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     Volume 4 Issue 15 | October 2, 2004 |

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Slice of Life

Of Courage and Integrity

Mustafa Zaman

The nation pays tribute to the war hero after his death at Dhaka Cantonment.

It is not every day that we are able to refresh our memories about the heroes of our liberation war, and it is even more rare to get a chance to know someone who belonged to a section other than the educated urban middle class. Subedar Abdul Wahab, like most of the mainstream freedom fighters, was a man with his roots in rural Bengal. He was one of those men who won the war for their nation. After his death few months back, the Liberation War Museum planned a commemoration programme in the month of August. "We failed to do so in the face of the natural disaster that kept visiting us," says Mafidul Haque, one of the members of the Board of Trustees the institution.

Subedar Wahab was a man who will be remembered for his resilience and love of his motherland. His contribution earned him an honorary captainhood. In a commemoration ceremony, this valiant freedom fighter was remembered by his fellow fighters who revere him not only for his courage and leadership but also for the human qualities he possessed.

On the rain-drenched Friday, September 23, 2004, at the open air auditorium of the Liberation War Museum, the stage was set for the attending audience to listen to the tales of the man who had set an example in combating the Pakistan army as well as in war and personal ethics. For his contribution to the Liberation War, Abdul Wahab earned the official commendation of Bir Bikram and was declared an Honorary Captain of the Bangladesh Army. However, he is also one of the less talked about heroes of the war of '71. It is this fact that the organisers wanted to bring to the fore.

Subedar Wahab was well known for being a responsible soldier as well as for his readiness to defend the motherland. Colonel Shafiat Jamil, who was the Commander in Chief of the 4th Bengal Regiment stationed in Brahmanbaria in March, 1971, remembered in his memoir of war that a jawan put it to him outright by saying: "You know what is going on, and we too understand the situation. If you fail to give your decision at the right moment, you will never find us, we will abandon you taking our arms with us." Wahab belonged to the same clump of people who shared this feeling, and were responsible for winning the nine-month-long war. Wahab was one of those Junior Commission and Non-commission army personnel who intiated the mutiny that followed the Pakistan army crackdown on March 25, 1971.

March was a decisive month in the history of Bangladesh as well as for Wahab. His wife was to give birth to their third daughter. On the 24th, Wahab, who used to live in the Comilla cantonment with his family, checked his wife out of the CMH, although doctors informed him that she had only four to five more days left for delivery. Wahab knew that his family would not be safe in the cantonment as soon as the Bangali officers and the soldiers turned mutinous. It was on March 27 that he sent his wife along with two of their daughters off to her father's house disguised in tattered clothes. Wahab's younger brother escorted them out of the cantonment and they first took refuge in a relative's house at a nearby village. It is from there that they walked to their destination, which was a far off village. While on their route, they narrowly escaped death in the hands of the Pakistan army.

Wahab, by then, was consumed in the brewing situation. A series of operations thereafter soon made him a hero among the Muktijoddhas. His exploits circulated among his people like folk tales.

The Liberation War Museum arranged for a commemoration programme to highlight the fact that it is a man like Wahab with his unparalleled contribution remains, to this days, an underrated figure. Although he became a legend of sorts during the war, in the discourses of the urban middle class heroes of his ilk mostly remained unheard of. To them, the battles were won by faceless rural populace, or eminent public and military figures. Those who addressed the occasion made it a point that the unsung heroes of the war find their place in history. They stressed that the heroes were not the high-ranking officers alone but also those who, like Wahab, led platoons to play havoc in the enemy line.

The porch of the museum, which is usually used as the open-air auditorium, served not only as the multipurpose space for the stage and the audience's seats on September 23, but also as a display area. At the centre was the "field map" that was used to describe the battles Wahab took part as a leader of his platoon. The field map was a three dimensional reconstruction of the army map of an area that includes Kashba, Saldanadi and Company-ganj, places where decisive battles were won, battles Wahab played a major role in winning.

Wahab was master at carrying out ambush attacks. "His guerilla warfare was based on practical knowledge, rather than learnt theories," stressed Maj Gen (Retd) Amin Ahmed Chowdhury (Bir Bikram).

The first freedom fighter who addressed the occasion was Shahadat Chowdhury, who is well-known as the editor of the defunct government-owned weekly Bichitra and now as the man at the helm of "Shaptahik 2000". He observed that the war of '71 was a people's war and was fought by a vast majority of the country." "Battles had always been dubbed as Khaled Musharraf's or Shafiat Jamil's battles. In reality they were fought by the root-level heroes and leaders like Wahab," said Chowdhury.

Bir Bikram Wahab (second from left) on a visit to Saldanadi where numerous battles were fought

Chowdhury also remembers the occasion when he met the man for the first time. Wahab was in lungi and squalid under-shirt. "He was a man of small build, the weapon he was carrying looked more prominent. He was a simple man, it was his intelligence and courage that made him the legendary fighter he became," remembers Chowdhury. "There are battles that became known as Wahab's war," he added during his address.

Maj Kamrul Hasan Bhuiyan, who also fought the war alongside Wahab, described two major battles led by Wahab. In both the occasions, it was Wahab who went out in disguise as a farmer to reiki the enemy line. In one of the battles, Wahab and his 24 jawans were to intercept a progressing Pak army convoy travelling from Comilla to Sylhet. A curfew was on and after three day's journey, Wahab's men were tired. They had come all the way from Devipur, India. The ambush was to take place at Shalghar. It was in the middle of the night, 12'o clock to be precise. At the first sight of the headlights of the trucks in the army convoy, Wahab asked his men to take position. "He asked them not to take position beforehand, as he knew they were tired and might fall asleep and even lose their morale on that dark, dreadful night," Khan explained. Before the arrival of the convoy, Wahab had decided on a plan of a four-minute long assault and he had kept them huddled together in one place to boost their morale.

Wahab's strategies were flawlessly designed to overpower the redoubtable Pakistani army. Since the beginning of the war, there was a declaration of 50,000-Taka award by the Pakistan army on Wahab's head. He was to be produced dead or alive. Wahab did unimaginable damage to the occupation army. They needed him to stop.

Comilla (now Chandpur, Brahmanbaria and Comilla) had been terrorised by a man named Bokhary, a captain of the Pak army. And it was a co-ordinated ambush on the advancing Pak army that Wahab masterminded, which, in the end, put a stop to the ongoing massacre. For his crimes, Bokhary had become known as "butcher". The encounter with the butcher gives us a clear scenario of the Muktibahini's progress. The Pakistan army officers were plying through the river Shaldah on a speedboat. It was in the month of May that the army was out to strengthen their position in the area along the river by reinforcing the far off outposts. Wahab knew that if he confronted them while they were carrying firepower to Jhikura, a riverside outpost, he would never win. Instead, he ambushed them while they were returning from the place where they took all the ammunition in the morning to pad up their presence. The encounter caught the enemy off guard and killed Bokhary and other high-ranking officers.

Brig Abdul Matin, while addressing the audience, highlighted a different aspect of Wahab's intelligence. "It often turned out that the sitrp (situation report) that we used to send to the Indian army intelligence were incorrect as far as numbers of casualties were concerned. But, when Wahab returned from a battle and prepared one, his figures were exact, never needing any amendment," assured Matin.

Yet, the most endearingly remembered Wahab is the human Wahab, one who forbade his jawans to touch any properties left behind by the people who fled the villages. He did not even allow his men of the Charlie or C division to catch the fish of the ponds of those families to nourish themselves.

"It was only gura machh that was served in Wahab's platoon most of the time. Even while collecting taxes from the traders, he was a man of principle. His superiors knew that he could be trusted," recalls Shahadat Chowdhury.

Maj Gen (Retd) Amin Ahmed Chowdhury emphasised the only qualities of Wahab from which, he contended, the new generation of Bangladeshis has much to learn -- "It is his honesty and integrity."

Wahab was born on March 15, 1927, in a humble abode of a schoolteacher, at the village of Maricha, Comilla. His father, until the day he died, regretted not having a tin-roofed house so that the people who came to visit the place of his famous son would not be disappointed. Wahab could only build the house his father dreamed of in 1997, only when he retired and received a one-time payment of Tk. 20,000 as his pension money.

He had joined the army in 1948, and had, in the course of his life, never deviated from his duty to his country and its people. There is a book that retraces the battles he fought in '71. Written by Lt Col Nurunnabi (Bir Bikram), it is not the only source of information. The oral history that his co-fighters presented, too, were a refresher course on the life of another valiant hero of this nation. The Liberation War Museum will keep the field map in place for a few more weeks to let the school-going children, a generation that really needs this stimulation, know about Wahab, the legendary freedom fighter.


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