s incarceration a quarter-century after the war. Leading a private life after retirement from government service, he was brought in for interrogation by the anti-corruption department of the military-backed caretaker government that took over in January, 2007, as the country was in political and administrative disarray. He had been secretary in charge of power a decade earlier and was bluntly told that he had to testify against the then prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, regarding the purchase of equipment, or he would have to face the consequences. The caretaker government was then in the process of establishing the “minus two formula”, to politically neutralise both Hasina and Khaleda Zia. (I had written at the time: “The desire to clean out the system may be well-intentioned, but it is only through a political process and the assertion of the people’s will, that basic changes can be brought about, if they are to be lasting… it would need to be kept in mind that the primary responsibility of the present government is to provide the framework for free, fair and impartial elections” Telegraph, May 2007).
As he did not agree, Chowdhury was arrested and imprisoned. The description of the author’s months in prison have a surreal touch, reminiscent of The Trial by Franz Kafka. The ability of those in authority to manufacture and manipulate evidence is not unknown. To do so knowingly against a man who was accorded the highest award as a freedom fighter, is truly extraordinary. The author remarks with reference to 1975: “The government of Bangladesh lapsed into a degenerative hybrid form, the vanquished forces of the war gaining ground and cleansing the country of the freedom fighters, a criminal revenge for the defeat on the battlefield.”
Chariot of Life is distinguished by an elegance of language. As an autobiography, it is marked by the author’s deep love and affection for his family and his love of nature, which stays with him during his months in prison. His religious devotion comes through too, but his prayers at the sacred Kaaba sharif are for the tree decaying outside his home. When he calls home later, his wife informs him that the buds of leaves have appeared on the same tree he prayed for.
Chariot of Life will occupy a prominent place among significant accounts of the nine months to the freedom of Bangladesh, and the political developments immediately thereafter. Accounts of subsequent years also shed light on the fraught and divided politics of Bangladesh, which remains unresolved still.
Deb Mukharji is former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh