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Interview

Bangladesh Liberation War

[Former Second Lieutenant A Qayyum Khan had played a prominet role in liberating Bangladesh. In his memoir ‘‘Bittersweet Victory : A Freedom Fighter’s Tale’’ he recalls the days preceding, during and post 1971. Recently Garga Chatterjee spoke with him. Excerpts : ]

Question: In present day People's Republic of Bangladesh, there is a strange selective amnesia about the East Pakistan period. You go into great lengths about life then. Was this simply to set the context for 1971 or you wanted to communicate something more?
Answer : You're correct in your observation that some people in Bangladesh seem to have a selective amnesia about life in East Pakistan. Why is that, is a different question and I shan't go into that. I believe that 'selective amnesia' is no amnesia at all. It's a ploy to sweep uncomfortable truths under the rug. Given the nature of Bangladesh politics, especially after the BNP made an alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami and formed a government this view also had state patronage for a while.

But that is not my reason for such an elaborate discussion on life in East Pakistan. My reasons were threefold. First, any book on the liberation war should inform the reader in sufficient detail why the Bengalis of East Pakistan felt alienated in the State of Pakistan. Second, our children who were born after 1971, do not have any systematic knowledge about what life in East Pakistan was like. They know of certain landmark events of protests, such as, Language Movement of 1952 or the anti-Ayub Movement of 1969 but not much about anything else because the way history is taught in Bangladeshi secondary schools. Third, and perhaps the most important reason for me was to write a story that would have an appeal to readers beyond the subcontinent—someone who does not know much about the partition of India or why Pakistan was such an unusual state with 2 disjointed land masses.

Question: At which point do you think Bangladesh became inevitable—on 7 March 1971, 25 March 1971 or do you think it was always in the making, right from 14th August 1947?
Answer : I think the alienation of Bengalis began when Jinnah declared Urdu as the only national language of Pakistan in Dhaka University in 1948. It would be another 4 years before the issue came to head in February 1952 when the police opened fire on demonstrating students. After Jinnah's speech, the same year, leading Bengali Muslim politicians who were instrumental in Muslim League's (ML) victory in Bengal (in the 1946 elections which made the case for Pakistan), found their voices stifled in Pakistan as well as within the ML. For instance, Suhrawardy was not allowed to enter East Pakistan because it was alleged that he could not speak Urdu even though he was the Premier of Bengal. The Awami Muslim League, which later became Awami League, was created in 1948 with Moulana Bhasani as its President. This was the response from East Bengal's politicians to the Urdu-centric Pakistan State.

Throughout Pakistan's history, no elections were held because any elections on the basis of universal adult franchise would put Bengali politicians in power, the civil-military bureaucracy and the gentry of Pakistan found reasons not to hold elections by creating situations (including the wars of 1948 & 1965). The '65 war backfired badly for the Pakistani establishment. Mujib's 6 points announcement in 1966 challenged the Pakistani establishment at its core. The 1969 anti-Ayub movement brought the Pakistani state to its knees and could have easily led to a civil war. The withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy case and Mujib's release including Yahya's promise to hold national elections averted the catastrophe for the time being.

The election results of 1970 did not surprise any Bengali of East Pakistan. The surprise, if any, was Mr Nurul Amin's (the former ML Chief Minister of East Bengal) victory from a constituency in Mymensingh. The vote for AL in 1970 was a vote for autonomy of the province and not independence. The March 7 event was a response to the cancellation of National Assembly session scheduled for March 3.

Even on 25 March if the army did not start killing unarmed civilians indiscriminately and the army/government's action was limited to detention/arrest of AL politicians there would be a possibility of a negotiated settlement. The indiscriminate killing of Bengalis and mass rapes of Bengali women pushed the situation over the edge to a point of no return.

Question: Tell us a little bit about question of loyalty and disloyalty. The Bengali soldiers of Pakistan Army, many of whom rebelled in 1971, were being technically disloyal to their supreme commander. In the light of the events of 1971 and your experience in the military, when do you think that a certain line is crossed—from loyalty to supreme commander to loyalty to your own people?
Answer : A soldier's oath of loyalty is to the constitution of the country and its people provided those giving the orders are issuing lawful orders. A soldier cannot be forced to carry out unlawful orders or ordered to murder civilians or kill anyone without a trial purely on the basis of an apprehension. The Pakistan army's decision to kill Bengali officers and men (their peers) simply because they were Bengalis was unlawful and repugnant. No military commander or civilian commander-in-chief can issue such order and expect it to be carried out. The ultimate illustration of such unlawful orders were when the Pakistan military decided to kill Bengali military officers and men in East Pakistan. Pakistani military men may be tried for giving unlawful orders to their troops and also for carrying out these unlawful orders under the Pakistan Army Act. At the same time, if one is a target of retribution that may include death because of an apprehension that (s)he may not obey the unlawful order of killing unarmed civilians and therefore revolts to protest the illegality of the order or to preserve oneself is not disloyalty in any concept of military law.

Question: How easy or hard was the decision of joining the Muktibahini on Ali Ziauddin's invitation? Tell us the background story and how were the initial moments after having made the momentous decision.
Answer : The decision to join the Muktibahini was made before the meeting with Zia. My experience on March 27, when I was detained by a Punjabi JCO who was trying to send me off in truck [to my death) was the turning point. At that time I realized that as a Bengali I had  forfeited my right to life or justice; we were all dead anyway and the actual death would occur when a member of Pakistan army decided to pull the trigger. The incident left me shaken up and it took me a couple of days to regain my composure. As soon as I was able to function, e.g., go out, etc., I began to look for ways to join the Muktibahini. Meeting Zia was a fortuitous event.

Question: From your 1971 experiences, you did learn that "We were all equals in that war but I could see some were more equal than others". What were some gross examples of this? How did this feeling affect your morale and the morale of Muktijoddhas in general?
Answer : There were many. As a matter of fact, most politicians, and the Awami youth would fall in this category. I mention in the book that most politicians were unwilling to play any role in mitigating the hardships of their country men in India. The youth leaders were so indulgent that one of them, Nur-e-Alam Siddiqui had a big wedding in Calcutta (Hotel Kennilworth) when most of compatriots were either in refugee camps or in the Muktibahini.Impunity was such that Moni did not even think twice about sending an assassin to kill Tajuddin. A review of Kolkata police records of 1971 would shed light on the nature of their indulgences.

Also, class played a role. Most members of Muktibahini were from poor rural backgrounds—sons of farmers of Bangladesh. Politicians were from middle class who felt perks and privilege was their birth right and thay were not willing to bear hardships. This was the main reason why the Zonal Councils never became functional.

I also think that a conscious decision was made to ensure that the Bangladesh liberation war does end up as an egalitarian revolution. That may explain the apprehensions about the leftists.

The Muktijodhas, in general, were disappointed with politicians and politicians kept away from Muktibahini camps. Very few politicians kept contact with the Muktibahini. Dr Montu, who I mention in the book was a notable exception. There were very few Montus around. However, Tajuddin Ahmad was respected and adored by the Muktijhodhas and the entire Muktibahini was loyal to the provisional government. Of course, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was held in high esteem although he was like a deity in a pedestal. So, it was no surprise why most politicians became psycophants once they returned home after liberation.

Question: The book contains some very inspiring experiences about Khaled Mosharraf. I feel he is an under-studied character in the history of Bangladesh and 1971. What is your assessment of him?
Answer : Khaled Musharaf was a capable military leader who adjusted quickly from being an officer of a regular army to a leader in a guerrilla army. His men respected him and would follow him to their deaths because he led from the front. He did not ask anything from his men that was unrealistic or suicidal. His methods sought to surprise the enemy and inflict casualties on the enemy while at the same time he took considerable care in preserving his own forces.

Many people only see Khaled Musharaf in the context of November 1975 where he lost his life in a counter coup. That is the final event of his life. Clearly, in my assessment he was one of the finest commanders of the Muktibahini and it is a tragedy that he was not able to play a more significant role in independent Bangladesh. In my opinion he was a victim of Bangladesh politics.

Question: The operation that involved you being part of a covert team to bring back families of top army officers of Muktibahini—let me be somewhat critical here and ask, do you think that was an operation that served Bangladesh Liberation War in any military sense or was it more of a personal mission? Surely many, many other 'shadharon' Muktijoddhas had family back in East Bengal and there were no such rescue missions for them.
Answer : No I don't think so. My reasons are that if a commander is preoccupied with the safety and well being of his loved ones then he cannot devote himself fully to the war effort. Also, consider what would happen if a family member were taken hostage by the Pakistan army? In Indian history, hostages have changed the outcomes of many battles. The only family that was held hostage by the Pakistan Army was Ziaur Rahman's family. Of course, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's wife and daughters were also hostages. Also, after the initial resistance, Muktibahini men were given time off to move their families safely. In most cases, the families themselves crossed over to India for safety.

Question: Why do you think that AL was so apprehensive of including leftist groups including pro-Moscow ones of being part of the Liberation War. Was it ideological or was it from an anxiety of a serious non-AL voice in a victory situation? Was this attitude damaging?
Answers : Yes, it was damaging. The AL was not a revolutionary political party. It's greatest strength was that its roots were in Bangladesh villages articulating aspirations of Bengalis. Its organizational capabilities were limited to large scale civil disobedience at the most. It had no perception of how to conduct a war and if the Bengali soldiers did not revolt, I wonder if we would have had a liberation war.

The AL did not want to share the 'credit of victory' with any other party, especially the left. The Mujib Bahini's war of attrition on leftist volunteers began during the liberation war. The creation of National Consultative Committee was problematic because of the AL's insecurities. The fear, I think, was the AL felt once the left became prominent in the liberation war, they would be able to organize farmers and workers to press their demands sidelining the traditional rural base of the AL.

Question: How formative your days at Sector 7 were to your life? Would you be a completely different person without that and why? (While you answer this, please explain what Sector 7 is and detail your deployment)
Answer : I was 20 when I joined Sector 7. This was the first time in my life when I had serious responsibility—my men's lives depended on my abilities or inabilities. Before that I was as student with practically no responsibility for anyone other than myself. Hence, in a sense, Sector 7 transformed me from being a boy to a man. Things I learnt in Sector 7 were important lessons in life—ability to bear hardship, teamwork, loyalty (to your men and commanders), camaraderie, to be knowledgeable on matters confronting you, keeping your skills sharp, honing on to the important issue at hand and cutting through the noise, etc.

Question: Your account goes back and forth between international politics and the battle-ground details. How important was the former in the final realization of Bangladesh?
Answer : The correct handling of the international scenario was very important. One mistake and we would not have Bangladesh. Several things were important, the Bangladesh liberation war could not go beyond the winter of 1971-72. The Indo-Soviet friendship treaty and the Soviet vetoes in the Security Council were significant events. The Nixon Administration tried everything it could to help Pakistan but they did not succeed. The credit for this must go to the Indira Gandhi Government unreservedly.

Question: Why do you call this account of the Liberation war and its aftermath a "Bittersweet" victory?
Answer : The reasons for bitterness are elaborated in the book. The liberation war was a cataclysmic event where people's lives were turned upside down. After so much collective sacrifice our society should have become more fair. But what did we get. In less than 3 years the rulers of Bangladesh brought the country to a famine. The famine could have been averted but it was not because of the avarice and cronyism of the ruling elite. Take the case of the fourth amendment of the Bangladesh Constitution that brought in one party rule. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in his speech in the Paltan Maidan before adoption of the amendment highlighted corruption and insensitivity of the ruling class for the country's problems and what does he do to deal with the problem? Bury multi-party democracy!

Frontier
Vol. 48, No. 39, Apr 3 - 9, 2016