Back in 1971
Forty years on, last month, I revisited Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. There were striking differences in the mode of travel and purpose. Last time, I was part of the Indian Army Liberation Forces, invited by the Bangladesh government in exile in support of the Mukti Bahini which had revolted against West Pakistan. The invasion was through Dinajpur on to Bogra and Dhaka against stiff opposition. This time around, the invitation was from Gen Abdul Mubeen, chief of Bangladesh army, to Indian war veterans to commemorate the victory. Against 16 days in 1971, we took under two hours to land at the Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport, Dhaka, to a red-carpet reception.
Following a limber-up session by the Indian High Commission, we were received for a freedom fighter’s dinner hosted by Maj Ameen Matin, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the liberation war. The noblest of beverages stimulated stirring speeches of welcome and grateful acknowledgement: “Without you we would not be a country.” That sentiment became the spirit and metaphor for the week-long visit, only the second since the creation of Bangladesh.
Wreath & Row
Before the crack of dawn, December 16, we’re driven 30 km outside Dhaka on the road to Jessore to the nearby 9 Infantry Division headquarters and the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar. The route is covered with colourful arches and huge banners of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her late father and now father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and her son Shajib Wajid Joy. Supporters of the now begum no. 2, Khaleda Zia, and hoardings with her pictures, her son Tariq Zia and the late Gen Ziaur Rahman are also plentiful.
The simple but striking marble mausoleum with seven minarets honours seven Bangla Ratnas—all freedom fighters. The cabinet and members of Parliament of the ruling Awami League stand in the front rows. Behind them are members of the diplomatic community, ambassadors with defence attaches. We war veterans are in the third row and behind us are senior officers of the Bangladesh armed forces. The honour guard reverses arms as buglers strike the last post followed by the rouse. President Mohammad Zillur Rahman, accompanied by Hasina, lay wreaths with leader of opposition Khaleda conspicuously absent. She joined the ceremony later with her supporters. The unending battle of the begums is a trifle boring for many locals and foreigners.
The Victory Day parade is like our own Republic Day parade. It was suspended when Khaleda was in power. A special VIP enclosure is earmarked for Indian war veterans and our presence acknowledged by the commentator in English—though not in Bangla. Marching contingents combine splendour with harmony. Leading are the freedom fighters and the elite President’s Guard Regiment. The NCC contingent is led by Capt Bijoy Kumar Roy, apparently the only Hindu officer on the parade. The climax of the parade is a flypast and aerobatics of Chinese F-7 and Russian MiG-29 fighters.
Ruins of a War
A Bangladesh Air Force Mi-117 flies us across the Meghna river to the famous Mainamati Cantonment in Comilla. Mainamati is home to the 33 Infantry Division, nestling among tea bushes, bunkers and buildings of World War II vintage. We see the recently restored Gen Bill Slim’s command post, dug 52 feet into a hillock with a central chimney for ventilation and three entrances. In October 1943, Gen Slim shifted his 14 Army Headquarters from Barrackpore near Calcutta to Mainamati. It remained there till October 1944 when he moved to Imphal after the tide of war turned defeat into victory.
As memorable as the first evening was our last—both spent in the company of ageing but energetic war veterans. Five of Bangladesh’s army chiefs were freedom fighters—K.M. Saifullah, Ziaur Rahman, Naseem, Mushafiz Rahman and Haroon Rashid. The reception to cap the visit was held by Maj Tajul Islam, the Minister for Liberation War. War stories are exchanged. My best is about the inebriated Jackie Bogra, son of Pakistan’s first prime minister, Mohammed Ali Bogra. When we found him, he was hiding under an Elizabethan bed in his mini palace which was ransacked by the Mukti Bahini. His fear of death was averted by Hercules rum and two Gorkha johnnies posted as guards.
More speeches were made thanking India and its armed forces for the birth of Bangladesh. The most telling testament of good faith and gratitude is the line-up for the final goodbye. At the head is Maj Islam, senior freedom fighters and the three serving armed forces chiefs. Recipients of high-sentiment Bangla gratitude, 30 kg of gifts and overweight by several kilos of hospitality, the war veterans return home chanting Jai Bangla.