MEHERPUR is nestled in the far northwest corner of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Truncated out of Krishanagar district in India, it bore the ignominious burden of being the smallest subdivision, one of the many perverse legacies of the partitioning plan of Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Having finished the job, a contrite Radcliffe left India in a hurry before August 14, 1947 lest he had to answer for the communal blood baths that followed, which he himself had anticipated.
History came full circle again after 24 years; even this small township of few thousands became part of the momentous events that were unfurling at Dacca. Unwittingly, it well could have been a purgatory awakening since Meherpur was just hundred miles away from the battlefield of Plassey, where Bengal not only lost its independence in 1757 but also paved the way for the beginning of the British Colonial Empire. Had it not been for the treachery of Nawab Serajuddowla's military commanders, the history of India and consequently that of the modern world would surely been scripted differently.
This time around in March 1971, East Pakistan, already christened as Bangladesh, was about to undo some of the aberrations of history.
Pakistan was an absurd stitching together of a country whose two disparate parts -- West and East Pakistan (euphemistically called wings to convey oneness) -- were not only thousand miles apart but also linguistically, culturally and ethnically even further removed. While so many independent countries with Muslim majority population existed, many of them geographically contiguous, representing variety of ethnicities, Pakistan was a British solution -- born out of political horse-trading -- of exiting India.
Against the deceit, intimidation and repression of the Pakistani regime that stretched over nearly three decades, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was tactfully preparing East Pakistan for independence through a non-violent non-cooperation movement; failing which, with an armed struggle.
March 7, 1971 was the tipping point.
It was a late spring afternoon bathed in bright sunshine. Procession after procession of hundreds of thousands of people kept converging at the Race Course (Suhrawardy Uddayan now) with banners floating like sails, chanting defiant slogans. Soon it became a sea of humanity. The Race Course was playing host to the most daring of all gambles -- the destiny of a nation.
There were whispers in the crowd that the Pakistan army may crack down; even an air- strike was not ruled out. I chose to stand on a sideline, across the TSC, ready to run if such an event were to take place.
The speeches had already started. The flag of Bangladesh, designed by the students, was raised on the podium amid thunderous applause. But all were waiting to hear Sheikh Mujib. Then came the thunderous voice: "Bhaiera amar" (my brothers). The crowd stood frozen.
In a spellbinding speech, laconic yet pithy, Sheikh Mujib, in his baritone voice and hallmark diction that made him close to the hearts of Bengalis, Sheikh Mujib gave the background of this historic crossroad. He recounted the litany of deceptions, exploitations and repression meted out to the people of Bangladesh by the ruling Pakistani junta whenever they stood up for their rights -- the story writ poignantly with the blood of countless many. Even after Awami League won the election in 1971, General Yahya was going by the urgings of Bhutto and postponed calling the Assembly. The date was set for March 25.
Sheikh Mujib roared: "When the people responded to the call for peaceful strikes, closed down factories and offices, spontaneously came out in the streets with the vow to continue their movement, they were countered with point blank shots fromwith the weapons bought by the sweat of their brow, presumably to save them from the external enemy! … General Yahya, you are the President of Pakistan, come and see how your troops have fired upon the innocent people, butchering them, the air still heavy with the wails of mothers." Yet, Bangladeshis were being blamed -- what a travesty of truth!
Sheikh Mujib called for transfer of power to the elected representatives, withdrawal of martial law and the return of troops to the barracks. I noted carefully -- not once did he use the term "East Pakistan."
Sheikh Mujib called for total shut down of Bangladesh for indefinite period. Government, semi-government offices, courts, including Supreme Court, were to remain closed. No taxes were to be paid. Employees had to be paid before the month was out.
Next were his directions for the future struggle. "Make each of your homes a fortress. You shall have to fight the enemy with whatever you have…. We shall starve them to defeat …our waters shall be their cemeteries…none can cow us down once we have learnt to lay down our lives for a just cause…… This Bengal is the home to all, we are brothers -- Muslims and Hindus. Its our sacred duty to take care of those who are not Bengalis…We have to live up to our ideals."
His final passionate call. Get ready to fight. "Ebarer shongram -- muktir shongram. Ebarer shongram -- shadhinotar shongram (this time, it's the fight for liberty, it's for independence)." Then his hand raised to the sky and gave one last clarion call: "Joy Bangla (victory to Bengal)." A million thunderous voices roared: "Joy Bangla."
The die was cast.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in my eyes, transformed from a brilliant strategist and politician to become the undisputed leader of the independent movement of Bangladesh, and was endearingly crowned as Bangabandhu, the Friend of Bengal. I was the SDO of Meherpur, the custodian of the powers of the central government of Pakistan, its pampered surrogate in a remote corner. That day, in the Race Course, Bangabandhu led me across the Rubicon. Like millions others I was drawn in to the vortex of the revolution. The freedom fighter in me was born.
Back to Meherpur from Dacca.
The news of the Pakistani army fanning out to cover the whole of Bangladesh was an ominous one. Sporadic encounters with the civilians, some being gunned down by the army, lent more credence to the belief that the Pakistani regime was hell bent to cow us down.
Recallinged the guidelines, couched in the common parlance of Bangbabdhu on March 7,. weWe startedwere to preparinge with whatever resources we could lay our hands on. As the SDO, I was in charge of the ansars and mujahids. Training camps were established and each one was given a rifle and a few rounds of ammunition. It was agreed in a series of meetings with the local MPs, Awami League politicians and student activists that, in case of an armed conflict, we would send two armed groups to defend Meherpur, one against any advancing force from Chuadanga and the other againstfrom any force from Kushtia.
On March 23, at Jhenaidah, I joined a meeting of friends working in the neighbouring districts, in which Mahbub (SDPO, Jhenaidah), Wali (SDO, Magura), Farid (SDO, RajbariGoalonda) and Kamal (SDO, Narail) were present. Ironically, on the Republic Day of Pakistan, we exchanged notes, reviewed with deep concern the dead-end the country was heading towards and agreed to work out own defensive strategies in our respective subdivisions in case of a military stand-off, and to keep in touch and coordinate our moves.
The control of the country had passed on to Bangabandhu, whose orders and instructions took on the force of law. Public offices, banks, utilities and even the private sector were taking daily instructions. The compliance with the call for non-violent non-cooperation was so complete that the province of East Pakistan ceased to exist. The students raised the Bangladeshi flag in my court building, lowering the Pakistani one -- I silently complimented them.
Modern history reverentially records Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King as the prophets of non-violent non-cooperation movement. But it is a fact that only once in recorded history a nation became free through such a movement, till brute forces were unleashed to silence their voices. And that was Bangladesh till March 25, 1971 under the leadership of its undisputed leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; Bangladesh was de facto independent.
However, we were convinced that there was a longer distance to traverse, and more blood spilled. The Pakistani army, which spread its net all over Bangladesh, was not going to return to the barracks without the pound of flesh they planned for. We knew that we were not trained nor equipped to fight against a professional army; but our dream, our spirits and our determination made up for that.
Being far removed from Dhaka, patchy information and rumours were all that we could get hold of. A sense of impending danger of immense proportion took gripping hold of us. The small town of Meherpur was on the edge on March 25, 1971, in a void. A waiting that needed to be over -- come what may.
Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, Bir Bikram, PhD, was a Sub-sector Commander, Sector 8 during the Liberation War. Presently, he is an Adviser to the Hon'ble Prime Minister.