On December 16, 1971, Pakistani troops laid down their arms and surrendered to India for the secession of East Pakistan. The lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were lost. Much has been written about this watershed in Pakistan’s history. For the younger generation, I would recommend Brigadier Siddique Salik’s book Main Ne Dacca Doobtey Dekha which throws ample light on the subject and is worth reading.
I simply believe, though, that we should remember this day to pay homage to the patriots who gave their lives for Pakistan so that we can learn lessons from the events that occurred in the past in order to avoid any such recurrence in the future. So to commemorate, in a way of speaking, the ‘48th death anniversary’ of East Pakistan, I would like to recount here some of the events that I, as a resident of Dhaka, witnessed.
My parents migrated from the Indian province of Bihar to East Pakistan in 1947. I was born and bred in Dacca, as it was formerly called, the capital of East Pakistan. My father was an employee of Pakistan Postal Service. The Post and Telegraph (P&T) colony, where we lived, consisted of several three-storied apartment buildings, surrounded by a boundary wall. The demography here was roughly 90 percent Bengali and 10 percent Non-Bengalis, or Biharis as they were usually called.
India had set up hundreds of training camps in West Bengal where they trained and armed Bengali youths from East Pakistan to form the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). By mid-November 1971, the situation in the border areas had become alarming as more and more Mukti Bahini fighters kept pouring in from Indian Bengal. The border skirmishes were rapidly turning into bloody attacks on Pakistani troops. Eventually, on December 3, 1971, war with India was declared.
A survivor of the 1971 civil war recounts the harrowing events of December 16 as a resident in a Bihari locality in Dhaka
On the morning of December 4, I caught a small group of people looking up at the sky, trembling with excitement. Following their gaze, I lifted my head to scan the sky. After some moments, I caught sight of several white specks moving about in an orderly fashion. Indian planes, MIG-21s and SU-7s, were circling over Dhaka at a very high altitude to avoid ground fire. They tried to bomb Dhaka Airport and the Dhaka Cantonment area but the bombs, dropped from such a great height, went astray and missed their targets.
The very next day, the Indian Air Force attacked Dhaka Airport with their full might. Wave after wave of MIGs and Hunters flew over the airport dropping heavy bombs. The Pak gunners on the ground put up a brave fight.
They shot down several enemy planes, yet there were so many Indian planes that the airport runway was destroyed, with all the planes standing there.
The war on the ground was being fought in the border areas and towns of Jessore, Khulna, Natore, Kushtia, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Sylhet, etc. Dhaka is situated almost in the middle of the country and is surrounded by the rivers Ganges (Padma), Meghna and Brahamputra. As such, there was no sign of the Mukti Bahini or Indian forces near Dhaka or its adjoining areas. In the city, the only indications of a war being fought was the continuous presence of Indian planes which kept circling high up over the city, and the mandatory blackouts at night.
Occasionally, from the balcony of our second-floor flat, we could see Indian planes dive and fire rockets at the Governor House. Streaks of fire leaping from the plane would explode over the eastern dome of the Governor House and flames shooting from the ground would explode in the sky as the Pakistan army gunners tried to down these planes.
The Governor House was empty as Governor Abdul Malik and his staff had already shifted to the Intercontinental Hotel. The Indian forces had yet to cross the rivers before they could reach Dhaka. This was not easy as the river bridges had been destroyed. The city wore an uneasy calm and the atmosphere was charged with tension. Fear and anxiety was gradually but steadily tightening its grip on the citizens.
Such was the state of affairs when December 16 dawned over Dhaka.
On that harrowing day, just after Fajr prayers, there was a knock on the door of our flat. I opened the door and saw it was our Bengali neighbour Mallu Bhai. His actual name was Muhammad Ali Khan but everybody affectionately called him by his nickname. He lived with his family in the only other flat on our floor. This handsome man was usually a calm and collected person but today he appeared wildly excited. His eyes were shining, his cheeks were flushed and his voice was loud and shrill.
“Imtiaz, have you heard the big new? Akashvani [All Indian Radio] says Pak Army is going to surrender today!”
I laughed loudly (little knowing that this would be my last laugh for a long time), “Oh, come on, Mallu Bhai,” I said, “you know better than to believe Akashvani.”
It was late in the evening, nearing dusk, when we heard a loud commotion outside. I rushed to the balcony but what I saw made me freeze with terror. A large unruly mob brandishing bamboo sticks and leather whips was coming down the road to our building. Their faces were distorted with hate and fury. They were in a frenzy, shouting ‘Joy Bangla, kill the Biharis, kill the traitors’.
Mallu Bhai replied, “No, you do not understand. This time they have given a [test] as proof to check the veracity of their announcement. They say that our planes will fly low over Dhaka but there will be no fire from the ground. The Pak army’s Ack-Ack [anti-aircraft] guns will stay silent.”
On hearing this, I felt panic rising within me but I controlled myself and said, “Just think, Mallu Bhai, how is this possible? The Indian Army has not reached Dhaka. They are still far away. So then, why should Gen Niazi surrender? And to whom is he supposed to surrender?”
This repartee dampened Mallu Bhai’s excitement considerably and he went to his home, murmuring, “Ok, we will know the truth in a few hours.”
Despite my bravado, I was badly shaken. I went back inside my flat in a state of trepidation. I told my family the news. We kept hoping and praying that it would turn out to be false news. Every now and then, one of us would go to the balcony and scan the sky for Indian planes.
And then, what we hoped would not happen, did happen.
The Indian planes came around 10 am.
The first few sorties were made at considerable altitude but they soon started to fly lower and lower until we could clearly see the pilots. In stark contrast to previous routine, not a single shot was fired on them from the ground. It was the most bizarre scene. We did not see, as we used to see, flames leaping from the ground to attack these planes. Instead, large numbers of pamphlets were being thrown from the planes. Printed in English, Bengali and Urdu, they invited the public to Ramna Race Course ground in the afternoon to witness the surrender of the Pakistan Army.
Intrigued and hopeful, Bengalis flocked to the race course. There, in the presence of several lakhs of Bengalis raising thunderous slogans of ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘Jai Hind’, Gen Niazi signed the Instrument of Surrender and handed over his pistol to General Arora Singh. East Pakistan died and Bangladesh was born.
At the end of the ceremony, the mammoth crowd that spilled out from the Race Course Ground was on an ecstatic high. The euphoria of freedom kicked in an adrenaline rush, making the crowd boisterous. The cries of ‘Joy Bangla’ were now intermingled with cries of ‘Kill the Pakistanis’.
But no one dared to attack the Pakistani troops; most of them were still armed. So, in their murderous mood, the mob spread out in the city to kill and plunder the supporters of Pakistan and the Pakistani army — the Biharis. A strange celebration of independence.
An estimated 300,000 Biharis lived in Dhaka city. They were scattered in various localities of the city, namely Shahjahan Pur, Kamla Pur, Motijheel, Purana Pultan, Nawabpur road, Nawab Bari, Thatheri Bazar, Moulvi Bazar, Armani Tola, Islam Pur, Azim Pur, Saddar Ghat, Eskatan, Dhanmandi, Dhakeshwari, Neel Khet, etc. In all these localities, Biharis were in a minority amounting to five to seven percent of the population.
That night, the Bihari residents of every locality were attacked by the wild mobs who were on a killing, burning and looting spree. To give you a glimpse of the gruesome happenings, I now go back to my flat in P&T Colony, Motijheel.
It was late in the evening, nearing dusk, when we heard a loud commotion outside. I rushed to the balcony but what I saw made me freeze with terror. A large unruly mob brandishing bamboo sticks and leather whips was coming down the road to our building. Their faces were distorted with hate and fury. They were in a frenzy, shouting ‘Joy Bangla, kill the Biharis, kill the traitors’. As I looked on, they entered a building that stood very close to the right of ours.
On the top floor of that building lived Mr Yahya, a Bihari, with his family. The mob went straight to his flat, broke open the door, locked his wife and children into a room and dragged out Yahya Sahib. They started to beat him savagely and then pushed him towards the stairs. I then saw the mob emerge from the staircase and on to the road. Yahya Sahib appeared a bloody mess. He could hardly stand on his legs. Soon he fell to the ground. The mob was now kicking him like a football. They kicked him from the road on to the open grassy space in front of our building.
The beating and kicking carried on until he finally died. I saw some of them jumping on his dead body. Then, with a mighty roar, this bloodthirsty, demonic mob headed towards our building and into the entrance of the staircase.
Seeing all this terrified me so much that I completely lost my nerve and started to weep. My father (may Allah rest his soul in peace in heaven) became angry with me. He slapped my face hard and said, “Stop weeping. I won’t have my son dying like a coward. If we are to die then, we try to face death bravely. They will have to kill me first before they can touch you. Ask Allah for His help. Only He can save us.”
The din had become deafening by now and the stairwell was reverberating with loud shouts, banging, screams and shrieks. We all had our eyes fixed on the door, expecting it to burst open any moment, and then my mother said, “They are now at Mujib’s house.”
Mujib Sahib was another Bihari who lived with his family on the first floor, directly below Mallu Bhai’s flat. The mob had broken into his flat, locked his wife and children in a room and started beating and whipping him in another room. There was laughing and jeering from the crowd as Mujib Sahib screamed in pain and his family wailed loudly. This continued till he fell unconscious.
When my father went to see him later, he appeared as good as dead. He bled all over; his arms, legs as well as some of his ribs were broken. The mob had left him for dead and moved out of his flat.
The violent mob needed to climb only two short flight of stairs to break into our second-floor apartment. But then a miracle happened.
Inexplicably, the mob just went down and left the building. We were spared, as if Allah had just rewarded my father’s implicit faith in Him.
Waving their sticks, rods and whips, the crowd moved to another part of the colony, to beat more Biharis to death.
In the ensuing comparative lull of the night, from the distance, I could hear the shrill voice of some Bengali woman shouting, “O, Biharis, why do you cry now? Why don’t you call your supporters, your beloved Pak Army, to come to your help? Why don’t they come to save you from our wrath. Where are they now? They have left you to be killed and now we will kill you all!” The taunts floated in the night air for a long time, adding to our misery and despondency.
Around noon the next day, we heard the fire of automatic weapons. We were terrified when, a little later, there was a knock on our door. My father opened the door and found it was Mr Mannan, our Bengali neighbour who lived on the ground floor flat directly below Mujib Sahib’s flat.
He whispered to my father that some Mukti Bahini had arrived in the colony and they were arresting all Biharis. He had come to offer help. He wanted to hide us in his house to escape arrest. We went to his house. His family treated us well and we stayed there till night when the Mukti Bahini finally went away. Coming back to our house, we learnt that some Mukti Bahinis, led by another Bengali neighbour, Haji Abdul Bari (who lived in the flat on the first floor directly below us and adjacent to Mujib Sahib’s flat), had broken into our house to arrest us.
Haji was livid to find the menfolk absent but the Mukti Bahinis were quite happy to ransack the house and steal whatever cash, jewellery and other valuable items they could lay their hands on. That day the Mukti Bahini arrested around 400 men and boys from our colony. Even five-year-olds were not spared. They took their prisoners to Ramna Police Station. Some of the “prisoners” returned after three or four days but some never came back. Whether they were thrown into jails or killed is anybody’s guess.
In the suburb of Dhaka lay the colonies of Muhammadpur and Mirpur. These were perhaps the only colonies in East Pakistan with a Bihari majority. The first units of Mukti Bahini reached Mirpur in the wee hours of December 17. They were heavily armed with mortars, machine guns and field guns. They were stopped at Mirpur bridge by the Bihari Razakars (volunteers) guarding the bridge. The Mukti Bahini fighters knew that there was no Pak Army there and it was merely a bunch of poorly armed Razakars resisting them. They repeatedly called the Razakars to surrender but the Razakars held the bridge for about three hours and kept fighting till their last man was killed.
The Mukti Bahini fighters finally entered Mirpur section numbers 1 and 2 and promptly started firing their field guns on the houses. After blowing up some 30 houses, they announced that, to save their lives, everyone had to go to the Eidgah ground as they are going to destroy all the houses. There being no other option, everybody ran helter-skelter to the ground. When the ground was filled with men, women and children, the Mukti Bahini opened machine gun fire from all sides on them.
Among the countless massacres of that terrible time, this was another one.
An Indian Army unit arrived at Mirpur in the afternoon. They stared aghast at the grisly scene. The entire ground was strewn with thousands of dead bodies and the green grass was now shiny red. This prompted them to call in reinforcement and take over control of Muhammadpur and Mirpur.
In truth, it was not massacre at just one or two places. It was mass killing of non-Bengalis, the Urdu-speaking people nicknamed Biharis. These people had been living in East Pakistan since 1947, some had settled in the area even earlier. They lived amongst the Bengalis like brothers, amicably, without any discrimination. So what happened all of a sudden that generated this tidal wave of hatred against them, all over the country? The explanation is simple.
Shaikh Mujibur Rahman’s party, the Awami League, had won a majority of seats in the 1970 general elections of Pakistan. They had full rights to form a government and rule over Pakistan. However, the military leadership of Pakistan and the political leadership of West Pakistan combined together to deny transfer of power to the Awami League. This infuriated not only the Awami League but the entire population of East Pakistan. The Awami League announced that, as protest to this gross injustice, March 23 celebrations would not be held in the province and all private and public buildings would hoist black flags. Anyone who hoisted the Pakistani flag would be declared a traitor and punished severely. They particularly asked the Bihari community to show their solidarity with Bengali people by not hoisting the Pakistani flag for that act, they felt, would mean that they were enemies of Bengali people.
The Biharis argued that they were Pakistanis. They had migrated here because of Pakistan. They had great faith in the Pak Army and were confident that the army would protect them and soon control the situation. They did not pay heed to the warning given by the Awami League. At Mirpur, they raised a huge Pakistani flag atop the public water tank which could be seen fluttering in the air from a mile around.
The flag sent a clear message to the Bengalis that Biharis were patriotic Pakistanis and would not support them in their endeavour to secede from Pakistan. The lines were thus drawn, lines which proved to be bloody and indelible.
Consequently, a majority of the Bihari community perished in the massacres conducted by the bloodthirsty Mukti Bahini. Of the survivors, some managed to flee to West Pakistan while the unlucky ones, who could not afford to do so, still languish in relief camps in Dhaka in unspeakable misery. The Bangladesh government treats these hapless Biharis as Pakistanis and urges the Pakistan government to take them back. To this day, the Pakistan government refuses to repatriate those who sacrificed their kith and kin, lost their properties and became destitute but did not change their nationality because of their love of Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 15th, 2019