Notes from History |
Remembering the horrors of March 25, 1971
Rumours swept across Dhaka all day on March 25, 1971. Apparently the negotiations between the Awami League, on the one hand, and the Pakistani military junta of Yahya Khan and the People's Party, on the other, had stalled.
For their part, Bangabandhu and the rest of the Awami League leadership waited for a response from the regime to their latest constitutional proposals. No such response came, despite a promise by Lt. Gen. S.G.M.M. Peerzada, principal staff officer to President Yahya Khan, that the regime would get back to the Awami League.
It was the expectation of the Awami League that there would be another session of talks with the regime to formalize the deal putatively arrived at. Throughout the morning and till early afternoon, nothing was heard from the president's team.
As the minutes and then the hours ticked away, talk of imminent military action against the Awami League began to grow. At his residence in Dhanmondi, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, all astuteness and yet weighed down by worry, sensed danger in the air. Information he had been receiving from various sources appeared to confirm his worst suspicions, which was that the army was about to go into an offensive against him and his party.
He probably did not sense the sheer murderous scale of the operation on the way, but he did advise his party colleagues and workers, including Syed Nazrul Islam and Tajuddin Ahmed, to move out of Dhaka and into safety. For himself, despite entreaties from everyone around, he chose to stay at home and be arrested. As a constitutionally elected leader, it was not for him to run, though he saw the necessity of others going into hiding because they would be needed in the struggle that lay ahead. A few West Pakistani political leaders, sympathetic to the Awami League cause, came to say farewell to Mujib.
Throughout the city, students and the general body of citizens put up barricades across roads in a large number of localities, the aim being to prevent the army from entering the areas easily.
As dusk fell, General Yahya Khan, who as the records show had already instructed Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan, Commander, Eastern Command, and zonal martial law administrator, to move against the Bengali nationalists, left Dhaka by a secret Pakistan International Airlines flight for Karachi.
However, left behind were Lt. Gen. Abdul Hamid Khan, chief of staff of the army, Brigadier Abdur Rahman Siddiqi, chief of inter-services information, Roedad Khan, secretary, Ministry of Information, among others. Also left behind was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, and his team of negotiators.
Sometime after 11 pm, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight. In what was to be the initial step in the genocide of Bengalis, soldiers attacked the teachers' quarters and residential halls of Dhaka University with particular ferocity.
At Jagannath and Iqbal Halls, students were mown down mercilessly. Other students were forced to dig a large grave and once that was done, they too were shot. All the bodies were dumped into the grave, which was then bulldozed by the army.
Soldiers burst into the quarters of the philosopher Gobinda Chandra Dev and murdered him. They also killed the mathematics teacher Rafiqul Islam. And they left Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, a senior teacher in the English Department of Dhaka University, seriously wounded. Guhathakurta was to die a few days later at Dhaka Medical College.
Outside the campus, the soldiers razed the Kali Mandir, a Hindu temple inside the Race Course compound, to the ground. In similar fashion, they blew up the Central Shaheed Minar before the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. On the streets, common citizens were murdered at random. Rickshaw pullers died even as they slept on their three-wheelers. Early on March 26, the army dragged Commander Muazzam Hussain, a former accused in the Agartala conspiracy case, out of his residence and killed him on the street outside
Sometime after midnight, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared Bangladesh's independence. His call for freedom was passed through wireless to M.A. Hannan, a senior leader of the Awami League in Chittagong.
Around 1 am (it was already March 26 and the army's murderous operation went on in fury), jeep-loads of soldiers surrounded the Bengali leader's residence in Dhanmondi. He was taken into custody and driven to the steps of the under-construction National Assembly building in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar (now the Jatiyo Sangsad building). From there, an officer reported to Tikka Khan: "Big bird in the cage. Little birds have flown."
The officer enquired if the martial law administrator wished to have Mujib brought before him. Tikka replied contemptuously: "I don't want to see his face." Bangabandhu was driven off to Adamjee Cantonment College, where he would be a prisoner until he was flown to West Pakistan in early April.
As fires raged around Dhaka throughout the night between March 25 and 26, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto watched from his suite at the Hotel Intercontinental (now Sheraton). He saw the offices of The People, a radically Bengali nationalist newspaper, burning after an attack by the army. The military also set fire to the Ittefaq and Sangbad newspapers, leaving those inside dead or wounded.
At the university, as the killing of students went on, Professor Nurul Ula, an academic, recorded the scenes on his movie camera. The footage, gory and yet clearly indicative of everything that went on, was later to be transmitted to the rest of the world.
At the Intercontinental, the British journalist Simon Dring, who had avoided deportation by the army earlier by hiding in the kitchen of the hotel, observed conditions, and would, a couple of days later, file the first graphic details of the genocide launched by the Pakistan army against a population whose leader had been expected to be Pakistan's first elected head of government. The murder and mayhem went on till the morning of March 27, when the military authorities lifted the curfew for a few hours.