After the 1970 elections, President Gen Yahya Khan announced Shaikh Mujibur Rehman to be the next prime minister of Pakistan. Bhutto did not like the idea and, on his asking, the date for the National Assembly session was changed from March 3, 1971 to March 25, 1971. Shaikh Mujib wanted the National Assembly session to be held at Dhaka, but Bhutto opposed the idea. The postponement and Bhutto’s opposition did not go well with Mujib.
On March 1, 1971, a jalsa was organised by the Awami League at Paltan Maidan, Dhaka, which, according to eyewitnesses, was attended by a massive number of people. In that jalsa, a non-cooperation movement was announced. Throughout East Pakistan, Bengalis refrained from attending their government offices. Non-Bengalis, commonly known as Biharis, were not sufficient in numbers to run the government offices. The province came to a standstill in terms of work.
We lived in Dinajpur, a northern district of East Pakistan. During the second half of March 1971, we witnessed many processions with people carrying weapons like swords, bamboo sticks and daggers, since firearms were not common in those days.
An eyewitness to the ‘fall of Dhaka’ recounts the terrible events and his family’s flight from the civil war
My father was a doctor, employed with the provincial government and posted at the southern district of Patuakhali, a day’s distance of rail and ship from Dinajpur where we siblings lived with our mother. Dinajpur was a Bihari populated city and we owned our own house, while in Patuakhali my father was the only non-Bengali.
When the violence started, we shifted to our khala’s house in Parbatipur, a railway junction almost 50 kilometres away.
Bhutto threatened the National Assembly members from West Pakistan going for the NA session to be held in Dhaka on March 25. He was quoted as saying, “If anybody goes there I will break his legs [Main uski taangein torr doon ga]. He should go with a one-way ticket.”
The National Assembly session of March 25 was cancelled and the army took control of East Pakistan. Lt. Gen Tikka Khan became Martial Law Administrator. Shaikh Mujib was arrested for treason and sent to West Pakistan. The fate of the majority was to be decided by a minority. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, tanks and armoured vehicles were seen in civilian areas, marching to victory over its own people. In April, due to his strong anti-Bengali attitude, Lt. Gen Tikka Khan was replaced by Lt. Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi.
Soon after our family moved to Parbatipur, train communication between Dinajpur and Parbatipur broke down because of acion by pro-Awami League militants. Massacres in all minor cities with small Bihari populations started. During the second week of April, almost 15,000 Bihari citizens of Dinajpur were slaughtered by pro-Awami League militants. After the massacre, the army took over the city. The Bengalis fled to nearby villages and the city wore a deserted look.
In June 1971, I visited Dinajpur with a friend. We went to the slaughter ground which was near the river. We counted 326 human skulls and then we could bear it no more. Most of the dead bodies were buried. The river bed was black with the stain of blood.
Then, the war started. Indian bombing began from December 3, 1971, and continued till the day of their success. On December 14, Indian helicopters dropped pamphlets saying India had won the war and the people should not resist, they should co-operate with the Indian Army.
The alarm bells rang and, for two days, total confusion and bewilderment prevailed in the city.
On December 16, the local army formally announced that surrender had taken place. The people panicked in the midst of news of massacres in smaller cities and towns. In the absence of the army, they were afraid of getting killed. The leaders of the city decided to shift to the nearby city of Syedpur, which had a larger Bihari population.
Trains were run from the night of December 16, 1971, through the entire day of December 17 to shift the entire population of Parbatipur to Syedpur. We took shelter in one of our paternal uncle’s house. On the radio, we listened to the news of the fall of Dhaka and the surrender ceremony of Lt. Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi in front of the Indian Army commander of the Eastern Wing, Lt Gen Jagjeet Singh Arora.
In his speech to the nation on the historic day, Gen Yahya declared that the war was never-ending; it would continue. The Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, published by daily Dawn much later in the late 1990s, revealed that Gen Niazi, the commander of half of Pakistan and Chief Martial Law Administrator of the Eastern Wing, was also involved in smuggling paan from East Pakistan to West Pakistan.
My father and elder brother, who was studying in medical college, had joined us in May. After the fall, we had no money; the banks were closed and our bank was not in Syedpur anyway. My father sold two of my mother’s gold bracelets for 250 rupees (gold was around 125 per tola at that time). He gave me and my brother the money to start some kind of small business so that the kitchen expenses could be met. We saw kitchen utensils and crockery coming from India and decided to sell these items.
The jeweller who had bought the bracelets allowed us to sit in the veranda in front of his shop. After a few days, a gentleman came to us saying that he wanted to sell his used crockery. Not sure whether we would be able to sell them or not, we nevertheless took the risk and bought his crockery. After the fall, the Bengalis who had fled from the cities in fear of the Pakistan Army started to return and they needed utensils and crockery. We were able to sell them profitably. A new chapter opened for us.
One day, a gentleman told us that he would go door to door to see if any used crockery sets were available for sale. In return he would take 15 percent commission from us. We agreed. On an average, we visited at least one home on a daily basis to buy their crockery. Our little efforts helped our four families living together to subsist.
When news of our homelessness reached our maternal uncle in India, he sent an agent to take us to India. The agent was totally unaware of the gravity of the situation. My family and my khalas ventured to go with him. We tried to cross the border at Chilahati but were caught by the Bengalis. They took all my mother’s ornaments (more than 300 tolas). They got so much that they didn’t disturb my khala at all; all her jewellery (more than 200 tolas) remained safe. They finally released us. Across the Indian border, we were caught by Indian Army on the night of March 28, 1972, who took us to the cantonment. They offered us food: chawal, daal and aalu ka bhorta. They kept us overnight and released us in the early hours of the morning.
The locals, seeing us with bag and baggage, suspected us to be from Bangladesh. One of them took us to his house, probably expecting some money for shelter and protection. But we had nothing left. The only valuable thing with us was my father’s wristwatch, which he sold for 50 rupees. We used the money for our two days’ stay there. Left with 20 rupees, which we were sure was enough for the bus fare, we went to the bus stop and took a bus.
By this time my younger brother and sister had chicken pox. In India, chicken pox is called ‘choti mata’ and small pox ‘bari mata’, and was not uncommon in those days. They don’t disturb any person having mataas. So no one disturbed us.
We got down in Jalpaiguri, the last town of West Bengal. From there, we hired a taxi for 300 rupees to reach Kishangaj, where my maternal uncle was to receive us. The fare was paid by my uncle. This was the first city of Bihar. My uncle told my father to shave his beard so that he would not be recognised.
The next morning, April 1, 1972, we took the train to Bhagalpur, our native land and the second biggest city of Bihar. Soon after, we started planning on moving to Pakistan. My elder brother came to Pakistan in November 1972
and got his admission transferred to Nishtar Medical College in Multan, from where he graduated later. I landed in Karachi on August 31, 1973. The rest of the family followed in 1976.
And so a young boy in his teens, full of aspirations and ambition, came to find his fortune to Pakistan, penniless, shelterless and with no one to hold his hand or offer any support.
The writer is a PhD candidate in marketing and visiting faculty at a number of private universities
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 16th, 2018