The Birth of Our Nation — Ziaur Rahman

Earlier we posted articles by Shafiullah and Khaled Mosharraf. Over the fold is the article by Ziaur Rahman. This first appeared on the Dainik Bangla 26 March 1972, and was reprinted in Bichitra on 26 March 1974. Regardless of their actions in 1975 and afterwards, and our political views based on today’s vantage points, Zia-Khaled-Shafiullah were our heroes in 1971. Lest we forget.

Independence Day greetings.

(Acknowledgement: Arif bhai for the original article, Tacit for translating the Zia piece).

Right after the birth of Pakistan, when Mr. Jinnah announced in our historic Dhaka city that Urdu and only Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan, it felt as if Bengali nationalism became firmly fixed in my heart, and in the heart of all Bengalis. The contours of the Bengali nation took shape in us. The founder of the Pakistani state himself guaranteed the destruction of his unnatural creation – right here in Dhaka. Standing here in this historic city, Mr. Jinnah trampled on the birthright of our population. As a result, it is in Dhaka that his Pakistan was torn asunder. Dhaka had the last laugh on Mr. Jinnah and his followers. Dhaka was always a place of humanist values and free thought. It is appropriate that it acted as the font of our freedom. It now represents the hopes and aspirations of our long-repressed populace.

The people of Dhaka struggled heroically to free our beloved motherland. They resisted the invaders with bravery and courage. Thus the barbarian Pakistani military was forced to surrender right here at Dhaka. I stepped into Dhaka’s holy soil only a few days after the surrender of our enemies. My first thought was to offer my unconditional respect to the fighting people of Dhaka.

A journalist asked me to write something about those dreary days just a few weeks after the Pakistanis surrendered. I am a soldier. Writing is a gift from the Almighty. We soldiers do not naturally possess this gift. However, that historic moment was so epochal, that I had to set down my feelings.

The unnatural state of Pakistan was born with the partition of India. Our family went to Karachi right afterwards. There I matriculated in 1952 and joined the Pakistan Military Academy as an officer cadet. Ever since then, I worked for the armed forces in various capacities.

The insincere attitude held by Pakistanis towards us used to irk me since my school days. I knew they hated us. While at school, I listened to the discussion of many of my classmates who were merely parroting what their parents said. The youth of Pakistan were always taught to think of us Bengalis as inferior beings. These ideas were constantly drilled into their impressionable minds. It was not in my power to reply back all the time, but I used to do so whenever possible. I used to feel the desire to hit back against the mindset that gave birth to such thoughts. I used to feel the urge to rebel against the very idea of the Pakistani state that allowed such discrimination, and take up arms against the Pakistanis. This desire strengthened within me; waiting for the right place and the right time.

1952 lit the torch of movement: language movement. I was then a tenth-grade student at Karachi. Pakistani media, government, and military all united in criticizing Bengalis and our aspirations for our language. They called it Bengali nationalism and saw it as a conspiracy against the state of Pakistan. They wanted it to be crushed right then and there. This strengthened my belief that they wanted to keep Bengalis as subordinate to themselves forever.

The 1954 election saw Jukto Front crushing Muslim League. Bengalis felt optimistic about this victory. I was then a second-level cadet. We also became heartened at this victory. At Abbottabad, the Bengali cadets arranged a celebration for this victory. We felt that this was a victory for our nation, for our culture, and for our aspirations. Some Pakistani cadets started berating us and called us traitors. We protested and the discussion became heated. We decided to settle this matter through a round of boxing. I represented the Bengalis and a Pakistani cadet called Latif (now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ordinance Corp) came forward the Pakistanis. Latif swore he would teach me never again to undermine the unity of Pakistan. A big crowd assembled to see our fight. Latif and his supporters swore at us continuously. However, the fight did not last long. Latif hit the floor after just thirty seconds.

This event made a deep impression on me. Even the integrity of Bengali officers were questioned by the Pakistanis. Except for a couple of collaborators, all other Bengali officers were suspected and undermined. We were called Awami League’s agents. We were told that Awami League was India’s agent. They tried to teach us that the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was Pakistan’s biggest enemy.

Bengali officers suffered the consequences of this racism. We were never given the best postings. We were never sent abroad for extended training. They would call us cowards. They said we would never make good soldiers; that we did not have a martial history.

Then came the era of Ayub. Ayub Khan led a decade of deceitful dictatorial rule. This so-called decade of development saw an orchestrated attempt to belittle Bengali culture and nationalism. Of course, all these attempts were thwarted by our people. This decade also saw a resurgence in our cultural activities. Our media houses, intellectuals, and student bodies took the lead in this cultural resurgence. This resurgence prepared the way for our Liberation War. The embers of culture fuelled the fire of nationalism.

I was posted in Military Intelligence in 1963. Major General Nawajesh Ali Malik, then head of Military Intelligence, came to tour my area. During a discussion of the political and economic situation, he said that there should be no development of Bangladesh’s economy. When asked to state my views, I said that unless rapid development was made in the economy, there would be an administrative breakdown. He replied that if Bangladesh became economically self-sufficient, it would separate from Pakistan. This was the attitude of senior Pakistani officers, the men who were running the country, towards Bangladesh. They wanted to keep Bangladesh economically impoverished.

The 1965 India-Pakistan War was another turning-point. I was then Company Commander of one of the elite battalions of the Pakistani Army (which is now one of the elite units of the Bangladeshi Army). We fought in Bedian in the Khemkaran theatre. We got the second-highest number of gallantry awards in the entire Pakistani Army. My company, Alpha, was awarded as the best in the Battalion. We fought against the 17th Rajput and 19th Maratha Light Infantry, and 16th Punjab and 7th Light Cavalry. Our company fought heroically and got the best of them; we also displayed al courtesy towards those we defeated. During ceasefires, I met with Indian soldiers and officers. I thought they were extremely professional. These interactions would later become important when we fought on the battlefield as brothers against the invading Pakistanis.

Pakistanis used to think Bengalis did not make good soldiers. Khemkaran emphatically proved them wrong. We became much-envied in the Army. Throughout the war, there was never a single occasion when Bengali soldiers retreated in face of the Indians. Rather, it was often the Pakistanis who showed cowardice on the field of battle. Pakistani tanks were often outfought by quite inferior Indian tanks. The juxtaposition of inferior Pakistani performance and valorous Bengali conduct gave the Pakistanis a scare. Bengali pilots in the Pakistani Air Force also conducted themselves with aplomb. Bengalis became more assertive about the bravery of their soldiers. The name of East Bengal Regiment gained international recognition; a name that is still a matter of pride to all Bengalis.

As a result of all this, Pakistani Military Intelligence adopted a plan to decrease the number of Bengali personnel in the Pakistani armed forces. However, this plan did not stay secret. The 1965 war made us more confident in our own abilities. It made us believe that we could take on any other military in the world.

The next January I was appointed as an instructor at the Pakistani Military Academy. I said farewell to the battlefield and started my teaching career. I taught Pakistanis the tactics of war; tactics that they would one day use against my unarmed compatriots in an unjust war. I experienced the same attitude of discrimination at the Academy. Pakistanis used to mistreat Bengali cadets and exploit them at every opportunity. The Inter-services election board used to weed out the truly qualifying Bengali candidates: labeling them as being from political or poor families. I often used to feel rebellious at seeing this behavior. The Academy had an excellent library. I used to study there. There I delved deeply about the Sipahi Mutiny of 1857: a liberation war for India, even though the English treated it as a rebellion.

I used to have discussions with Pakistani military strategists. Their plan was to suppress and exploit Bengalis for a few more decades. However, I believed that the people of Bangladesh could not be kept down any longer. The Agartala Conspiracy trial was the biggest proof of this. This case united Bengali soldiers, sailors, and pilots, and put them in closer connection to the people of Bangladesh. Shrugging off the restrictions that Islamabad sought to impose on them, they united for the independence of our motherland. From then on, there was no doubt that the good of the people lay in armed struggle against Islamabad. We also started discussing this from back then.

I was transferred to Joydebpur in April, 1969. I was the Second-in-Command of Second Battalion, East Bengal Regiment. Lt. Col. Abdul Quaiyum, our Commanding Officer, was a Pakistani. At a dinner party in Mymensingh, he said in a very threatening manner that if the people of Bangladesh did not behave themselves, they would find out the true meaning of martial law. And this would entail a massive amount of bloodshed. Some civilians, including Mr. Moqammel, then DC of Mymensingh, were also present there. Lt. Col. Quaiyum’s threats surprised me. He had previously held a key post and had connections with the policy-setters in Islamabad. Later, I asked him several questions. His replies made it clear that he knew what he was talking about; there was already a military plan that was to be executed at the right time. This possibility terrified me. One day, I went to the headquarters of the 14th Division. GSO-1 (Intelligence) Lt. Col. Taj asked me several questions about some of our political leaders. When I asked him why this information was necessary, he replied that they were gathering details on all Bengali leaders, and that this information would be useful in the future.

This discussion made it clear that tough times were ahead. During September of that year, I went to West Germany for four months. Bangladesh experienced stormy political protests during this time. While in West Germany, I saw our military attaché, Col. Zulfiqar, talking with a technical attaché, a straightforward Pathan officer. They had a copy of the Daily Dawn in front of them that announced that Yahya Khan would hold elections in 1970. The Pathan officer said that Awami League would definitely win the election, and that would be the end of Pakistan. Col. Zulfiqar replied that Awami League may obtain a majority in Bangladesh, but it would not come to power in the centre; the other parties combined would beat them. He said he had special information regarding this matter.

I returned to Bangladesh. I was appointed to Chittagong on September, 1970. I became the Second-in-Command, Eighth Battalion, East Bengal Regiment. I was in Dhaka Cantonment during the election. Pakistani officers initially thought that victory would ultimately be theirs. They started looking depressed from the second day. The thought of democracy returning to the people terrified Pakistani senior officers, while the same prospect delighted us Bengali officers.

We were busy building up the Eighth Battalion. This was the youngest battalion in the Regiment and centered at Sholoshohor Bazaar. We were supposed to transfer to Pakistan on April 1971. We had already sent ahead an advance team of two hundred soldiers. At that time we only had three hundred old 303 rifles, four LMGs, and two three-inch mortars. We had very little ammunition and no anti-tank weapons or machineguns.

Things began to become more and more explosive by February. I found out that soldiers of the Third Commando Battalion had begun to divide into small teams and move into various Bihari areas of Chittagong. They were storing arms and ammunitions in these residences, and giving Bihari youth military training. These were clear signs of ominous things ahead of us.

Then came March 1st. The nation responded to the clarion call of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and started a massive non-cooperation program. Riots started from the next day. Biharis initiated the violence by attacking a peaceful procession. My NCOs came and reported to me that soldiers from 20th Baluch were putting on civilian dresses every evening and mysteriously disappearing; they would appear at late night. On inquiry, I found out that they were going to Bengali neighborhoods and attacking Bengalis. There were reports of stabbed Bengalis being admitted to hospitals.

At this point, Lt. Col. Janjua, my Commanding Officer, started keeping track of my movements. The fear that we would all be disarmed began to enter my mind. I tried to continue with my duties, but instances of murder of Bengalis and arson of Bengali property continued to increase. Col. (then Major) Shawkat asked me what steps we should take if they tried to disarm us. Captain Shamsher Mubin and Major Khalequzzaman told me they would not hesitate to lay down their lives for our country. Captain Oli Ahmed also used to keep I touch with me. JCOs and NCOs started coming to me in small groups and urged action. They feared otherwise, we, as a nation, would be relegated to a status of eternal slavery. I had my first meeting with Captain Oli Ahmed at around 4th March. We agreed that the time for armed conflict was coming nearer. We decided to act with caution and made plans accordingly.

Bangabandhu’s historic address on 7th March seemed like a green signal to us. We started making our plans in secrecy. The tension between Bengali and Pakistani soldiers began to rise to fever pitch. On 13th March, Bangabandhu started his negotiations with Yahya. We all hoped this would lead to a lessening of the tension. Unfortunately, Pakistanis took this opportunity to step up their military preparation. Fresh soldiers were being brought from Pakistan every day. Arms and ammunitions were being stored at various places. Senior Pakistani officers started visiting the various garrisons more regularly. The Navy’s strength was also beefed up at Chittagong.

On 17th March, Lt. Col. M. R. Chowdhury, Captain Oli Ahmed, Major Amin Ahmed, and I had a secret meeting at the stadium. We formulated a plan of combat and requested Lt. Col. Chowdhury to lead us. Two days later, EPR’s Captain (now Major) Rafiq came to my home. According to his request, we also include the EPR in our plans. The Pakistanis also started final preparations for their military plan. General Abdul Hamid Khan came to Chittagong on March 21st to finalize their plans. That night, during the dinner at East Bengal Regiment Center, I overheard him instructing Lt. Col. Fatmi, Commanding Officer of 20th Baluch, to carry on with the instructions quickly and quietly.

On 24th March, Brigadier Majumdar left for Dhaka. That evening, the Pakistani Army occupied the road to the port. They prepared to unload arms from the Swat, a ship. They clashed with local Bengalis a number of times; resulting in a more Bengali casualties. We mentally prepared ourselves for the beginning of hostilities at any time. That night, we were busy removing barricades from the road.

Then came the night of horror between 25th and 26th March. I was ordered at one in the night to go and report to General Ansari at the port by my Commanding Officer. He put a Navy and a Pakistani personnel to guard me. It was impossible for me to fulfill this order. I feared that General Ansari would kill me when I met him.

We started for the port. At the barricade at Agrabad, Major Khalequzzaman Chowdhury brought me a message from Captain Oli Ahmed. He told me that military action had started in Chittagong and the Cantonment. A large number of Bengalis had already been killed. I had to take a decision at that point. I decided to revolt then. I told him to go to Sholoshohor Bazaar and start arresting Pakistani officers. Oli Ahmed was to keep the battalion ready.

I told my Punjabi driver to turn back and luckily he listened to my order. At Sholoshohor Bazaar I picked up a rifle and arrested the two officers sent to guard me. I then took a jeep to my commanding officer’s quarters. As soon as he came out, still in his pajamas, I took him by the collar and arrested him. While bringing him back to the Battalion, I told Col. (then Major) Shawkat that we had revolted and he joined us.

Upon my return, all the Pakistani officers were confined to one room. I went to my office and tried to reach Col. Chowdhury and Major Rafiq but failed to do so. Then I called up the civilian telephone operator and told him to inform that Deputy Commissioner, Police Superintend, DIG, and Awami League leaders that the Eighth Battalion of the East Bengal Regiment had rebelled. We were going to fight for our independence. The operator happily agreed to my request.

Time was extremely valuable at that point. I called upon all the soldiers, JCOs, and officers, and told them what we were doing. They already knew what was going on. They cheerfully agreed to my formal order for the initiation of armed struggle. I outlined my military plan to them.

It was then 2:15 AM on the night of 26th March, 1971. This day that would be lovingly etched into the heart of all Bengalis forever. This day would never be forgotten. Never.