rampage of the Pakistan Army and the savage cruelty its rank
and file unleashed through the length and breadth of Bangladesh
in those harrowing nine months in 1971 can perhaps never be
captured well enough by words or photographs. Everyone who
lived through those traumatic times have memories engraved
in their minds that are indelible. Together, these sketches
form a myriad of experiences that constantly reminds us of
the painful birth of Bangladesh.
The killing of innocent civilians that
the Pakistan Army started on March 25 in Dhaka continued unabated
in most district headquarters and subdivisions in Bangladesh
through the rest of March and April. The killing, which went
by the label of "cleansing operation", also included
one Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), a Deputy Commissioner, a
Superintendent of Police, a Civil Surgeon and countless police
and other officers during the mad frenzy of the operation.
For some fortuitous reasons, the Munshiganj
sub-division of Dhaka (now a district) was spared the dreaded
"cleansing operation" initially, but not the rivers
surrounding it. As SDO of Munshiganj at the time, I would
watch with horror floating corpses in the Sitalakhya and Dhaleswari
rivers, which were daily dumped on the rivers by the perpetrators
of the "cleansing operation". My encounters with
these ghastly scenes mostly occurred when I had to navigate
the corpse-filled rivers to attend meetings in Dhaka. However,
it was not until May that I would have to witness an actual
A contingent of the Pakistan Army arrived
in Munshiganj in late May. It was a rainy day when the army
company led by a Major arrived in Munshiganj. I was away in
Dhaka attending a weekly meeting with the Deputy Commissioner
A.T.M. Shamsul Huq. In the meeting I was informed that the
army had reached Munshiganj and that I was wanted there. With
more than trepidation in my heart I rushed back to Munshiganj
in my motor launch to face a very deserted town. All shops
had closed their doors, and the shop keepers had gone into
hiding. In those days Munshiganj did not have any automobiles,
only rickshaws plied the streets. Those also had vanished
from the streets.
I walked to the police station, where
I was told an army Commander was holding court. Accompanying
him was the Superintendent of Police of Dhaka (Mr. E.A. Choudhury
who later became Inspector General of Police). The army Commander
introduced himself to me. He was Major Salam from the Frontier
Force Regiment--a tall, gaunt man of about 45 or so. With
glasses on, he had a deceptive appearance of a schoolteacher.
His second in command was a captain--Captain Afridi--probably
in his late twenties, with cold, piercing eyes set on a very
rugged and ruthless face.
Major Salam told me that his mission
in Munshiganj was restoration of "peace and normalcy",
and seeking out "miscreants". He asked that I go
with him in his "peace" initiatives to the interior,
starting the following day. I was glad that he did not put
me under arrest or make a summary end to my young life right
The target of the "peace"
initiative the following day was Serajdikhan, a neighbouring
thana, which, like any other thana in the sub-division, had
to be accessed by motor launch. On a cloudy morning we reached
Serajdikhan, and after alighting from the motor launch we
walked to the police station, which was already notified about
the army's visit. A very nervous officer-in-charge greeted
the army officers focusing all his attention on the Major
and the Captain who were followed by an army platoon. I saw
a small contingent of curious villagers at a distance, watching
the army. As soon as the army reached the police station,
the soldiers took positions around the building as though
they were about to defend an impending attack. With the army
poised at defending positions with guns pointed outward, the
small group of people ran helter- skelter away from the thana.
Major Salam told the police inspector
his objectives, "to restore peace and normalcy, and catch
miscreants". The Inspector said that he had no trouble
in his area, and that he knew of no miscreants. This obviously
did not satisfy Major Salam. He pointed at the automatic rifle
of Captain Afridi, and reminded a twice nervous inspector
that this gun had ended the lives of two dozen miscreants,
a few of whom were police officers. He asked the inspector
to provide names of miscreants who the army would hound out
to restore peace and normalcy. The Major expected some names
in the near future, at least before he left Munshiganj.
As the meeting was in progress in the
thana building, I saw a bearded young man stopped at the gate,
about 100 yards from the building, by the police guard on
duty. Apparently, the young man was trying to say something.
Major Salam witnessed the scene and asked his havildar to
fetch the poor man from the gate. When he was brought into
the building I realised from the way he looked and behaved
that the man was mentally unsound. When asked what he wanted,
he replied in unintelligible moans and grunts. The Major asked
that the man be strip-searched. A soldier did that and brought
out some coins, a dirty handkerchief and a small pen knife.
The pen knife proved to be the young man's undoing. "This
is a dangerous weapon," the Major declared, and ordered
that the young man be put under arrest. The hapless man was
hauled away and put in the locker.
Had this been the end of this story,
I would have walked today with a better feeling for the Major
and for myself. At the conclusion of the session with the
police inspector, the Major declared the mission to be over
for the day. I thought that the Major would leave behind the
crazy young man in the thana and let the police handle him.
Instead, the Major asked the Captain to take the prisoner
with him in the motor boat to Munshiganj. I feared that this
could mean that the young man would be the twentieth victim
of Captain Afridi's gun. I plucked up some courage, and suggested
to the Major that perhaps the man should be left behind with
the police since carrying a mad man in a boat might not be
a good idea. "In that case, we are not taking him with
us," the Major announced, and beckoned the havildar.
He leaned on one side and whispered in the havildar's ears.
The havildar nodded and walked away. He went inside the locker,
brought out the young man and escorted him to the back of
the building. A couple of minutes later, I heard two gun shots.
The havildar reappeared, saluted the Major and said, "Sir,
the job is done".
"Let's go," the Major declared
to his troops.
I did not have either the courage or
the mind to look back. I simply followed the Major and his
troops to the boat, trembling with the terrible knowledge
that I had personally witnessed a cruel senseless, killing--an
incident that epitomised the Pak army's brutality of 1971.
(The writer is a former civil servant
who currently works for an international organisation in the
(R) thedailystar.net 2005