“Ekhon jowbon jaar / juddhe jabar taar/ shrestro shomoy” (Whoever is young now for him is the best time to go to war), wrote Hassan Hafiz after the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. No one would debate that in 1971, participating in the war of liberation was top priority for the young generation, irrespective of whether he was a student or a farmer's son. However there were many who did not belong to the young generation but still attempted to fight in their own.
Mahbubul Alam, who was seventy-three in 1971 thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in the nation's struggle for independence. Alam was a professional soldier in the First World War, later joining the British Army (39 Bangali Paltan) and going to Mesopotamia (Iraq) where the British Army was fighting to regain the territories lost to the Turks at the Battle of Kuttul Amara. Bangali Paltan was the same regiment which our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam also joined, though he did not have to go beyond Karachi. He was a family friend of Mahbubul Alam and had close ties with his younger brother, Didarul Alam. When Kazi Nazrul Islam visited Chittagong in 1929, he spent a night with the Alam family at Fatehabad, a small village in Hathazari. Later, Alam narrated his experience as a young soldier, who had seen action in a far away place in his remarkable book Paltan Jiboner Smriti (Memories of the Paltan Life).
Not many people in Chittagong knew exactly what happened on the fateful night of March 26, 1971 in either Dhaka or Chittagong, but everybody had the eerie feeling that something terrible had taken place. By early morning, word spread that Bangabandhu had declared independence and Dhaka had been totally ravaged by the Pakistani Army. The morning news bulletin aired in some foreign radio channels like BBC and Akashvani (All India Radio), informing people that the Pakistani Army had cracked down on the people of Bangladesh and there was an apprehension that the Pakistani soldiers may have killed thousands of people in Dhaka the previous night.
Mahbubul Alam was our neighbour in Kazir Dewry, Chittagong, and had known us since we were children. His eldest child Begum Umratul Fazal (wife of writer Abul Fazal) was a couple of years younger than my father. Alam's youngest son Sazed was also a freedom fighter. After returning from the battlefield of Kuttul Amara, Alam entered the government service as a sub-registrar and later on retired as Inspector of Registration, while he also became a journalist and writer of repute. On retirement he started publishing a daily from Chittagong, called Dainik Zamana. On the morning of March 26, Mahbubul Alam came to our house and asked me if I knew anything as to what might have happened in Dhaka. I had no information except the news I had heard from BBC and told him that I would go immediately to find out from the Awami League office. In those days Awami League leaders used to sit in the Railway Guest House situated at the Station Road. I took out my old 'Humber' bike and drove to the Railway Guest House. I spoke to people roaming around aimlessly, who had no clue as to what was going on. They could only surmise that perhaps something had happened in the Chittagong Cantonment during the night.
That night, all hell broke loose in Chittagong when long-range guns from the PNS Babar and PNS Khyber opened fire indiscriminately over the city of Chittagong causing extensive damage throughout the city. The firing continued throughout the night. We tried to tune into any radio broadcast that we could find, but everything we heard only confused us more. Some radio channels reported that war had broken out in East Pakistan and thousands of innocent people had lost their lives. Around midnight Alam came to our house to know if there was anything new but unfortunately, I could not tell him anything different from what he already knew. I was amazed by his courage and interest in all the developments that were unfolding so quickly.
Chittagong city was occupied by the Pakistani Army by April 2. A sub-zonal martial law headquarter office was set up in the Chittagong Circuit House (Currently Zia Memorial Museum), which happened to be near our house. During the daytime ferocious-looking Pakistani soldiers would come out, loot local supply shops, terrorise the people and at night they would fire their weapons indiscriminately. By the end of the week our neighbourhood became practically deserted except for a few of us who stayed back in the hope that we would be able to protect our homes and property. Mahbubul Alam, like many others, sent his family away to Fatehabad. Later on as the situation aggravated further, his family moved away to Bhujpur in Fatickchari Thana, near the Indian border. The village of Bhujpur in the seventies was an inaccessible place and sometimes one had to spend the entire day using all kinds of conceivable transport to reach Bhujpur, just about thirty-five miles north east of Chittagong city.
After sending away his family Mahbubul Alam paid a visit to our residence, which had, by then, became a regular occurrence, especially in the evening when my father would sit down with the neighbours around a transistor radio and listen to different news broadcasts, especially Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. By the end of April, Chittagong city looked like a haunted city. At night one could only hear the barking of street dogs, the plying of military vehicles and the occasional firing of automatic weapons by the Pakistani soldiers, more to drive away their own nervousness than target anyone in particular.
The first hair-raising daring encounter of Mahbubul Alam with the Pakistani army happened towards the third week of April when he decided to pay a visit to the local sub-zonal martial law administrator in the Chittagong Circuit House. This was brave by any definition. He was around six feet tall and would always wear an ash-coloured kurta and a kishti tupi. Surprising everyone, even the Pakistani Army officers, he went up to the Circuit House and told the sentry that he wanted to meet the martial law administrator. The sentry, slightly dazed, took him to an officer who demanded to know who he was. Mahbubul Alam, in a very cool but stern voice said he was a retired soldier. He claimed that he had come to tell the person in charge that the crackdown on the people of Bangladesh by the Pakistani army was unjust and no Muslim should kill fellow Muslims or any innocent people and be part of an unjust war!! To the Pakistani officer this was, to some extent unbelievable, especially during a time when most of the people in the city had gone into hiding. The Pakistani had no time for such 'nonsense' and asked the sentry to throw out Alam from the room, which he obediently did. The sentry hurled vulgar abuses at Mahbubul Alam and did not forget to remind him that this time he was lucky that he did not put a bullet through his head. In the evening when he was narrating the daytime episode to us at our regular adda session all of us were amazed at his bravery. In a very low and mild voice he murmured and said 'I do not see Pakistan lasting long. They have killed innocent people and insulted old people like me.'
By late April army checkpoints were set up all over the city. People would be randomly stopped, checked, questioned and picked up to be taken away to be shot in the firing squads set in different parts of the city. Mahbubul Alam was stopped at one such check point in May and the soldiers wanted to check his shopping bag where he was carrying vegetables for his family staying in Fatehabad. He protested again, but only to be insulted. The young Baluch soldier pointed his menacing automatic gun at him. As usual Alam was cool, said that guns would not scare him, that he was a retired soldier and had experienced military action before the young soldier was even born. Noticing the courage of this young-old man the young Baluch perhaps became a bit confused and lowered his gun. That evening when he was sharing his experience with us he opined that perhaps Baluch soldiers were more humane than others in the Pakistan army. By the end of May the freedom fighters got more organised and a network was established amongst us where we could share lots of information. Every evening Mahbubul Alam would come to our house to listen to the gallant operations of freedom fighters in different parts of Chittagong and the country. Sometimes we would have something to share, and at other times we had no news. When we did not have any good news to share with him he would become depressed.
Once Mahbubul Alam disappeared for a few days. This worried us and the couple of people who stayed in his residence could not or would not give us any clue as to his whereabouts. He reappeared suddenly one evening and informed us that he had walked all the way to Bhujpur from the city to meet his family. Mahbubul Alam liked walking and would seldom ride a rickshaw or a bus. But walking all the way to Bhujpur in those dangerous days was something unbelievable and seemed more difficult than climbing Mt. Everest. Surprising all of us he said he wanted to cross over to India and join the Muktibahini. His family members reminded him that he was too old for that. We consoled him saying that we needed people like him to inspire our generation who stayed back in the country and was very much part of the Muktijuddo and he was very much part of the Muktibahini.
Mahbubul Alam died in 1981 at the age of eighty-three. Till his last days he believed that the future of Bangladesh lay in the hands of the young generation and one should not lose faith in them. They just need proper guidance and national leadership with vision. If one generation could lay down their lives for the freedom of the country another generation should be able to transform it into a nation that they would like to be proud of. Mahbubul Alam was a good soldier and a good soldier never quits fighting for the right cause.
Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University and currently teaches at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Dhaka
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