“Jai Bangla! Jai Hind!” It was the concluding sentence of 65-year-old Sujat Ali. The memories of the liberation war 50 years ago were still vivid in his mind.
The conversation with the former freedom fighter started after a felicitation programme at Asian Confluence in the city recently. Ali was more than eager to share his story.
Ali was a student of 14 years when he joined the war against West Pakistan to free his country from the fetters of the Pakistani army. He was among the 29 students of Bhatara High Secondary School who joined the liberation war following Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s call for freeing the country. The boy in his early teens became a soldier in the training camp in Mahendraganj and Tura in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills
“We did not think of anything else other than Bangabandhu’s fiery words. ‘We have to free our country’, was all that we could think about at that time,” said Ali who, along with 24 other mukti joddhas (freedom fighters), visited Shillong from May 9-13.
The Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 was the result of complete alienation of Bengalis in erstwhile East Pakistan and the constant domination of the West, both economically and culturally, over the populace on the other side.
The cyclone that struck in 1970 devastated the eastern part of the country, killing over 500,000 people. However, the government in the West cared less and refused to help the struggling population overcome the impact of the natural calamity. This was the tipping point for the majority Bengali population in East Pakistan and prompted them to take up arms against the mighty Pakistan government.
“We were growing up seeing the negligence of the government towards East Pakistan. So, when Bangabondhu called for a movement to free the country, we did not think twice,” remembered AKM Fazrul Hoque, who joined the liberation war at the age of 16.
Hoque ran away from home on April 3, 1971, and crossed over to India after three days of walking. He joined a training camp in north Bengal. It was an arduous task for teenagers like Hoque but nothing could deter them from fighting the war for justice. “My brother and I did not have food and had to work in the villages. We were determined to fight,” recollected Hoque, who was injured grievously during a confrontation with the Pakistani army in Tangail in present Bangladesh. He remembered how a grenade explosion killed a fellow fighter a few yards away from him.
Hoque paused for a while to show the marks of grenade splinters in his legs. Those reminded him about the tumultuous time that his country had gone through.
The former freedom fighter remembered how the Pakistan army attacked his village and burned down houses, including his. He recollected the torture that the Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan had to undergo.
The former mukti joddhas, or freedom fighters, had several stories to share. Their struggles and the journey towards a free Bangladesh were the topic of discussion at the programme organised by the Arts and Culture Department.
Ace photographer and a former mukti joddha Ahmed Husain, who was also present at the event, had narrated his story of the liberation war to Sunday Monitor in an earlier interview. Both Husain and his brother, Afzal Husain, were instrumental in helping the injured mukti joddhas and burying bodies of the martyrs in Shillong. Ahmed Husain had even crossed over to East Pakistan as a photographer and travelled to the war-torn areas with the mukti joddhas.
Journalist and author Haroon Habib, who led the delegation, recollected his university days when Mujibur Rahman’s speeches were encouraging thousands of youths to join the war. “I played a dual role during the liberation war. I joined as a mukti joddha and later thought that as a student of journalism, I needed to document the events and report them for the world to know. I started writing about the war in newspapers in India,” said the veteran journalist.
Jibon Kanai Das, who was in Bangladesh army, was 18 when he joined the liberation war. He was then a student of Chemistry at Dhaka University. He was an active participant in the people’s movement of 1969 and was determined to bring about a change. “We realised that we were living in disparity. The cyclone of 1970 showed how the government was neglecting East Pakistan. There was no food and people were living in utmost penury. But no help came from the other side of the country,” he recollected.
This year is significant not only for Bangladesh but for Meghalaya too. While the neighbouring country is celebrating 50 years of the liberation war, the northeastern state is remembering its 50-year journey as a state. While Bangladesh’s history of liberation is written in blood, the Indian state’s journey towards freedom was peaceful.
However, the connection that the Bangladeshi freedom fighters have with Meghalaya surpasses the golden jubilee celebrations. The northeastern state, especially the Garo Hills region, was one of the training centres for young fighters from the other side of the border. In fact, many youths, like Hoque, were trained by army personnel from Shillong.
“We have a deep connection with this place and we are grateful for the hospitality that the state government has shown,” said Hoque.
For Das, the visit to Meghalaya was a revelation. He was enamoured of the natural beauty of the place and the humility of the people here. “You can experience the natural abundance here. It was breath-taking,” he told Sunday Monitor about his visit to the state.
Frederick Roy Kharkongor, Commissioner and Secretary of Arts and Culture, said this was the beginning of a long-drawn goodwill programme with Bangladesh. Meghalaya has already planned to set up Tirot Sing Memorial in Dhaka. The Khasi freedom fighter was incarcerated in Dhaka jail where he died.
“Last September, on the request of the Indian High Commissioner, as part of AKAM & 50 years of Bangladesh Liberation War, we had shared a number of Meghalaya Cultural artifacts & Textiles to be displayed at Indian Cultural Centre, Dhaka. They were received formally at the Indo-Bangladesh border by a delegation led by Assistant High Commissioner of Sylhet,” Kharkongor informed.
He added that the state is awaiting details from the Indian High Commission for the location and date of transfer of the artistic works as a tribute to U Tirot Sing’s connection with Dhaka.
The state is also planning cultural exchanges and academic seminars. Chief Minister Conrad Sangma visited Bangladesh in 2018 to take forward trade relations with the country.
The cultural and economic exchanges with the neighbouring country will not only prove fruitful for Meghalaya but also for the entire nation. In fact, this will strengthen the friendship between the two nations that started with former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s steadfast decision to support Mujibur Rahman and the mukti joddhas that immensely helped in the birth of the nation.
~ Team Sunday Monitor
Also read: Bangladesh freedom fighters in city