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Mainstream, VOL L, No 1, December 24, 2011 (Annual 2011)

Memories of Bangladesh Liberation War

Tuesday 27 December 2011, by Barun Das Gupta


The Beginning...

The Bangladesh liberation war started in the night of March 25/26, 1971. I was working as a reporter for Patriot at Gauhati (Guwahati was still not the spelling). On March 30 or April 1, I got instructions from my Delhi office to go immediately to ’some place close to the Indo-Bangla border’ and report what was happening. I decided to go to Karimganj. A journalist friend of mine, Sachin Barooah, also joined in.

We flew to Silchar where another local journalist, Shantanu Ghosh, joined us. The Calcutta newspapers at the time were daily reporting on the ’spectacular successes’ of the Mukti Bahini against the Pakistani Army. Reading those reports, one got the impression that Bangladesh was going to be liberated in a matter of days. But we soon discovered that it was a misleading picture.

There is an Army Cantonment at Masimpur on the outskirts of Silchar town. There, the Army officers were very cooperative and communicating. They put us in touch with the reality. The war was not going to end soon, they explained. It would continue for months—maybe even more than a year. The Liberation Army could be compared to the Maquis formed by the French Resistance in German-occupied France in the early days of the Second World War. With the help of a large map, they briefed us about the actual situation in Bangladesh.

Next, I went to the border town of Karimganj and pitched my tent there. Hundreds of panicky people were daily crossing the border into Karimganj. It was learnt from them that the Pak Army was nowhere near the border; it was at Sylhet. Through the border post at Sela I used to cross the border for news hunting. The police officers on the other side were quite decent but there was very little hard news about what was going on deep in the country.

We were staying at a hotel, which was also the shelter of many Mukti Baihini fighters. Every morning they would leave to carry out their mission, requesting us to keep the door of our hotel room open. And every morning on waking up we would find that the two of us were in bed but about 20 to 22 people were sleeping on the floor. Wihout our being aware of it they had come back at the dead of the night.

One day, a BSF officer, Captain Samuel, with whom we had grown friendly, asked us whether we were getting ’good’ news. Not much, we said. In a conspiratorial whisper, he told us to go early next morning to a certain tea garden about 30-35 miles from Karimganj, and ’see things’. What was there to see?—we asked. ’Why should I tell you everything? Go and find out.’ Then with a wink he said: ’Don’t ever tell anyone I have tipped you to go there.’

Next morning, we hired a taxi and reached the tea garden. We paid off the taxi at the gate and entered the garden. After walking some distance, we noticed there was a BSF camp on the top of a hillock from where someone was watching us through a binocular. We walked up the hillock. They were not pleased to see us. They asked us who we were and why we had come there. We told them we were journalists. The tension became all the more visible on their faces. ”Are you East Pakistani reporters or Indian?” We told them we were Indian and showed our press accreditation cards. They seemed slightly at ease but wanted to know why we had turned up there at that hour.

We smelt something was going on. The garden was right on the border. Soon we saw a flurry of activity was going on below. We quickly came down and saw that several Army trucks had pulled up right on the border and big tins of petrol and diesel and quantities of automatic weapons were being unloaded, carried a few steps on the other side of the border and being loaded on to trucks of the Mukti Bahini.

A Major was overseeing the operation. On learning my identity as Patriot corresondent he gave a sheepish smile and said: ”Actually these are their weapons which we had seized. As we don’t need these, we are handing these back to them.” But the very next moment he gave the game away. ”I hope you will be patriotic enough not to report it.”

We were eye-witnesses to the delivery of the first consignment of Indian arms to the Mukti Bahini through the Assam sector. As patriotic Indians, we, of course, did not report it. India’s physical involvement in the Bangladesh liberation war had, indeed, begun.

... And the End

DACCA and the rest of Bangladesh, except Sylhet, fell to the Indian Army on December 16, 1971, but Sylhet held out for one more day and fell on December 17. On December 18th early morning, we set out by car from Gauhati for Sylhet. ’We’ included Congress leaders Sarat Sinha (who became the Chief Minister of Assam the very next month), Girin Choudhury, Shasanka Shekhar Lahiri and two journalists-Manik Chakravarty of the PTI and myself. Apurba, Sarat Babu’s son, took the wheel.

We passed through the Tamabil border post of Meghalaya. After proceeding a little, we found the road had been dug up or damaged at many places by the Mukti Bahini to prevent the Pak Army from approaching the area which was the Bahini’s bastion. Apurba negotiated the potholed road skilfully. Most villages were deserted. Bridges had been blown up and rickety wood-and-bamboo bridges had taken their place. Very slowly our car crossed these bridges. In some rivulets the water was so shallow that the car could wade through it.

Quite often we came across fields where sharp bamboo stakes had been driven into the soil at an acute angle, obviously to impede the movement of the Mukhi Bahini or the Indian Army. The villlages looked deserted. It was around noon that we drove into Sylhet which looked like a ghost town.

There was no food, no power and no light. We went straight to the house of Purnendu Sen Gupta who was a Congress Member of the Assam Assembly before partition. He knew Sarat Sinha and Girin Ghoudhury well. The entire frontage of Purnendu Babu’s house had cracked diagonally across as a result of Indian mortar fire. As the sun went down, the entire town was engulfed in pitch darkness. Our host, Purnendu Babu, did a miracle. He arranged rice, dal and curry for all of us.

Next morning we walked about the town. We visited the area where Mukti Bahini commander, Captain Osman, had his house. Movement had to be on foot. There vehicle—not even cycle-rickshaws. No policeman could be seen anywhere. At one place I saw something very strange. Right in front of a one-storeyed school building two 500 pound bombs had been dropped. They had made two small ponds. But the school building was standing intact.

Local leaders of the Awami League and Mukti Bahini men came to see us in large numbers. They expressed their gratitude for the help India had rendered in liberating their country from the ’Khan Sena’ (Pakistani Army). Next day we returned to Gauhati.

I went back to Sylhet exactly a week later, this time with a busload of Assam MLAs of all parties. The town had returned to normalcy. The familiar traffic policeman was back on his podium. The huge balls of tangled wire had been removed and the roads cleared. The post office and the telegraph office had opened. I sent an obliging young man to the post office with a press telegram for my paper. I gave him my press bearing authority card and some money, telling him if they won’t accept the card, he should send a paid telegram. The young man came back with the receipt and gave me back both the money and the card. ”No, the card is not valid here. But your telegram has been sent, free of charge,” he said. Those were the days of euphoria just after the liberation

The Indian Army officers took us to a few bunkers used by the Pakistani soldiers. In some of them we found torn saris and undergarments of women. There were some condoms also. ”Look, this is what the Pak soldiers did to the women-folk here and brought disgrace on their uniforms,” an Army officer told us.

On our way back from the bunkers, we spotted some Mongoloid-looking men seated on the verandah of a house. One of them was immediately recognised by a fellow-journalist as a Naga rebel leader. This was an unexpected find. As we hastened toward the house the alarmed Army officers led us away while the Naga gentlemen were hastily taken inside the house. We later learnt that they had taken shelter in Bangladesh and were captured by our Army after the surrender of the Pak Army. It was a bonus for the Indian Army.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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