A Prisoner of Mukti Bahini

(This is Chapter 5 of my book titled, “Born for 71.”)

It was early evening when we reached Nabinagar. Disembarking from the launch, we started heading toward Bhramanbaria. I found two additional persons had joined our group. After walking a while, we reached a dimly lit small village grocery shop and stopped to buy some food. It was a typical village grocery shop; a single kerosene lantern’s feeble illumination hardly suffused the darkness surrounding us. The lone shopkeeper, a bald and thin middle aged man in a vest, appeared a little tensed by the presence of our small group. He closely inspected us and inquired about our identities, origin, and destination. Having satisfied himself more by our appearance than by our answers, he finally asked us what we wanted.

I was ravenous after the day’s ordeal. Each of us bought some brown sugar and flattened rice and started gulping down.

As we were eating, I noticed a small group of people—about five or six—approaching the shop. Startled, we all looked at the strangers. They were all dressed in normal village clothing. Then, I noticed a white pistol butt protruding from one of the stranger’s waist. Immediately, I became alert. Soon we realized that they were the Mukti Bahini—the freedom fighters. They wanted to know our identities, from where we were coming and our destinations. I found the ‘Dog Shooter’ becoming very agile. He ushered the newcomer’s into a corner of the small square and whispered something to them with frequent gestures at me. The members of the Mukti Bahini also appeared to be measuring me, and finally they approached me and again questioned me about my identity, destination, and purpose of travel. I explained to them that I was a student from Dhaka and that I had leftDhakato join the Mukti Bahini. They retreated into the corner; discussed something among themselves while we continued to eat. After a while one of them, apparently the leader of the group with the pistol, approached me. He told me politely that they were also going to Bhramanbaria and I should accompany them. They also asked the Dog Shooter to do the same. Thereafter, I bid farewell to the other companions and started following the new group.

After walking for sometime in near darkness through uneven muddy rural roads, we reached the bank of a river where a speedboat was anchored. After we all boarded the speedboat, I realized that the speedboat did not have an engine, instead there were two oars and my new companions started to paddle toward what appeared to be a large steamer anchored in the middle of the river. One of my new companions told me that it was one of the ferries from the Goalonda ghat and they had commandeered it from there. Presently, we reached the ferry and boarded it. Once inside the ferry I found it was very large and manned by only a few people. My new companions became busy with other things and I was left alone—almost alone—in the deck; the irritating ‘Dog Shooter’ was also near me. Finding his opportunity, he started to narrate, in a muffled voice, my impending misfortune. He seemed to immensely enjoy tormenting other persons. I gave him a “drop-dead” stare and turned toward the dark river in an effort to ignore him, while he continued to gloat obscenities at me. It also appeared that he was unable to harm me now that I was in the proximity of the Mukti Bahini.

After sometime our hosts invited us to supper. The flattened rice and brown sugar eaten earlier had only sufficed to provoke my hunger. The menu was rice and chicken curry and I never felt such longing for a decent meal in my life before. The chicken was cooked with liberal use of hot chilies and after nearly starving the whole day, the hot chicken curry with freshly cooked steaming rice was a heavenly delight. I ate with my heart’s content. This was a meal that I was not likely to forget.

After supper, I was offered a bunk in one of the crew cabins. Each of these cabins had four beds, two on either side of the room, one on top of the other. I took the lower bed on one side while a member of the Mukti Bahini took the other bed across me. He was carrying a .303 Rifle. I noticed that he removed the bolt from the rifle before going to sleep. Feeling very tired and exhausted, I was sleeping in no time.

I woke up just before sunrise and found my roommate had already woken up and left the cabin leaving the door partly open. Feeling completely refreshed, I opened the half-open cabin door and stepped into the deck; the fresh morning breeze gently greeting me. I stood holding the rails facing the river and beyond. It was immediately before sunrise; the sun was just emerging from the horizon, its golden rays gradually melting the darkness; the murky and shapeless riverbanks of the night were now slowly becoming distinct.

The steamer’s engine roared to life and we started to move toward Bhramanbaria. In the early morning light I could clearly see the banks of the rather narrow river. Houses, mostly thatched and a few with tin roofs; fields, both empty and cultivated; and an assortment of trees and various types of foliage were visible. I did not see many people, maybe it was too early and they were still sleeping. The ferry slowly headed toward its destination and the insistent roar of the powerful engines blanketed most matutinal sound from us. In about 45 minutes we reached a river port. By now, the sun had fully risen and everything was clearly visible. The river port we reached had many anchored boats, but our ferry appeared to be the lone powered craft in the port.

After the engine stopped and the ferry anchored, the leader of the Mukti Bahini approached and informed the two of us that they were leaving and someone else will come to fetch us. I also noticed that two armed persons in khaki uniforms were already positioned at the landing, apparently guarding the ferry including the two of us. The Mukti Bahini left us. The ‘Dog Shooter’ and I remained abroad the ferry. Seeing his opportunity, the dog-shooter resumed his habitual pestering while I tried my best to ignore him.

I looked around the surrounding areas. It was a medium sized river port. The river here took a sharp turn creating a triangular bay where the port was situated. Some distance from the edges of the river was a flood embankment, apparently to protect the paddy fields during periodic monsoon flooding. It seemed that the embankment also doubled as a road as I saw some people on it. There were a few bamboo structures by the river bank, which seemed from the distance to be tea-stalls or small grocery shops. There was a lone brick structure. Some rural huts, a mixture of tin and straw roofs surrounded by various trees were also visible some distance from the embankment. The typical busy port activities were missing. It appeared that the port had recently been abandoned.


Vintage Sub-Machine Carbine (SMC)

After about an hour, I saw three persons coming toward the ferry. The first person, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, was dressed in white: in shorts and short sleeve shirts, and was followed by another two persons in Khaki uniforms. The all-white leader was carrying a WWII vintage Submachine Carbine (SMC or more commonly Stan Gun) while the khaki clad persons were carrying .303 rifles. They stopped at the landing and gestured at us to come down. Both of us came down from the ferry and faced the leader dressed in white. Having visually examining both of us, he poked at one of my trousers pocket and sarcastically exclaimed, “I hope these are not wireless sets!” I had leftDhakain a pair of yellow bellbottom trousers, a white shirt with fine red stripes, black shoes, and black socks. Unfortunately, the lower part of my worn-out shoe had given in halfway during the journey and in order to save my socks from being spoiled, I had removed them and kept them in my trousers pockets, which made the trousers pockets bulge. I explained the mystery of the humping pockets to the white leader. He informed us that the Mukti Bahini had recently captured a spy carrying a wireless set. He turned his attention to the Dog Shooter. After listening to his explanations with some interest, he directed us to follow him.

We started following him. He lead the way with his SMC dangling from the shoulders while two of us followed him, and in turn being followed by the two khaki clad sentries with their rifles carelessly pointing at us. It appeared that the two of us were some kind of prisoners. Soon we reached a thatched hut some distance from the embankment and one of the sentries unlocked a door. The white-shirt told us that we have to wait in the room and would be summoned later. The door was again locked from the outside and one of the khaki-man stood as a sentry.

As soon as the two of us were alone in the room, the Dog Shooter started his chronicle of impending misfortune befalling me shortly. This time I did not ignore him. I turned toward him, looked straight in the eyes, and asked him sarcastically why he was also locked up with me. With all the contempt I could muster, I told him to keep his mouth shut. He seemed taken aback by my aggressive outburst. Meanwhile, I had run out of cigarettes so I asked the sentry through the window if I could buy some cigarettes. He called someone nearby and I passed some money through the window. After a while, the person returned with a packet of Star cigarettes. I promptly opened the packet and lit one. I was not used to this brand, it was rather harsh and pungent, but given the circumstances, it was quite satisfactory. By now, the Dog Shooter appeared a little demoralized and kept quite.

Around 11:00 a.m., I saw the man in the white-shirt again coming toward us followed by a sentry. When the door was unlocked and we came out of the hut, he informed us that the Captain Shahib was waiting for us up ahead. As we reached the embankment cum road, we found a number of people standing about 500 yards from us on the embankment. As we gradually approached the group, I could discern a number of people standing in a near semicircle centering a person in olive green uniform. The person at the center was of medium height and built, I guessed he was about 28-30. His face was becoming distinct as we were approaching him and I found he looked oddly familiar. When we were quite near, I was almost certain that I had seen him before but I could not recollect exactly where. As we stopped, he turned his head toward us. First, he looked at me and then the dog shooter; then suddenly he looked at me again—his gaze intensifying with wrinkles forming in the forehead. He stepped toward me and inquired, “Are you not Zaman’s brother?” Immediately I also recognized him, his name was Mahbub and he was a neighbor in Dinajpur. He was also my brother’s classmate and his younger brother was my friend. However, I was not aware that he had joined the army. He did look like an army officer. He was wearing olive colored short sleeve shirts, shorts, cap, and a jungle boot of the same color. A pistol was hanging in a brown leather holster by his waist. I nodded eagerly and replied, “Aren’t you Mahbub Bhai.” He agreed. Immediately, I felt like been relieved of a heavy burden I was carrying. I cannot express the ineffable feeling–a mixture of relief, delight, hope, joy, and retribution, in various proportions. Even though I did not show, I was getting worried being a prisoner. The allegation of the Dog Shooter had made me anxious because I did no know anybody that could have vouched for my innocence and without anybody to vouch for me it was very likely that I would have ended up in a jail until my identity was confirmed. Now it was a stroke of good fortune that I knew the very person that appeared to be the leader of this group of Mukti Bahini. I was terrifically delighted, relieved, and happy.

Capt. Mahbub[1] asked me what I was doing in Bhramanbaria. I told him that I came to join the Mukti Bahini. He dismissed me immediately with a gesture of his hand. With extreme confidence, he added, “It’s not needed. Go back. We are quite capable of fighting the Pakistani barbarians and we will soon drive them out of the country.” I was, however, adamant and started justifying and pleading with him. I told him that I was determined and I was not going back. After some more persuasion, he gave up and told me that he was going to the town and later he would send me a transport to join him. Then he turned to the Dog Shooter. As he was about to question the Dog Shooter, I interrupted. I was almost in tears as I narrated Capt. Mahbub how the Dog Shooter had treated me and about his accusation that I was a spy. The captain was visibly annoyed and started harshly questioning the Dog Shooter for identity. The Dog Shooter, a little nervous by the rank and stature of my new acquaintance, started to fumble. Capt. Mahbub cut him short and ordered the white-shirt to take him to lockup and investigate his story. I never met the dog-shooter again. Before leaving with his entourage, Capt. Mahbub instructed the white-shirt to take care of me and that he would send a transport later to pick me up.

Now that I was not a spy and having being instructed by his boss to take care of me, the white-shirt became very obsequious. He was almost my buddy. He took me to an old building by the side of the ghat, the same building I saw from the ferry. He told me that the name of the river port was Gupon Ghat, a major river port in these parts. The old building having only a medium sized room was his headquarters. He introduced himself as the local Ansar Commander. He ordered some breakfast for me, which was soon served and consisted of paratha, fried eggs, and vegetable curry. I gulped down the delicious breakfast though it was quite late for breakfast; it was more like a combination of breakfast and lunch. The river cruise and the fresh morning air had whipped my appetite. The freshly cooked food was very tasty. After breakfast a large glass of sour milk topped with, at least, two inches thick layer of fresh butter was served. I had never tasted such a delicious drink. It was rich and creamy with mild sour and sweet taste with a pleasant butter-like fragrance. Contended after the heavy and filling breakfast, I lit a cigarette–not forgetting to offer one to my host—the Ansar Commander, which he gladly accepted. After smoking the cigarette, I inspected his SMC while he enthusiastically explained the mechanism and operation of the contraption. I had never touched a SMC before but as he explained, I quickly understood the operating principle of the device. The magazine held 18 9mm caliber rounds. The automatic operation was achieved by the opposite thrust of each exploding cartridge, which cocked the weapon for the following round. It had a safety catch, which actually locked the spring in a fixed position and stopped the hammer from striking the percussion cap of the cartridge.

After inspecting the SMC, I turned my attention to the row of rifles leaned against one of the walls. There must have been at least 50 to 60 rifles in the room. I picked up a rifle and inspected it. I was intimately familiar with bolt-action rifles. All the rifles in the room were .303 bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifles of WWII vintage. Our police forces have been using these rifles since the partition ofIndia. I of course never had the opportunity to inspect these rifles closely. The rifles were unloaded. After sometime, as my curiosity was satisfied, I replaced the rifle in its former resting place.

Meanwhile, the Ansar Commander offered me a tour of the river port’s defenses, which I eagerly accepted. He shouldered his SMC and we stepped out of the room and started walking along the river bank.

Some of the defensive installations were visible from the building itself. The defenses consisted of bunkers with tops reinforced with logs and earth. Some of the bunkers were open topped. I recognized a few machine guns. Some of the weapons were aimed at the sky and the Ansar Commander explained that these were for anti-aircraft defense. I had a quick flash of jets strafing and firing rockets I saw at Narsingdi. It took about half an hour to complete the inspection and I felt much secured immured in such a well-defended place. Little did I then know that these defenses would prove thoroughly inadequate when faced against large caliber weapons of the Pakistanis. Moreover, Bhramanbaria would be abandoned without a fight—apparently on tactical considerations.

We came back to the building and rested for a while. A jeep came around late afternoon to take me to Bhramanbaria town. I said goodbye to the Ansar Commander, thanked him for his hospitality, and boarded the jeep. The jeep sped toward Bhramanbaria town.

After going through various dusty roads and lanes of Bhramanbaria, we reached the headquarters of Capt. Mahbub. He was in a meeting with some local civilians. After I entered the room he introduced me to the group; I came to know that they were the local Chatra League leaders. I still remember two names, Mahbub and Humayun. Mahbub appeared to be the leader of the group. Capt. Mahbub told me that these gentlemen will provide me shelter for a few days. A busload of Mukti Bahini recruits will be heading for the training camps in a few days and I had to remain as their guest until then. I exchanged parting greeting with Capt. Mahbub and left with these two new acquaintances.

When we reached the house of Mr. Mahbub, the Chatra League leader, it was already dark. After supper, we visited a house in the town belonging to the Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO).  I have forgotten what we had discussed with the SDPO but I distinctly remember that he had a .22 revolver. A revolver in those days was a prized possession and we eagerly handled and inspected his revolver. The SDPO told us that the revolver had a range of over one mile! Because I was very familiar with .22 rifles, I knew that the statement was incorrect. Had the weapon been a .22 rifle, I would have generally accepted his statement. The revolver had only a 3 or 4-inch barrel and the maximum effective range of that revolver could not have exceeded 50 meters. Considered it to be impolite to contradict the SDPO in his own house, I kept quite and simply nodded.

[1] Capt. Mahbub, a 1st East Bengal Officer died on 22 November 1971 while participating in the Aatgram operation.

Journey to Join Mukti Bahini

This is from Chapter-4 of my book, “Born for 71,” describing the journey to join the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters against the Pakistani Army) in 1971. 

On the morning of 3 April, I went out around 9:30 a.m. and after moving around aimlessly for a few hours, returned home when everybody was at lunch, I informed them that thePakistan army had found a list of names from Iqbal Hall and I believed my name also was in the list. I added that for my safety it was necessary for me to leaveDhaka immediately; otherwise, the army might pick me up anytime. This news scared all my peace-loving family members. I did not, of course, forget to offer a solution. I announced my decision to join the Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters), and asked for some money for the journey. Everybody was so scared after my adumbration that nobody objected to my plan. My brother gave me Rupees 115: a Rupees 100 note, which I hid under my socks; and Rupees fifteen in small change, which I kept in my hip pocket. My brother also wanted to give me a small piece of gold. He had a small gold bar and he proceeded to cut a small piece out of it. Not finding any suitable instrument other than a beetle-nut cutter belonging to my eldest sister, he struggled for a while to cut the gold bar with an instrument that was clearly not up to the task. Meanwhile, I was also getting impatient. Therefore, I told them not to bother about the gold. We quickly completed our parting ceremonies; my sisters were in tears, and my brother was also lugubrious but gave his best effort to hide it.  I hurriedly left home fearing exposure of my deception. Fortunately, my brother-in-law was not at the house at that time.

Hoping to get a companion, I went to my friend at the Circuit House at Paribagh. My friend has a peculiar habit; he habitually animated his limbs in various gestures and signs in a very characteristic manner while speaking.  When I told him that I was on my way to join the Mukti Bahini and invited him to accompany me, both his voice and animation deserted him; he contorted his face, as if, trying to decipher my language; his eyes widened and the color of his face turned crimson; he quickly extended his arms as though trying to push an abhorrent object away from him; while the expression of his face continued to change. Finally finding his voice and animation, simultaneously shaking his head and animating his hands in various ways like a dancer, with a quivering voice he suggested that I must have turned into a lunatic. Moving his arms in various postures and gestures he tried to express the ferocity and barbarity of the Pakistanis and declared that it was quite impossible to fight them. He urged me to go home and stop being an insane.

Surprised, disappointed, and angry, I left him.

Next to the Circuit House was the Paribagh bus stand. I hopped into a double-decker bus bound for Gulistan. My plan was to catch another bus from Gulistan to Demra, from Demra to Narshingdi, and finally try to find a passage to Bhramanbaria as I knew from the radio broadcasts that it was still under the control of Bangali resistance forces. Fortunately, about a year back, I had accompanied a friend on a trip to Narshingdi and I knew that Narshingdi was on the route to Bhramanbaria. I had never ventured beyond Narshingdi; however I was confident of finding a passage to Bhramanbaria from Narshingdi.

The bus conductor was a Bihari; rudely he inquired about my destination. I told him and gave him the fare, which was accepted with rudeness. After 25th March, we the Bangalis became the lower caste ofDhaka. Most Biharis misbehaved whenever they interacted with us. Even some of my Bihari friends did not hesitate to boost their higher pedigree either by their attitude or behavior. A sudden loud explosion jolted us, making us jump from our seats in apprehension. We were greatly relieved to discover that one of the tires of the bus had burst, stopping it near the General Post Office, adjacent to the Stadium. The haughty conductor informed us that the bus would go no further. We disembarked and started walking toward Gulistan bus stand. From Gulistan bus stand I boarded a bus for Demra.

When the bus started for Demra, I turned my attention to the fellow passengers of the bus. Nothing was unusual, all appeared to be average citizens with worried and apprehensive expressions. We were all looking through the windows and trying to reconnoiter the surrounding areas as the bus lazily maneuvered through the narrow but sparsely trafficked streets. Even though the Pakistani administration had tried to efface all traces of carnage, the signs of destruction were still evident. People spoke in whispers inside the bus and it felt like in the company of many corpses devoid of humanity.

Suddenly, the bus stopped a mile short of Demra throwing the passengers into a nervous quandary—trying to find an explanation for the abrupt stoppage. Soon we came to know that the Pakistani Army had surrounded Demra Ghat and was inspecting all vehicles and checking the identities of the passengers. They were arresting anyone that failed to provide satisfactory explanations or if they suspected anyone.

Panicked, the bus passengers hurriedly disembarked from the bus. I followed a group that I came to know (in the bus) was heading for Narshingdi. There were about five persons in our group and we trekked cross-country–through the paddy fields– toward the Dhaka-Narshingdi road which lay across the river. We found some country boats and crossed the river by paying a small fare to the boatman. After crossing the river we had to walk through the paddy fields for another 15-20 minutes until we reached the Dhaka-Narshingdi highway. Fortunately, we found a couple of Baby Taxis (three wheelers) on the road. We bargained with the drivers, agreed on a fare, and subsequently the overloaded Baby Taxi labored toward Narshingdi with the five of us; two sitting on either sides of the driver.

When we reached the outskirts of the town, we saw two Pakistan Air Force F-86 Saber Jets screamed over our heads, heading in the direction of Narshingdi town. Terrified by the jets, the Baby Taxi driver screeched the vehicle to a dead stop, almost throwing us from it. We quickly scampered and took shelter behind some trees by the side of the road. We could now clearly see the plane as it circled a few times over the town and then started strafing and firing rockets; the load explosions petrifying us in awe. I had never seen jets strafe and fire rockets before—it was a terrifying sight.

After about ten minutes, having finished strafing and circling the town, the jets again screamed overhead on its way toDhaka. Even though we could not directly see the conflagration from our location, we could clearly see column of swelling black smoke sprouting from multiple locations; indicating the destruction the jets had caused. We debated for a while whether to enter the town or wait where we were due to apprehensions that the jets might be back for a rerun. Our courage returned after an hour and we entered the town.

Entering the town, we witnessed the destruction caused by the jets. Many building were burning and people were trying to salvage whatever they could from the burning houses. We did not see any injured because they probably were already shifted to the hospital. We, however saw many people leaving the town in panic. In short, the town was in total chaos.

We reached the launch ghat (terminal) but unfortunately all river crafts, including country boats, had deserted the ghat. Therefore, we had nothing to do other then wait for a launch to arrive. It was already 3:00 p.m. and since I did not eat anything but the paltry breakfast, I was very hungry. Unfortunately, we could not find any food in the vicinity. After waiting for an hour in constant apprehension of the jets, a launch finally arrived. It was likely that the launch driver was not aware of the strafing. We quickly boarded the launch and the launch similarly left the ghat in haste.

While I wanted to go to Bhramanbaria, I discover that the launch’s destination was Nabinagar. Since I had never been to these parts of the country, I had no idea where Nabinagar was. I found out from one of the fellow Baby Taxi passengers that his destination was also Bhramanbaria and that Nabinagar was only ten miles from Bhramanbaria. He assured me that I could easily walk that distance. He also introduced me to two other Baby Taxi passengers also going to Bhramanbaria. As the four of us were heading for the same destination, a kind of comradeship soon formed and we started chatting in the relative safety of the wide limpid river.

Half an hour after the launch had started and as I was enjoying the peaceful late afternoon river breeze on the deck, a person rudely interrupted my solitude. “Jasus, you are a Jasus,” he shouted angrily at me. I was perplexed. Neither did I know the man shouting at me nor had I any clue about what he meant by “Jasus.” I was also irritated at his shouting at me.  “Who are you?” I snapped back, “What are you shouting about?”

The man affronting me was at least double my age; well built, and in comparison I looked really small. It seemed that my response had further infuriated him and now he came almost chasing at me. I held my ground, spread my legs for better balance, clenched my fists and became ready to defend myself. Reaching very close to me he stopped and in a voice full of venom hissed, “You are a ‘Jasus’, you are a Spy!” He accused me of being a Pakistani spy!

I was now dumbfounded. Why should anybody mistake me for a Pakistani spy? I offered my identity and wanted to know his. His reply was incredulous—he identified himself as a Dog Shooter of the Bengal Regiment! A Dog Shooter! What was that? The qualification of Bengal Regiment, to my dismay, seemed respectable enough to the small crowd that had already assembled around us. Encouraged by the crowd’s acquiescence, he was about to tie me up and it seemed that he was looking for something suitable for that purpose. Fortunately, my Baby Taxi companions came to my rescue. They told him that I was traveling with them and they will not allow him to harm me or tie me up. “As we are heading for Bhramanbaria, proper authorities would decide his fate when we reach there,” they declared. The ‘Dog Shooter’ was visibly annoyed at the resistance by my new companions. But I guess I looked harmless enough to the small crowd surrounding us. The ‘Dog Shooter’, visibly displeased and irritated, continued to grumble at not having the opportunity of teaching me a lesson—a bloody spy that I was. Fortunately, he refrained from displaying an immediate desire to harm me.

The sun had gone down behind the horizon, but his rays still rested upon the passengers of the launch in the river, our temporary refuge. The effulgence of the dying light on the blue-green water made the water appear glowing. Clouds of red and white and purple wafted like a glory upon the sky; the last of the flocking birds heading for the safety of their nests; the bats embarking on their nocturnal quest; the beauty of the last radiance gradually fading into a blanket of engulfing darkness; the brilliance fading and gradually the surroundings turning into an amorphous nothingness of mystery and gloom while I stood on the deck of the launch; dark premonitions invading my thoughts.