March 5, 2024, 8:00 pm

Saleem Ahmed

2020-03-25 15:47:57 BdST

A night when we all grew up

The night of March 25, 1971 is a night of betrayal. Betrayal by the military junta of general Yahya khan, betrayal by ZA Bhutto, betrayal of the whole idea of Pakistan. Betrayal of the idea of "brotherhood" on the basis of common religion.

The night taught us, all these were wrong and it stood like a house of cards for 24 years.

The night also engraved the names of the betrayers, the butchers in our neurons with fire: General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, president of the Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP); General Tikka Khan, the "butcher of Balochistan", the commander of army eastern command at East Pakistan and later to be the governor; Lt General Ameer Abdullah Khan Niazi, commander of the eastern command, Major General Rao Farman Ali, GOC of 57 division; Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, general officer commanding of 14 division, and some collaborators who spoke our language but thought in another.

Remember these names. Remember these names because these were the people who had wanted to paint this green land of ours red, with the blood of the Bangalis. These are the people who had planned the genocide unleashed on the unarmed, sleeping Bangalis on the night of March 25, 1971. These are the people, specially Rao Farman Ali and Khadim Hussain Raja, who had planned and executed "Operation Searchlight" on the darkest of dark nights in the history of Bangladesh.

All through March 1971, we were restive. The 1970 general election had proven clearly that we, the Bangalis, wanted a different future for ourselves and not the one the "Punjabi" rulers wanted. The term "Punjabi" had become a term for oppression, of derision, to us. 

As Yahya Khan cancelled the general assembly session set for March 3 the day before, we had spontaneously debouched into the streets of Dhaka, burst out in protests, tens of thousands of our hands touched the sky in unison, our unified voices rend the sky apart. 

We were angry, we felt betrayed from getting what was legitimately ours. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was calm. He kept his people in confidence and on March 7 he spoke to them of freedom. He told them to sacrifice their lives for freedom with whatever they had in hand. But he was confident we would gain it, our freedom, and a land to call our own and to name it in our own language, Bangla, and have a flag that spoke of our dreams.

That was all the Bangalis wanted to hear from this angel of freedom. That was it.

What we did not know then that the Pakistanis had planned long to deny us of our rights. They had planned to stage a fake play of political dialogue with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman while its well-equipped and well-trained army meticulously planned to let loose a punishment so terrible that the insolent "treacherous" Bangalis would learn a lesson never to forget.

But they were wrong, dead wrong! We would prove them wrong in nine months, at the cost of three million lives. And they would sign off on it, on 16 December, 1971 at 4:00pm at the Race Course Maidan where just nine months back the call for freedom was given by Bangalbandhu. 

But all that would come later.

President Yahaya Khan and PPP leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had arrived at Dhaka to talk about power transfer from March 15. There were meetings every day at the President's House set in the lush green oasis of Ramna Green in the center of the city. Bangabandhu arrived there in the morning. The talks went on all day and he would leave in the late afternoon with his entourage before speaking with the press. Bhutto had ensconced himself in the Hotel Intercontinental a stone's throw from the drama stage. 

But all the while, behind the sham dialogue, soldiers and weapons were being brought in on PIA flights from West Pakistan to get the next scene ready for butchering the Bangalis.

We heard hushed rumours from people who knew someone who worked with PIA at Tejgaon airport. He had seen many men arriving in unusual numbers at the airport late at night on PIA aircraft. These men had the look of professionals. They were not civilians even though they wore civvies. And they had large boxes and duffle bags with them, something civilians did not use that time. They were being carried off by military convoys into the cantonment.

There were talks of mass killings being planned by the Pakistanis, Bangali sensors detected something amiss. But we were sure Bangabandhu knew all about it. After all, Bangladesh was running on his directions after March 7. He was the leader. He would know. 

But we were also sure he would tell us what to do at the right moment. Even though students at Dhaka University had prepared to train in armed resistance with dummy rifles of the UOTC, we knew we did not have a chance against the manifold superior force of the Pakistani army, self-proclaimed to be the best fighting force of the world. 

Their khaki-clad figures with earthen coloured weapons, olive green helmets and ammunition boxes riding drab olive green Bedford trucks, their light machine guns ready and aimed at us, and the hardened looks in their alien eyes repelled us. But still, we knew we stood together against the "Khan Sena", the Khan soldiers who had come all the way from 1,000 miles away to kill us in many ways.

Every day the talks continued until March 25. In the evening, rumours spread in the city that president Yahya Khan had left Dhaka, that the "talks" had failed. Bhutto went back to his well-appointed suite at the Intercontinental.

Somehow the pesky ones who always were in the front of the mass rallies, the picketings, the street fights with the police, knew it was time.

My older brother burst in around 9pm as we sat around our dining table for the meal. He said all the teens of the neighbourhood had gathered at Farmgate to put up barricades because they feared the Pakistani army would come out of the cantonment that night to unleash its fury on the city. I have never been able to find out in all these years how they knew about it. 

But it was to be proven prophetic in a few hours.

We ran out, myself and my younger brother Mithu to see what was happening. What we saw was astounding. There were huge trees around Farmgate. These were hundreds of years old camphor trees, cinnamon trees and devdaru and palm. The local kids had cut down those huge trees in just a few minutes and put up a formidable barricade on the Farmgate crossing.

There were upturned push carts, empty oil barrels, tar barrels, anything to create an obstacle on the path of the marauding army.

A huge crowd had gathered there. We saw known faces, those who were always in the frontlines of the battles. Others we did not know. But all the faces wore a determined look. Their hardened jaws, their sweat soaked brows shone in the dim street lights. We were ready.

Mithu and I could not guess the enormity of the force we were up against. But we felt our bloods course through our veins, we felt light, as if we could run a hundred miles without stopping. We knew, at that tender age, that it was time for us.

We were soundly rebuked by our parents for slipping out at night without any notice. It was extremely irresponsible of me to take Mithu with me, who was a mere child. And also, we could have been shot. But there were no police or paramilitary forces there at the moment so the square was free for us. We had occupied it that evening.

My older brother Shahid was not so sure of the barricade holding off the Pakistani army. He used to study till late at night even after we went to bed. He had reported seeing a column of US made M24 Chaffee tanks two nights before proceeding through the Farmgate road dead at night. Our home was set right at the edge of Indira Road and the tanks rolled on about 300 metres from there. Their loud clanking tracks and revving Cadillac engines belching black diesel-tinged smoke had made him peek from behind the screen and he had counted at least 5 of them. Their low-slung olive drab profiles were almost indistinguishable in the low powered street lights. But he thought it ominous to see tanks on movement late at night. His premonition was to come true that night. 

The Pakistani army would come out of Dhaka Cantonment at around 11pm and the tanks would throw aside the puny barricade and charge through the city.

Several tanks would later be used to attack the student dorms at Dhaka University. But all these would come a few hours later.

For now we were tired and went to bed. Waiting for the next day.

I can't say what time it was but I felt my younger sister shaking me awake. As I came to my senses all I could hear were popping noises all around and occasional loud booms. I could not figure out what was happening. Then my sister told me, the Pakistani army had started its operation against us. The infamous "Operation Searchlight" as we would know its codename much later. 

As our home was right next to the street, abba had told us to keep low on the floor. The noise of the incessant bullets deafened us. Single sharp shots, rapid-bursts of automatic weapons, booms. Abba figured out, from the direction of the noises, that the main attacks were on Pilkhana and Rajarbagh police lines. He was right. The EPR stationed at Pilkhana and the East Pakistan Police headquarters at Rajarbagh were among the first to be attacked and that is where the first defences were made.

We saw the night sky illuminated by a very bright orange light floating slowly down over Rajarbagh. It was an illuminating parachute flare round to turn the night into day for the Pakistanis to see clearly and shoot to kill.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani top brass were enjoying the show from their well-manicured lawn at their headquarters at the Second Capital, now the MP hostels at Sangsad Bhaban. Tea and coffee was served while they monitored the operation sitting on their sofas and easy chairs. 

We would later learn from the book Witness to Surrender by Maj Siddik Salik of the ISPR, at around 11:00pm, "the local commander [Dacca] asked permission to advance...Everybody looked at his watch." The Operation Searchlight began "with great cunningness, surprise, deception and speed combined with shock action...The gates of hells had been cast open."

The operation began with the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The message came on the wireless: "BIG BIRD IN THE CAGE--."

Salik described the night in painful details: "...the city of Dacca was in the throes of a civil war. I watched the harrowing sight from the verandah for four hours. The prominent feature of this gory night was the flames shooting at the sky. At times, mournful clouds of smoke accompanied the blaze but soon they were overwhelmed by the flaming fire trying to lick at the stars. The light of the moon and the glow of the stars paled before this man-made furnace, The tallest columns of smoke and fire emerged from the university campus…"

We cowered in our two-room second-floor home all night. As each vehicle approached we thought our end was near. A jeep stopped in front and there was a burst of fire at our tall wood apple tree. The leaves made a strange susurrating noise. 

But among all these we heard slogans of "Joy Bangla" from the mouth of the next alleyway. Then there was a burst of gunfire and the voice went silent.

Dawn came. Abba and Amma were in their prayer mats. We didn't know our next move. But it was done by the army for us. A truck mounted megaphone blared the announcement that curfew had been declared. Everybody had to stay indoors. The voice also instructed us to take down the Bangladesh flag from all homes that had been fluttering since the beginning of the month. 

We knew that a time had ended and another time had begun. And we knew we were not kids anymore because we were in the middle of a war. It was time for us to grow up.

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