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Monday, September 1, 2008
OP-ED

Tribute to General Osmany

The freedom fighters fought under the command of Gen. Osmany.

THE culture of writing memoirs and narrating eyewitness accounts of the Liberation War is quite rich in our country; yet, I have developed only the habit of reading others' accounts rather then writing them. It pains me to see that very few have written about Bongobir General M.A.G. Osmany. Even those who enjoy the fruits of General Osmany's role do not remember him.

The name Colonel (later General) Osmany electrified all Bengali officers and former Pakistani troops, and invigorated the Bangladesh Liberation War's freedom fighters. Finding a Bengali officer who was in Rawalpindi but did not enjoy Colonel Osmany's hospitality was hard. For anyone in any form of distress, Colonel Osmany was always there. These days men like him are rare.

He had all the attributes of a successful leader: discipline, honesty, integrity, punctuality, selflessness, and simplicity. He cared for those under his command, handled crises well, made the right decisions, and was dependable, patriotic, loyal and selfless. He had no political ambitions beyond serving his country to the best of his ability.

On September 1, 1918, Bongobir M.A.G. Osmany was born in Dayamir of Sylhet district. He was educated in Assam and Sylhet and graduated from Aligarh Muslim University in India. Before completing his Masters, he was selected for the prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS) cadre. Instead, he joined the British Indian army as a commissioned officer in 1940 after training with the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun.

World War II had already begun when he arrived at the Burma front as a newly promoted major. After the Indian partition, he joined the Pakistani army, and then retired as a colonel on February 16, 1967. He entered politics in 1970 and was elected a Pakistan National Assembly member on Awami League's ticket.

I first met Colonel Osmany on April 9, 1971.We were at Sylhet town on the southern end of Keens Bridge over the Surma river. A fierce battle was raging between Pakistan's army and my company group of the 2 East Bengal Regiment which consisted of EPR (now BDR) members, police, Ansars, and local civilians.

Under cover of heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, the Pakistani army, with its infantry, attempted to cross the bridge and capture the Surma's southern bank. Every time, their assault failed. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Pakistan air force's jet fighters were also closely supporting its army. Bodies of wounded and dead fighters littered the Surma river's banks.

As a young captain with no battle experience, I tried to maintain the morale of my men by visiting the front-line troops. At one point, the enemy fired on my jeep, which fell into the river near Jalopar Mosque. No doubt, the Pakistan army possessed superior firepower and continued to pin us down.

On the way to the front line, I positioned myself on the roof of a half-constructed building near the bridge. This roof provided a better view to overlook and command the on-going battle. Amidst the confusing and deafening sounds, a thick voice suddenly spoke behind me: "Young man, what's happening?" as if the situation warranted some explanation from me.

I could never imagine that a visitor of small stature as Colonel Osmany (I had never seen him before) would have the guts and curiosity to be on the battlefield. He must have traveled a long way on foot to reach me. It was very dangerous. After a brief introduction, he quickly learned the battle situation and felt pity for my immature tactical disposition and inept handling.

I was sent there, from my battalion headquarters at Teliapara eighty miles away, to capture Sylhet town. My officers and I had assumed it was abandoned, or thinly held by the withdrawing Pakistan army. Not having any operational intelligence, I fought fruitlessly against a formidable adversary only to be violently repulsed. They were heavily entrenched around Salutikor airport, and with freshly reinforced troops, counter-attacked my position. By then, I had lost the euphoria of capturing my home district from the Pakistani army and establishing a free zone.

I had only negative answers to the queries of my commander-in-chief: replenishing the losses of arms and ammunitions, arranging burials, evacuation and medical support for the wounded, reinforcing manpower, communicating with headquarters, arranging to feed the troops, sustaining against the Pakistani onslaught, and preparing the next plan of action, if any. My earlier training at the School of Infantry and Tactics fell short of battle requirements.

Finding me at a puzzling loss, the C-in-C rescued me. He advised me to reorganise, break contact with the enemy, and withdraw to a better defensive position (he suggested the next position) after burying the dead fighters and collecting the wounded. He further cautioned me to not allow the Pakistan army to pursue my troops.

This plan was not easy to execute. Only one who has gone through a similar plight can understand my difficulty. Surprisingly, before departing, he praised my fighters for their bravery against a larger and superior force, and gave me a big hug of reassurance. In any case, we had executed the C-in-C's order to the best of our abilities.

We met next time at Khowai hospital in an Indian border town. General Osmany had come to see me after I was wounded at the Sherpur battle, a ferry site on the Sylhet-Moulvibazar road. He must have been following the battle situations of all the fronts and heard of my condition. Upon seeing the deplorable condition of the overburdened hospital and my poor medical treatment, he took me in his helicopter to the GB hospital in Agartala for better treatment.

These two small incidents are sufficient to understand what an excellent leader this soldier was. Yet, such incidents were not isolated occurrences but part of his daily activities.

Since his death on February 16, 1984, Bongobir Osmany Smrity Parishad has ventured to keep alive the name of this great son of the soil. The parishad organises two exercises each year on the dates of General Osmany's birth and death. These exercises take the form of seminars/discussion forums. The venue was dubbed the Osmany Milonayoton, thanks to the kindness of the Ministry of Works. These two days the hall is reserved for functions organised by Bongobir Osmany Smrity Parishad.

Apart from this hall dedication, does not this great man deserve more from his nation? Bongobir Osmany spent his life and donated all his possessions for his people's welfare. As per the army's existing practice, his bust photographs hang in the troops' recreation rooms of all infantry units, East Bengal regimental centres, and School of Infantry and Tactics. Why isn't this practice extended to all units of the army, or better yet, for the entire armed forces, since he commanded all services as the C-in-C?

An officer can be a general but all generals are not good leaders. General Osmany was such a leader and we were lucky to have had him as our C-in-C during the Liberation War and then in independent Bangladesh. No wonder that within nine months he was able to organise, plan, and execute the liberation of Bangladesh from a state of total disarray. His illustrious life shall be an eternal guide to provide us with courage and direction during the turmoil.

Major General Azizur Rahman, Bir Uttam, is a freedom fighter.

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