The Fall (and Rise) of Dhaka
By S.G. Jilanee

O, what a fall there was my countrymen!
—Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene II

The morning in Chittagong on December 16, 1971 was chilly. There was some fog, too. But people of all ages had begun to pour out from their homes since dawn and line up along the main trunk road from Dhaka. Celebrations had started the previous night as news of the surrender of the Pakistan Army came over the radio. But now the excitement was beyond control. The crowd awaited the arrival of the Indian troops. As the fog lifted and the first truck of a convoy came into view a thunderous roar of “Joi Bangla” from the multitude rent the air.
Cheerful faces glowed with a sense of victory (vijoi). The pall of gloom that had enveloped them for more than eight months had disappeared. The old Dhaka had fallen and a new Dhaka seem to have arisen from its ashes. A province had become a country. Bangladesh was born. And people were welcoming Indian troops as their liberators.
Liberators? Standing wrapped in a shawl among the crowd, I was lost in a reverie. Events from the past flashed on memory’s screen. In 1947, these same people had celebrated the birth of Pakistan and freedom from Indian hegemony with similar unbounded succes fou.
In the 16th century it was Emperor Humayun’s troops that were trapped and routed in these parts; now it were Pakistan’s. The planners of military action then and now were from the same part of the country, smug, self-sufficient, ignorant of the cast of the Bengali’s mind.
Bengalis are a spirited people with an acute sense of self-respect. They furiously resent tyranny. In the 19th century when a Hindu zamindar in the 24-Parganas district of (now West) Bengal attempted to levy subscription for Durga Puja from his Muslim ryots, Titu Mir rose in an armed revolt against him and gave his life fighting. And, in 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of Bangladesh, whom they had hailed as Bangabandhu (Friend of the Bengalis), tried to become a dictator, they killed him without a qualm.
Bengal had always been divided on “communal” lines; the eastern part predominantly Muslim; the western, Hindu. Lord Curzon partitioned the province on those lines in 1907. But it was annulled four years later after violent Hindu agitation. The cultural divide is manifest in their language and even their cooking. They use different spices and different names for curries.
So, when A.K. Fazlul Haq moved the Pakistan Resolution, the Bengalis hoped that their dream, shattered when the separation of Bengal was annulled, would now be realized. For instance, when, during his tour of north Bengal, Jinnah stopped by the wayside near the level crossing of the Natore railway station and asked the crowd that had gathered to greet him, “Apni ki Pakistan chahen? (Do you want Pakistan?),” there was a crescendo of “Yes!” A pillar with Jinnah’s words in Bengali was erected at the spot to commemorate the event.
Another flash. Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946. The Bengal Muslim League appeals for a complete hartal in Calcutta, and suburbs. The Hindus, instigated by the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha, resist the Muslim League’s call. The face-off ignites, what the Statesman called, “The Great Calcutta Killing.”
Bengalis become the first to give their blood for Pakistan and set the pace for its birth. Calcutta killings trigger anti-Hindu riots in Noakhali and the adjoining areas of the Chandpur subdivision of Comilla district. The Hindus in turn wantonly massacre Muslims in Bihar after which Pakistan becomes a settled fact.
And the same people were now welcoming Indians as their liberators. The mood of the Bengalis had begun to sour quite early. Mass outflux of Hindu officials after the partition had caused a vacuum in the administration in East Pakistan. There were few Muslim Bengalis in superior jobs even in provincial administration; in federal government services scarcely any. The only Bengali ICS was T.I.M. Nurunnabi Choudhry. So, while the federal government departments already overflowed with non-Bengalis, swarms of officers from West Pakistan swooped upon East Pakistan, occupying most of the superior administrative positions. The Bengali felt disappointed.
But what irked him most was their behavior. The British were colonialists, yet they gave them respect and empathized with their aspirations; the West Pakistanis saw no need for that. That music and dancing were part of Bengali culture was not seen in good light.
The Muslim ‘ryots’ of big landlords in Bengal, also, were unlike the “kammis” of West Pakistan. No Hindu zamindar or Muslim nawab could exercise droit de signeur over the wife or other womenfolk of his “ryot” as they did in West Pakistan. Nor had Bengali Muslims suffered the like of a Ranjit Singh. And finally, the land of Faraizi Movement least needed any lecture about how to be “good Muslims.”
In 1948, the founder of Pakistan made his controversial declaration that “Urdu, — and Urdu alone, shall be Pakistan’s national language.” It ignited a prairie fire of nationalist sentiments which translated into the “language movement.”
In 1952, Dhaka’s police superintendent, Masood Mahmood ordered his men to fire on an unarmed procession of protesting students, killing four. It gave further boost to Bengali nationalism and the Awami Muslim League, later Awami League (AL), was founded. Maulana Abdul Hameed Khan Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, two firebrand demagogues took command. Bhashani had led a violent protest against cow-slaughter in Goalpara district of Assam before partition. Mujib was cutting his teeth. They took the people by storm.
In 1954, the ruling Muslim League was routed by the AL-KSP (Krishak-Sramik Party). It was followed by dismissal of provincial government, imposition of governor’s rule, the Agartala conspiracy case, the six-points, “gherao-jalao” against Ayub, 1970 elections, political stand-off, break-up of negotiations, army action and, finally, the declaration of the birth of Bangladesh in the wee hours of March 26, 1971.
While the major political and economic factors had paved the way for independence, smaller incidents had contributed to buttress it. These included the mistreatment of Khwaja Nazimuddin, Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan and Suhrawardy and Fazlul Haq.
Then there was the Bihari factor. Because east Bengal was expected to become Pakistan, many people from Bihar had fled to settle there after the Bihar massacre. The Biharis identified themselves more with the West Pakistanis than the Bengalis, and both spoke Urdu. They made little attempt to assimilate with the local populace. So a distance between the two communities developed which became gradually wider.
In 1954, as soon as the AL-KSP government was formed, there were violent anti-Bihari riots in the Adamjee Jute Mills in Narayanganj. The incident was a clear signal of the shape of things to come. But being sure that the West Pakistanis would protect them the Biharis kept the blinkers on. To make matters worse, in 1971 they went all out to assist the Pakistan Army.
This morning I mused on their ultimate fate as I recalled how during the first few days after the launch of the army action when Chittagong was under Mukti Bahini control, many Biharis and West Pakistanis were brutally killed in Pahartali Railway workshop, Chandraghona and Kaptai.
Quaid-i-Azam’s portentous pronouncement again came to mind. He thought that Muslim Bengalis would one day be lured by the Hindus to secede from Pakistan and merge with West Bengal. This did not happen. East Pakistan became Bangladesh, not even “East Bengal.” If there is anything that the Bengali loves as dearly as life, it is his independence. (Courtesy Dawn)




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.