Lest we forget...

March 25 — a watershed
By Akhtar Payami, Dawn, March 25, 2008

DHAKA: March 25, 1971. The incessant roar of gunfire dominated the midnight hour. Petrified men, women and children huddled together in their homes not knowing what the future held for them. Only the previous day they had witnessed the hoisting of a new national flag. Pakistan’s star and crescent ensign had not been unfurled as before.

That had led to a confrontation between the security forces and the ‘miscreants’ agitating for the independence of Bangladesh. What happened on that fateful night became part of our disjointed history. It was target killing of another kind. If you were a Bengali, or looked like one, you faced certain death.

We didn’t know about that until the next morning. I was then living in an apartment in a multi-ethnic, middle-class locality of Dhaka. For years we had lived in amity with our neighbours sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. But feelings were changing. Friendships were giving way to animosity. Suspicion and distrust soured relationships.

When the curfew was lifted for a few hours in the morning of March 26, I stepped out of my apartment to shop for some food for the family. Suddenly I was stopped by a car that screeched to a halt besides me. The occupants asked me brusquely where I was going. When I told them why I was out on the street at a time when most preferred the safety of their homes, they offered to take me to the market which was not far and insisted that I accompany them. I realised that all was not well and they were looking for easy targets.

I then began talking to them in highly Persianised Urdu to establish my ethnic identity. I was wearing a kurta and pyjama that was and still remains the attire of Muslim Bengalis. By then the urban population had discarded the lungi which previously distinguished the natives from the migrants.

After driving a short distance, my ‘benefactors’ realised that this was a case of mistaken identity. They lost interest in including me in their wild killing spree. Hurriedly, they dropped me by the roadside saying they had an urgent chore and therefore could not take me to the market. I thanked my stars.

We never came to know how many people were killed on that terrible night. Later we learnt that among the unfortunate victims were leading intellectuals, writers, professors, artists, poets and exceptionally bright professionals. Among those innocent people were Prof Guha, Prof Thakur Das and Munier Choudhry. They were patriots working tirelessly for the improvement of their homeland. The list of potential victims had been meticulously prepared with the help of the leaders and activists of some newly formed organisations called Al Shams and Al Badr.

Though such allegations were refuted vociferously by the government, it was generally believed that there was a great deal of truth in the rumours that were circulating. The bodies of the slain were later discovered scattered in the vicinity of Mohammadpur, a housing colony which was founded by Field Marshal Ayub Khan for the rehabilitation of Muslims uprooted from India.

The massacre of March 25 backfired. The public anger at the killing of Bengali intellectuals exposed the minority Urdu-speaking population to the vendetta that was inevitable. They were isolated and thereafter lived in perpetual fear that instilled in them a ghetto mentality they could never shed. For years they had chased illusions and false images while claiming a sham superiority in number and intellect that simply did not exist.

Without attempting to assimilate themselves into the local population, the Urdu speakers trumpeted their links with West Pakistan while repudiating the language and culture of the Bengalis whose political aspirations they contemptuously rejected.

Hence in 1971, when the liberation struggle reached a decisive stage, the Urdu speakers vehemently supported the army action. When the Bengali resistance managed to cut off supply of essential food to the cantonment areas, the Urdu speakers stepped in to provide the security agencies with all necessary facilities. Had they not done so, the Pakistan Army would have faced certain death.

March 25 marks a watershed in our chequered history. The following day, furious Bengalis assembled to announced the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign state. The proclamation of independence was written on a scrap of paper torn from an exercise book which was read out in an open place at a meeting of top Awami League leaders. Thenceforth March 26 came to be observed by Bangladesh as its official independence day.

Today when our leaders proudly speak of Pakistan having survived for sixty years, they fail to mention that the Pakistan we have today is not the country that was born in 1947. The politicians who followed the Quaid failed to understand the psyche of the people of the eastern wing. The dynamics of political power, economic resources, and language and culture eluded our leadership. This schism existed even at the local level between the refugees from India and the indigenous population.

India had faced a similar problem vis-à-vis the uprooted people from Sindh and Punjab. But they were quickly assimilated in the areas where they settled and the crisis was overcome thanks to the country’s democratic structures. This process was never initiated in East Pakistan.

It is a legacy of this failure that several hundred thousand men and women continue to languish today in the so-called Geneva camps scattered all over Bangladesh. They suffer on account of the sins of their ancestors.


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