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    Volume 9 Issue 13| March 26, 2010|

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One Off

The Last Night and This Day- Thirty-nine Years Ago!

Aly Zaker

A pall of eerie silence pervaded the surroundings. The group that assembled in a room of the Science Annex building of the Dhaka University discovered all of a sudden that the musical soiree and the fiery speeches of the Shaheed Minar had stopped, who knows when? They were shaken. This was not usual! Things usually went on until the wee hours of the night and faded out as the night rolled into the following morning--a morning of newer hope, newer resolve and newer energy. The group decided to inquire as to what had happened, came out of the room, locked it and decided to go to the Iqbal hall (now Zahurul Huq hall).

The happenings of tonight warrants that the days beginning March 1,'71 be re-visited. This group of five were bonded by culture, language, politics, ideas and convictions ever since they had reached adolescence. They were fresh out of universities and had just begun to tread on their professional lives. But the very carefreeness, heart beat and the smell of the University days were still a part of their being. The history of the language movement, the cultural activities that emanated from that, Chayanaut, Pahela Boishakh, spirit of non-communalism, questioning the Pakistani dictates, above all exploring and discovering all that was Bengali, became a way of their life. They were given to left politics as was the trend those days. But they were not rabidly 'left'. The poverty, simplicity and the helplessness of the vast multitude of the ordinary Bengali people pained them. How they wished they could do something for them? Bangabondhu (the title conferred upon him by the people on 23rd of March 1969) Sheikh Mujib gave them an opportunity to realise that there was a compromise between the theory of the left and the reality of the land they lived in. That there could be some solution beyond the books and the reality written on the faces of the destitute that was typical of this land of ours. Foremost, there was no short cut to de-colonisation from the natural successors to the British, the nouveau colonialists called the Pakistanis. It was not only these few who were convinced and enthused by this extraordinary politics of Bangabondhu. Indeed the youth of the whole of East Bengal saw a beacon of hope in this. So, after the national election of Pakistan when General Yahya Khan, the Pakistani military dictator, refused to convene the national assembly and Bangabondhu called for peaceful non-cooperation movement, this group made up their mind. They concluded that there was no short cut to total independence. By then Sheikh Mujib had emerged as the undisputed leader of the millions of Bengalis. Come March 7, the group went to the Race Course ground to listen to their leader, eager to hear what he had to say. Hundreds of thousands of people congregated there. Sheikh Mujib, the leader who never believed in mincing words said in unequivocal terms that the struggle for freedom had ensued and that every one must be prepared to face up to the challenge. The message was loud and clear. The political atmosphere heated up in Dhaka. All public and private establishments ran on the directives of Bangabondhu. The group decided that it could not sit idle. It was time for action. So, one of them got in touch with an acquaintance who was known to be an expert in putting together explosives to make a hand bomb. On the 21st of March the bomb was delivered. One of them had owned a battered Volks Wagon Beetle and they set forth in that to try it out at the dead of night. An abandoned water tank that was used to barricade the road was found at the fuller road. The bomb was placed in it and blown. It made a huge sound and tore the steel plates of the tank. The group was happy. An ample weapon against the Pakistanis was found. There was no looking back. All of them had started planning on how to take on the Pakistan army if they were to attack the people of Bangladesh.

Back to the present: The trip by the battered Beetle to Iqbal Hall would take them via TSC and the Rokeya Hall. There was not a soul on the road except a few stray dogs. There was a huge rain tree that was felled near the gate of the Rokeya Hall to put a barricade against the possible invasion by the Pakistani army. They saw two army trucks carrying soldiers in front of Rokeya Hall. This was not a usual sight. There were no army movements since the 3rd of March in the city. They remained confined to the cantonment. So the young men were flabbergasted. Some of these army men were busy chopping the tree and removing pieces of its trunk to ensure unhindered passage of traffic. They were now really worried. On reaching Iqbal Hall they saw that there were still some students standing in small groups talking animatedly amongst themselves. They asked some of the students what was happening. There was apparently no directive given by their leaders. All they said was that they would resist the Pakistani army at all costs. Without any definite sense of direction from the citadel of the student leadership, the group decided to go to Bangabondhu's residence at road number thirty two of Dhanmondi. At 32, they saw that the main gate was ajar. They entered the house with much hesitation. After all, this was the home of the undisputed leader of the nation. There was only one doorman at the entrance to the living room downstairs. All he could say was that the army had decided to come down upon the people of Bangladesh. The leader had retired upstairs after a prolonged meeting with other senior leaders and that he had directed all to resist any attack by the Pakistani army. He had already declared independence through the EPR (now BDR) and Police wireless services that Bangladesh had nothing to do with Pakistan any more. Now we were an independent country and we had the freedom to strike back at the vestige of the colonial Pakistani occupation. This was a good enough directive coming from the highest authority and the group, immersed in their thoughts, returned to their respective homes. It must have been about eleven at night when one of the group of five, who lived close to Rajarbag Police Line, was having dinner at home with his family that it all started. In the beginning sounds of crack and boom and thuds of shelling were heard from a distance. There was a commotion that ensued on the main road in front of the Police Line. Everybody rushed to the main road. Some police men in plain clothes were there with antiquated 303 rifles in hand. They were urging the people to go back home because the Pakistan army were advancing in tanks and other armoured vehicles towards the EPR Lines in Peelkhana and Police lines in Rajarbag firing from the automatic weapons and heavy guns. The policemen were tense and nervous but not scared. In the pandemonium the young man forgot all about the hand bombs that they had made. Just as well, because there would be no scope for using those. What began within half an hour is what no one had seen ever before! None of the war pictures of those days like the Longest Day or the Guns of Navarone came anywhere near the reality of that night. Known later as 'Operation Searchlight', the soldiers had orders to fire upon any moving object on the city streets, dogs included. In matters of minutes the entire barrack of the Rajarbag Police line went up in flames. The fire was so strong that the people within the houses in the vicinity could not breathe because of the heat.

Known later as 'Operation Searchlight', the soldiers had orders to fire upon any moving
object on the city streets, dogs included. Source: Star Archives

Towards early morning there was a knock at the front door of the young man's home. The door was opened with caution. There were two bare bodied policemen with 303 rifles in hand. They said, “we have run out of ammunition, most of our comrades have laid down there lives. We have to withdraw. But we shall come back and fight the Pakistanis again. Please hide these rifles somewhere. Joy Bangla”. With these words the two of them seemed to have melted in the darkness of night. The Youngman had lost his words. Minutes seemed hours. Then it dawned on him that something had to be done with weapons. There was an abandoned well in the backyard of the house. He kneeled down by it and released the rifles there. He kept looking within the black empty hole now holding in its bosom two weapons of one of our first resistance against tyranny. The Youngman kept sitting there. His eyes welled up with tears. He cried like a child. And when his eyes began to dry, he resolved to leave home, go away from this enslaved city and come back to fight until the last vestige of the occupation forces was forced to leave. He did not notice that the East had become tinged with the celestial light of dawn. The rest is history.


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