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Fall of Dhaka: Memories of a bloody December

Updated December 16, 2014

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In this file photo Sheikh Mujibur Rehman approaches microphones to address a rally in Dhaka.
In this file photo Sheikh Mujibur Rehman approaches microphones to address a rally in Dhaka.

ISLAMABAD: The creation of Bangladesh is one of the most sensitive and tragic chapters in the history of Pakistan. While the trauma of partition may now be behind us, stories of 1971 still raise hackles among anyone who lived through that era.

While there are two, very forceful narratives on what exactly happened, history is unequivocal. Perhaps this is why journalists who lived through the painful partition of Pakistan are best placed to recall and ruminate on the mistakes that were made in that fateful year.


On March 23, 1971, the flag of Bangladesh was put up in East Pakistan. At the time, Ali Ahmed Khan was a journalist in Dhaka.

“I worked for a progressive Urdu weekly, Jareeda, which promoted the rights of East Pakistan and consistently campaigned for the restoration of democracy under military rule,” he says, with a sense of fondness.

But as the memories take a turn for the grim, his eyes cloud over.

“It was the night of March 25. From my own home, in a predominantly Urdu-speaking part of Dhaka, all we could hear was gunfire,” he says. From the direction of the slums where most working-class Bengalis lived, he saw flames leaping upwards.

“Smoke filled the air and the sky turned red, this is what I remember of Operation Searchlight,” he recalls.

“Ours was a divided family; some lived in East Pakistan and some in the west. In East Pakistan, my family home was in the town of Dinajpur. After the operation, the country erupted into a violent reaction as the liberation movement was launched and many Urdu-speaking families were attacked. I heard from people coming into Dhaka that the town had seen some terrible violence.”

Cilocia Zaidi’s abandoned family home in Pabna city, Bangladesh, is part of a law college today.
Cilocia Zaidi’s abandoned family home in Pabna city, Bangladesh, is part of a law college today.

“I boarded a train and rushed to my family. I remember walking into the garden and smelling the pineapples my parents had fondly planted. The home was all but destroyed. Our things were strewn about everywhere; my father’s books, my brother’s records and albums...the house had been looted,” he says, gritting his teeth.

“The neighbours told me my mother had gone to stay with my sister in Parbatipur, and my father and brother were missing, but no one would give me any details. But they were all dead,” he says, with a sense of finality.


Now, 43 years after the bloodshed, as he speaks to us from his idyllic home in Abbottabad, Mr Khan appears to have made peace with his traumatic past. He even laughs as he says, “It was inevitable. When the Awami League swept the 1970 elections and the assembly was not called to session, what else could have happened,” he posits.

He is clear in his convictions. For him, the bloody separation was caused by the actions of those in the west.

“Admiral Mohammad Ahsan, the last governor of East Pakistan, recalls that when Yahya Khan came to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, he asked the admiral ‘What are these six points’,” he recalls.

“The admiral offered to send for the document, but Yahya refused, saying ‘No, no, I’ll manage’. This shows there was a lack of seriousness to engage with the people of East Pakistan.”

He says that some in his family have ostracised him for supporting the creation of Bangladesh and the Bengalis’ right to self determination.

“What happened to me on a personal level was painful, but it was inevitable. When a force denies people their basic rights such a reaction was to be expected.


Cilocia Zaidi was only 10 years old when Dhaka fell, but, “What we saw as children left us with scars that can never be healed. We don’t like to talk about it because it’s too painful to recall. But not talking about it doesn’t change what happened,” she says.

Ali Ahmed Khan shares his memories of Dhaka. — Photo by Tanveer Shahzad
Ali Ahmed Khan shares his memories of Dhaka. — Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

Now a journalist based in Islamabad, Ms Zaidi witnessed first-hand some of the worst violence that came to pass in 1971. “I remember our Hindu dhobi (laundry man) had a beautiful daughter. One day, she sat outside our gates, sobbing inconsolably. The gate was guarded by army men, who would not let her in. When we asked our mother why the girl was crying, she said nothing. Today, I know what happened to her and to countless others like her,” she says.

She recalls the day Sheikh Mujib gave his final call to the Bengali people and asked them to fight for their liberation.

“From the window of my house, I saw people emerging from every corner, holding makeshift weapons. I saw our milkman, an elderly man, walking with a spear in his hand. After that, it was sheer chaos,” she says.

“The resentment was against the army operation, not necessarily against Pakistan. After all, Bengal too was Pakistan, it was the land of the Muslim League’s birth,” she said.

“Bengalis are a proud people; proud of their culture and their language. But West Pakistanis always looked down on Bengalis and were very racist towards them. This is what sowed the seed of resentment.”

Ms Zaidi’s father, Capt Asghar Hussain Zaidi, had been a member of parliament and a part of Ayub Khan’s cabinet. Although he was Bengali, his support for a united Pakistan made him a target for the Mukti Bahini.

“They (Mukti Bahini) were people we called brothers or uncles. We were a vibrant family with a variety of political affiliations. My grandfather and uncles were Awami Leaguers and became part of the liberation movement.”

But when the trouble began, her grandfather wisely suggested that the family relocate to the village.

“I remember walking through the vast riverbed with thousands of ordinary villagers, just walking out of the city. That’s when the helicopters began firing at everyone. I remember asking my mother why our army was shooting at us, and she said that from their viewpoint, they could not see who was innocent,” she says, the emotional strain showing as her eyes begin to glisten.

Published in Dawn December 16th , 2014