Sikdar, Samiullah and Sarbahara: epilogue

by Razi Azmi

ASSISTED by a group of highly committed revolutionaries, among whom Samiullah Azmi was by far the most prominent (until his murder in August 1971), from the middle of 1969 to the end of 1971, Siraj Sikdar succeeded in building a formidable network of Sarbahara Party units and bases all over what was then East Pakistan.
After the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh in early 1972, open hostilities between the Awami League and the Sarbahara Party commenced almost immediately. Accusing president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of surrendering to what they called ‘Indian expansionism’, the Sarbahara Party began an effective guerrilla campaign against the state, seizing police stations and attacking members of the security services.
The capture and death of Siraj Sikdar on January 2, 1975 was a huge victory for the Bangladesh government. It was the beginning of the end of the Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party as a serious political organisation and guerrilla outfit. An interim committee took charge of the party and a witch-hunt began. Suspected informers and ‘deviants’ were condemned and put to death. The party’s descent into factionalism, internecine warfare and brigandage was swift.
Many factions and splinter groups now claim to be the true successors of the Sarbahara Party. Some are no more than bandit groups, others still declare their fidelity to Marx, Mao and Sikdar. Between them, they are little more than an occasional nuisance for the police. The party is dead, long live the party!
What served the party in good stead in its formative stage, namely, a highly centralised structure and unquestioned loyalty to Sikdar, later lent itself to abuse and distortions. The huge void created by the supremo’s sudden capture and death in this very centralised and secretive organisation soon resulted in a tussle for power that tore the party asunder with the loss of quite a few lives.
Highly charismatic, intelligent and persuasive, Sikdar was bold and resolute. His disarming smile concealed a personality capable of ruthlessness in the pursuit of his goal. Which is why some who knew Sikdar very well think that had he succeeded in his goal of creating a revolutionary Maoist state in Bangladesh, he may well have resembled one of his rather infamous contemporaries, namely, Pol Pot of Cambodia.
A man of extraordinary intelligence and a natural leader of men himself, Samiullah was perhaps more of an intellectual and a visionary. As such, he was happy to let Sikdar play the pivotal role in the party from their first meeting in late 1967 to his death in mid-1971.
Siraj Sikdar outlived Samiullah Azmi by over four years. It defies understanding as to why he did not avenge the pre-meditated and treacherous murder of his deputy in August 1971 by Chairman Gyasuddin (aka Gesu Chairman), a known local leader of the Awami League, at a time when the Awami League itself was under attack by the Pakistani army and other forces loyal to it.
What is even more astonishing is that, in a major report Sikdar delivered to a party congress in January 1972, the first major party conference after August 1971, there is no mention at all of Samiullah’s murder in Savar, along with his 5-7 comrades. There is not even a tribute to them even though Savar is mentioned a few times in Sikdar’s report in connection with the expansion of the Sarbahara Party’s activities.
It is true that Siraj Sikdar sent a handwritten eulogy to Samiullah’s family informing them of his death. He also wrote a little poem in his fallen comrade’s memory. But his failure to investigate or avenge his murder and even to mention it at the next party meeting are acts of omission too significant to overlook.
Comrade Khaleda (aka Bulu) soldiered on, like a good revolutionary, even though she was deeply hurt with her forced separation from Samiullah for the last few months of the latter’s life, for which she holds Sikdar responsible, and with the latter’s failure to investigate her husband’s reported murder or to punish his killers.
In 1975, Khaleda fell seriously ill while on assignment in the Chittagong hill district. When she recovered, the party was in meltdown and comrades were killing fellow comrades. Khaleda returned to her home in Cooch Bihar in West Bengal in 1976, remarried in 1983, and has a son who is now thirty.
When she is not training teachers or counselling students, Khaleda spends her time pondering, reminiscing and browsing the Internet. I should add that she remembers Samiullah with the greatest love, admiration and affection. Having grown up on a steady diet of stories from his mom about her late comrade-husband, Tanvir has a strong feeling of bonding and intimacy with a man who died over a decade before he was born.
When Samiullah paid his last visit to his family home in Dhaka in late May or early June in 1971, he would have been told by our sister that our parents had left for Karachi in West Pakistan to escape the civil strife and violence that was engulfing East Pakistan.
There they died, our father in 1984, mother in 1992. Though Samiullah remained in their daily thoughts and prayers all those long years, they never ever uttered his name in my presence, knowing I would confirm what they didn’t want to hear, that their dear son had been killed before he turned 25!
Of the original group of 10 or so who had attempted to sow the seed of a ‘Maoist revolution’ in Teknaf, Aqa Fazlul Haq Rana worked long and hard for the revolution, mainly in the party’s strongholds in Barisal and Jhalakati.
Gone is Aqa’s revolutionary fervour, along with his Stalinesque moustache. If the false dawn of revolution had not interrupted his education, he would have been an electrical engineer. He now works as a management consultant in Dhaka, giving an occasional interview about Sarbahara.
During my recent visit to Dhaka, when I complimented Aqa’s wife on her great cooking, she credited Sikdar with some of her culinary skills. And not just the culinary skills, even her marriage to Aqa she owes to the Sarbahara supremo.
As Aqa recalls, one day Sikdar abruptly asked him: ‘Oye, bia korbi (Hey, would you like to marry)?’, to which this dedicated revolutionary immediately replied in the affirmative. Sikdar already had in mind for him this lovely young woman from a revolutionary family. Theirs was a match made in the party, by the boss himself!
As we shall see, this was not the only match-making which Siraj Sikdar can take credit for.
My college friend Anwar Hossain, a revolutionary to the marrow of his bones, almost Che Guevara-like, parted company with Siraj Sikdar following the failed Teknaf and Myanmar ventures. After a bit of solo adventure, actually more than a bit, he joined his famous brother Colonel Taher (then a commando in the Pakistan army) in a separate but parallel revolutionary initiative.
Both Anwar and his brother Abu Syed Ahmad (also of the Teknaf group), who later went on an unsuccessful solo expedition to the interior of Burma, led a rather tumultuous life for a few years thereafter. A lot of turmoil and a stint in jail following the execution of Colonel Taher by General Ziaur Rahman (later president of Bangladesh) in 1976, did not deter Anwar from obtaining a PhD in biochemistry from a Japanese university.
Anwar is now a very well-known academic, activist and columnist in Bangladesh. He has very fond memories of Samiullah and refers to him as a ‘mentor’.
Many tumultuous year later, Abu Syed retreated into private business. He now leads a peaceful, retired life, much lamenting the drowning death of his brilliant son in his mid-20s.
Another of my college friends, Matiur Rahman, left us rather early. Waking up one morning in a large shared hotel room in Chittagong, where we stayed a couple of nights on the way back from Teknaf, pondering our future course of action, we found his bed empty.
Where comrade Matiur should have been sleeping, there was a brief handwritten note from him instead. Although he was sorry to leave us, the note read, he just couldn’t bear the hardships and uncertainties any more.
From the original Teknaf contingent, Enayat (aka Babar) was one of the five (or seven?) who were killed along with Samiullah in Savar. Another, Mujib, or Kala Mujib to be precise, returned to the party after a brief hiatus, to leave again after the party’s meltdown. He recently died of illness.
Among the numerous post-Teknaf recruits of Samiullah, Farooq Bhai merits mention. Soft-spoken and gentle, with a poetic bent, he better fitted the image of a romantic film hero than that of a revolutionary capable of violence. After a stint with Sarbahara and following the death of Samiullah, whom he much adores, he resumed his medical studies.
Now an ophthalmologist in Dhaka, Farooq Bhai recalls the words of the poet Mohini Choudhury (1948), which Samiullah had quoted to lure him into the revolutionary ranks: “Muktir mandir sopanatale, kata pran hala balidan, lekha achhe ashru jale (how many lives have been sacrificed, at the altar of freedom, is written in tears)’.
I will be remiss if I fail to say a word or two about Sikdar’s wife, or wives, to be exact. When we first met in late 1967, he was already married to Roshanara, a semi-literate woman from a poor rural background, much younger to him. Marrying Roshanara, in defiance of his father, was perhaps Sikdar’s first revolutionary act — an overt rejection of his family’s ‘petty bourgeoise’ class background.
Roshanara was a good-looking, kind, shy woman with no pretensions or desires other than to be a good wife to her husband. In Teknaf, she gave birth to their first child, a girl named Shikha. I was called upon to run, literally, to fetch a doctor urgently. When I returned empty-handed, metaphorically speaking, without a doctor or a midwife, Sikdar literally had his hands full — holding the new-born he had helped deliver.
When Shikha would have been about a year old, sometime in early 1969, Sikdar got introduced to a revolutionary-minded woman named Jahanara, slightly older to him. She was the wife of a senior government official and the mother of their son and daughter, both in their teens. A published writer of short stories, she had very good looks and an impressive personality.
Finding Jahanara irresistible, Sikdar in short order declared that revolutionary men needed revolutionary wives, not docile housewives. From this self-serving ‘fatwa’ it was but a short step to making Jahanara his wife and Roshanara redundant. Perhaps to somewhat mitigate his sense of guilt, Sikdar later arranged for Roshanara (aka Mukti) to marry one comrade Jhinuk (aka Baufol).
Ironically, comrade Jhinuk didn’t survive the witch-hunt in the party during the turmoil after Sikdar’s death in 1975. This second husband of Roshanara, who thus became the step-father of Sikdar’s daughter, was denounced and executed within the year by the interim party leadership, which claimed to be defending Sikdar’s ‘correct party line’ against its many ‘internal enemies’.
I have had the pleasure of meeting comrade Jahanara (aka Rahela) more than once at the party’s secret headquarters in Khilgaon. She did not fail to impress me, but I could barely conceal my displeasure at Sikdar’s discarding of Roshanara (along with Shikha). I found his attempt to ideologically justify it laughable, if not contemptible.
The Wikipedia entry on the Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party (quoting Md Nurul Amin in ‘Asian Survey’ of July 1986) says that ‘in 1967 Siraj Sikder had formed the Mao Tsetung Thought Research Centre (MTRC) in Dhaka…. On January 8, 1968 the group formed the Purba Bangla Sramik Andolan (PBSA). The founding conference, which was completed in a single day, was held in the residence of a jute mill worker in Dhaka. The conference was attended by 45–50 followers of the centre.’
The correct date for the founding of the MTRC is towards the end of 1968, months after our return from Teknaf in the spring of that year. Also, there was no ‘founding conference’ of the PBSA on January 8, 1968 ‘attended by 45–50 followers’, as mentioned by Md Nurul Amin and quoted by Wikipedia.
On this date, a small group meeting was held at Sikdar’s residence in Khilgaon in which Sikdar, Samiullah and a few others, including this writer and Aqa Fazlul Haq Rana, were present. Here we agreed upon the manifesto and our determination to implement it under Sikdar’s leadership. Even the name Purba Bangla Sramik Andolan or East Bengal Workers’ Movement was settled upon somewhat later.
Three years later to the day, on January 8, 1971, a conference of the EBWM renamed itself as the Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party (East Bengal Proletarian Party). Though a mere change of name, January 8, 1971 is taken to be the party’s (as distinct from the movement’s) official founding date.
I will finish where I began this series of articles, with Samiullah Azmi. His life may have been tragically cut short by an Awami League warlord, but the flag he (along with his comrade-wife Khaleda) had designed for an independent East Bengal was later adopted by the Awami League government as the national flag of the new country of Bangladesh.
This flag, the bottle green rectangular design with a red disc in the middle, was first hoisted by party cadres on January 8, 1970, the second anniversary of the founding of the EBWM, at a few places in the country in the accompaniment of party posters and leaflets. After this was repeated on a much greater scale on the same date of the following year, the now-defunct daily ‘Purbadesh’, published from Dhaka, carried a report on the ‘natun pataka’ (new flag) on January 14, 1971.
It is fair to say, therefore, that each time a citizen of Bangladesh proudly looks at or salutes the country’s flag, it is also a tribute to the memory of Samiullah Azmi, the son of a railway station master from Koiryapar in Uttar Pradesh (India), who laid down his life at the age of 24 for the liberation of his beloved East Bengal and its people.
Razi Azmi is a former academic with a PhD in modern history. He now lives in Sydney, Australia.

One Comment

  1. Razi Azmi’s well-crafted epilogue provides a befitting closure for the long overdue eulogy deserved by his brother, Samiullah Azmi, the unsung revolutionary and the designer of our national flag of today. Samiullah, a visionary and and ideologue, was barely 20 when in 1967 he resolutely joined hands with a few others to form the nucleus of an organisation that vowed to liberate East Bengal from the Pakistani colonial rule, through an armed struggle. Born to parents who migrated to East Bengal from UP (India) post 1947, Samiullah gave his life at the alter of our national liberation but so far has remained an unsung martyr, without any recognition as the designer of the national flag of today’s Bangladesh. The flag Samiullah designed sometime in c.1969 was hoisted in a number of places across the then East Pakistan, including Dhaka, Munshiganj and Rajshahi, on 8 January 1970 ( founding anniversary of EBWM) and then again in January and March 1971. I was involved with the events in Rajshahi in 1970 and 1971.

    During March 1971, when Maulana Bhasani undertook whirlwind tour across the country addressing public meetings in support of his call for ‘Swadhin Purba Pakistan’, the cadres and followers of Siraj Sikder attended these meetings holding aloft the flag of the independent East Bengal, designed by Samiullah Azmi. It may be relevant to point out, when the pro Awami League student leaders led by Sirajul Alam Khan and others, emboldened by the euphoric mass upsurge of the non-cooperation movement, decided to have a flag for Swadhin Bangladesh, found it convenient and simply added the map of Bangladesh (on the red circle) into the flag designed by Samiullah. This although markedly differentiated it from the Samiullah-designed flag and also intelligently helped define the boundaries of the new country, it made the design too complicated. This factor contributed to the decision by the government in 1972 to exclude the map from the flag and unwittingly (or inadvertently) adopting the flag designed by Samiullah Azmi as the national flag of Bangladesh. As it is often said history corrects itself, the recognition of Samiullah Azmi as the designer of the flag may have to wait indefinitely but is a certainty. Until then may his soul rest in peace! and we seek his forgiveness.

    To Razi Azmi:

    Thank you for a job well done and for setting the records straight.

    I Would like to draw your attention to a piece of information you included: [Quote}
    “Three years later to the day, on January 8, 1971, a conference of the EBWM renamed itself as the Purba Banglar Sarbahara Party (East Bengal Proletarian Party). Though a mere change of name, January 8, 1971 is taken to be the party’s (as distinct from the movement’s) official founding date.” [Unquote]

    There is evidence suggesting that Purba Bangla Sarbahara Party was established on 3 June 1971 at Atghor-Kuriana Peyara Bagan in Pirojpur (then Barisal District), subsuming/renaming Purba Bangla Sramik Andolon.

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