SURRENDER AT RAMNA RACECOURSE : BREAK OF A NEW DAWN AFTER ENDLESS NIGHTMARES
ZIAUDDIN CHOUDHURY relives the first day of a free Bangladesh.
In April of 1971, exactly two weeks after the mayhem in Dhaka launched by the Pakistan Junta on the unarmed and innocent thousands of Dhaka residents, I came to Dhaka to attend a meeting. This was a weekly meeting of Sub-divisional officers convened by the Deputy Commissioner that was put on hold as normal business had completely been disrupted after March 25. Munshiganj, a subdivision that period, of which I was in charge, had been spared the wrath of Pakistan Army miraculously, at least up until that time. I had only heard of the atrocities and mindless brutality of the Pak forces in Dhaka and of random killing. However, what I was about to see would traumatise my psyche for days to come.
Munshiganj in those days was accessible by river only to and from Dhaka (for that matter, the rest of the country). As my government-provided motor launch approached the jetty at Pagla Ghat (anchor point), the sarong (motor launch operator) said the launch propeller was stuck in floating human bodies. In a sight that only belongs to horror movies, I witnessed the sarong and his assistant clear the route with poles pushing the floating human bodies. The whole Ghat was reeking with the smell of rotting bodies that were apparently dumped in the river by the marauding troops that had run havoc in the city and surrounding areas over the last few days. With great difficulty I controlled the urge to expel my innards and boarded the jeep waiting for me to go the meeting.
In the meeting I found my colleagues, fellow SDOs of all Dhaka subdivisions (five that time) except SDO of Narayanganj. I would learn from colleagues who were wearing a shell-shocked appearance that our colleague from Narayanganj was in army custody (he was released three months later). The Deputy Commissioner himself was terribly shaken (he himself had gone into hiding after the attack, but had resurfaced at the command of the Chief Secretary). In the meeting, which lasted only an hour, all we did was to thank the Almighty we were alive, and each recounted his part of the horrific experience. In my case I had been spared (until then) any army experience, but the stories that I heard would drive the worst thoughts in my mind. We left the meeting with dire thoughts of the news of a relentless revenge of an army that appeared to have run amuck we saw no prospect of an end to the nightmare. As I was leaving, a colleague who was senior to me in age, whispered to me, “This day will end, this suffering will end, because it is unjust, it is an unjust war against humanity.”
That day in April and the days that followed, even the staunchest believer of a free Bangladesh would call it crazy that the nightmare would end in another eight months. With the Pakistani forces extending their control through the length and breadth of the country and our much weaker resistance forces finally receding to the border, much of the country was resigned to a fate of a long time of repression. The alternative was to flee the country, which a large number did; but the great majority of us who remained within would witness more atrocities and random killings, although not in the mass scale that happened in March and April.
The first clue that the iron grip of the Pakistani Junta was beginning to slacken came toward the end of the monsoon season. I had moved to Manikganj as subdivisional officer after Munshiganj. Much of Manikganj is crisscrossed by rivers and canals making it possible for the resistance forces (Mukti Bahini) to operate in small water craft and launch attacks to police stations where the Army had kept small contingents to counter Mukti Bahini.
The Army had a special strategic interest in Manikganj since it lay on Dhaka-Aricha highway, the gateway to North Bengal. A lot of troop movement took place along the highway, and therefore it was necessary to stop any guerilla attack in the region. When the attacks both from river banks and from small boats increased in frequency and ferocity, the Army contingents stationed in the rural localities became more defensive and then offensive.
To prevent this battle of attrition, the Army decided to call back the forces from the Thanas to Manikganj town. But this retreat was not without some cost. The retreating forces faced attacks from river banks. In one particular incident near Shaturia, a whole platoon was eliminated while travelling in a motor launch. After the army left the areas vacated were essentially free as the local police hardly went after any Mukti Bahini. The Circle Officers of the subdivision who essentially represented the Thanas cheerfully informed me that they were virtually living in free areas.
By early October signs began to appear of further slackening of the iron grip when more reports of withdrawing of the troops from the hinterland of the neighbouring districts such as Tangail and Faridpur started to pour down to us in Manikganj. The Circle Officers of Manikganj, who had their ears very much on the ground because of their close interaction with Union Parishad officials, would inform me that that they heard from their sources that a war was impending with India. I had heard of this speculation since the Pak Army had launched their murderous operation on the soil. I did not give much credence to this rumour, but something else led me to take a decision to leave my station which would allow me to witness the final battle from Dhaka city and the unimaginable surrender of Pak Army.
After the army withdrew its platoons from the Thanas, they asked the police to replace the army job to chase away the Mukti Bahini guerillas (miscreants in Army terms). To ensure that the Police were doing their job, the Superintendent of Police of Dhaka, an expatriate from West Pakistan called Captain Sipra, was asked to move about the interior in a motor launch and inspect the Thanas. The new Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka, a civil servant repatriated from West Pakistan, asked me to accompany the police officer in his jaunts to the Thanas. This I found to be uncalled for as an SDO I was never supposed to be operating in a subordinate role to a Police Officer, be he the district police head. I declined. But the Deputy Commissioner kept on insisting, adding further that this was the wish of the Army bosses. I simply said no and informed him that I was proceeding on indefinite leave. He threatened to report me to higher authorities, but I left nonetheless.
In Dhaka I had a difficult time trying to avoid any contact with the authorities, and I literally became a fugitive living in friends’ homes away from the home of my parents. A month passed without any sign of the war that was rumoured to be forthcoming, while life in Dhaka became more difficult. In a city with a depleted population since the majority of the people who had left after the March/April mayhem never returned, even the days were as inactive as the nights. In fact the nights were sometimes more noisy as the Army would exchange fire with Mukti Bahini who would launch random attacks on the city from the fringes of Dhaka city. Life for the residents became more alarming as the Army and its civilian collaborators would randomly lift people from their homes on suspicion of aiding or harbouring members of the Mukti Bahini.
The seemingly unending wait for the great event — the much anticipated war — would finally come to an end. On December 3, the declaration of war from both India and Pakistan would lead us to a short two-week war that would finally lift Dhaka city and the rest of the country from the doom and gloom that descended on us on March 25. Even before the official declaration, the people of Dhaka knew that the war had started when they watched a spectacular dog fight between two jets flown by the Air Forces of the warring countries.
We knew the war had ended in one week after the Air power of the Pakistani forces was totally decimated by constant bombardment by the Indians. Even though the nights in Dhaka were torn with ear-shattering sounds of bombs and anti-aircraft guns and we slept on floors to avoid getting hit by stray bullets flying through windows, we were happy. We were happy because we believed that our miseries and our nightmares were soon coming to an end.
But like all good things in life the end that we expected did not materialise without passing some severely agonising days. The official news media, both print and audio-video, kept on repeating the official lie of Pakistan Army’s success in resisting the army and its resolve to keep firm its stranglehold on East Pakistan, although we were watching with our own eyes the Army’s decimation. Rumours fly when facts are scarce. Stories started to roll from street to street that the Pakistan Army had built a fortress around Dhaka to defend the garrison from advancing Indian Forces, and that there would be street battles if it was necessary. Again there was an exodus of people from the city like rats leaving a sinking ship.
The end could not have come in a happier way to us who remained in the city when we heard that a ceasefire had been agreed upon between the two forces. The decision followed a two-day campaign of leaflet dropping from the air by Indian Forces urging the Pakistani soldiers to surrender.
I came out of my hole when the news of Pakistan surrender was officially announced. It was early in the morning of December 16. I walked jubilantly in the company of my cousin to a neighbour’s house in Dhanmondi. The neighbour was a fairly senior civil servant who had taken leave of absence from his job during that turbulent week. He offered to drive us in his car to the Ramna Racecourse later in the day where the ceremonial surrender would take place, although we did not know the exact time.
The streets were mostly deserted when we took off later in our neighbour’s car, except for occasional assembly of some youths raising Joy Bangla slogan flags in hand. There were no military vehicles in sight, not to speak of any Army personnel. We passed Mirpur Road with nary a vehicle in sight. When we turned to Elephant Road with intent to go to Ramna Racecourse, we saw an individual wearing the trademark grey uniform of the dreaded Militia with a gun in hand up front. I was sitting in the back with my cousin in the front and our neighbour driving. Before I could shout the militia man fired at the car. Still today I cannot say how we avoided the bullet, but when he saw the militia Man our neighbour braked the car, made a quick about turn and sped fast. The militia man fired again but this time we were beyond his range. This was not to be the day for us, and we decided to go back home.
The famous surrender finally happened and we would later watch it on TV news and hear over the radio like the rest of the country. I could not watch it live, but we attempted and nearly lost our lives on the first day of our new nation. As I watched and heard over the radio I recalled the prophetic words of our colleague, a fellow SDO that time, “this day will end, this suffering will end, because it is unjust, it is an unjust war against humanity.”
As we celebrate this victory day this December, we pay our homage and respect to the hundreds of thousands who disappeared in March of 1971 and nine months thereafter for no reason other than that they were Bengalis, and they wanted to live free.
Ziauddin Choudhury is a former Civil Servant and retired staff member of the World Bank.