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
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
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
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
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
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.