The bell-bottomed guerrillas of ’71

by Zayd Almer Khan
Bachchu, Badal, Shahadat and Alam circa 2002.

Bachchu, Badal, Shahadat and Alam circa 2002.

During the liberation war of 1971, thousands of young men were recruited at the Sector Two headquarters at Melaghar, near Agartala, India. Under the guidance of their sector commander, Major Khaled Musharraf, these young men were trained to be guerrillas — to carry out armed resistance against the plundering Pakistan army. Their guerrilla war thrived in the villages and ports and rivers of Bangladesh, blowing up battleships, ambushing travelling battalions, and winning direct battles across paddy fields and marshlands — counting larger enemy casualties as the nine months of war progressed. But what made the most dramatic news headlines — and kept the cause of our independence alive in the foreign press in particular — were the more glamorous ‘actions’ and ‘operations’ in and around Dhaka — the blast at the Intercontinental Hotel while Prince Sadruddin was visiting, the bombing of the six power stations that supplied the city with electricity, the bank looting in broad daylight, the high-speed chase across Dhanmondi and Green Road that left scores of Pakistani soldiers dead… For those nine months, Dhaka was the domain of the ‘Student Platoons’ of the Sector Two guerrilla forces. These were the urban guerrillas — university students, cultural activists, young professionals. The cultural and social elites of the young East Pakistan society. At their Melaghar camps, they spoke English: at their Dhaka hideouts they read Norman Mailer, Franz Kafka, Dostoyevski and Sartre; at the Agartala markets they exchanged standard army rations for Charminar cigarettes. But at the warfront they carried out some of the most daring, audacious operations — making the heart of the Pakistani administration in the east shudder. Sometime in August, when news of the heroics of the Student Platoons were at a peak, one of our protagonists here had run into another sector commander, Major Zia (later President Zia), at Agartala. Zia asked the young man where he was stationed. ‘Sector Two, Sir,’ the young man replied. Zia simply chuckled and said, half-admiringly, ‘Oh, one of the bell-bottom guerrillas of Khaled Musharraf, then,’ and walked away. This is a story told by four friends — Badal, Shahadat, Alam and Bachchu — four of Khaled’s bell-bottom guerrillas.

vic02‘On 22nd March, I had a chance run-in with Khalid Musharraf,’ Badal says. A mini-explosion, while making Cocktail bombs at the house he shared with two of his brothers, had left a friend slightly injured and Badal somewhat shaken. Deciding to stay elsewhere for a couple of days, Badal left home, but not before he ran into Khaled two doors down (at Khaled’s in-laws’ house). Khaled gave him a book on explosives, and wished him well. ‘As he handed me the book, I knew that Khaled suspected that an armed resistance was looming.’
But the actual army crackdown on the night of March 25 came as a big surprise. Badal — a leading activist of the Menon faction of the Chhatra Union and the general secretary of the organisation’s cultural wing, the Sanskriti Sangsad — should have been as prepared as anyone. ‘But March 25 caught us totally unprepared,’ he says. ‘We were involved in the movements of ’69 and ’70, when Maulana Bhashani had explicitly expressed the political aspiration for a separate Bengal. We heard the calls to build up resistance by Sheikh Mujib as well. But we were always fighting a constitutional political struggle, and weren’t ready to face a military onslaught. Some of us naively resisted, moved by the rhetoric. My friend Khokon left home on the night of the crackdown with his .22 bore rifle ‘to resist the arrest of Mujib’. We found his body two days later, sprayed with bullets, on the bridge next to Road 32.’
Badal was at the Dhanmondi Road 5 residence of the parents of college friend Belal Baaqui on the 25th night, and during the curfew that followed. When the curfew was lifted for a few hours in the morning, of the 27th, Bodi, a university adversary and an activist of the pro-government NSF student front, suddenly appeared at the gates on a motorbike. ‘I was a little apprehensive. Bodi and a few friends had tried to ‘pick me up and teach me a lesson’ from in front of the university gym a few days back due to a tiff between our Mohshin Hall and their Jinnah Hall.’ But Badal heard him out. ‘So my revolutionary friend, where’s the armed struggle you lefties talk about all the time? Where’s the people’s resistance today? Aren’t you going to do something about the massacre that just took place?’ Bodi asked. Badal was taken aback, and Bodi sensed the mistrust. He took out a blade from his pocket, cut his wrists, and Badal’s, and rubbed them together. ‘From today, we are blood brothers. Let’s go find the war.’
The two took off on the motorbike, trying to get their bearings, and taking in the horrific sights around the city. They found hundreds of bodies all over the university, around the stadium, all over Dhanmondi. Thousands of people, families, were rushing out of the city not knowing which way to go. The two went to Khaled Musharraf’s in-laws’ house, where Badal had been only five days back. But the house had been raided, and all they found there were dead bodies.
By afternoon, Badal and Bodi mobilised two more friends — Ashfaqus Samad (better known as Ashfy) and Masud Omar — and the four took off, looking for the war. They were headed for Sunamganj, where they had heard resistance was building. Stopping on their way at Bodi’s ancestral home in Kishoreganj, they found that the 2nd Bengal Regiment of the Pakistan army that had rebelled under Major Shafiullah had moved close by from their Joydebpur base. ‘We decided to try our luck there, to see if they would take us in,’ Badal says. ‘Entering their camp we ran into Second Lieutenant Helal Murshed who had gone to Fouzdarhat Cadet College with Bodi, and we pleaded with him to take us in. ‘We’ll do anything you need’, we said, ‘even wash your clothes and clean your plates, but we want to be in the war.’ Murshed took the four to Shafiullah, who wasn’t fully convinced that these young boys, all between 20 and 22 years in age, could organise and recruit guerrillas in Dhaka. But during their meeting, another man, retired Major Qazi Nuruzzaman, walked into the room. ‘Major Zaman told Shafiullah that he knew us from the left movement, and that we could be trusted. And so we won Shafiullah’s confidence. Little did [Zaman] know that I would be his son-in-law one day,’ Badal reminisces, smiling.
After three days of light training with guns and grenades, Shafiullah sent off the four youngsters, with four three-nought-three rifles, some ammunition and 25 hand grenades. On April 3, 1971. the four entered Dhaka by boat through Rupganj and Manda, finally arriving at Ashfy’s house (which is now the Inquilab office) early in the evening. Badal, Bodi, Ashfy and Masud, the very first of the guerrillas, had arrived in Dhaka — guns, grenades and all.
Less than a few hundred yards away, Ashfy’s cousin Shahadat, a fledgling journalist and an activist in the student movements, was also looking for the war. ‘I felt a tremendous political vacuum on the 25th night,’ he says. ‘Suddenly, with the army crackdown and Major Zia’s moving declaration of independence on the radio, the vanguards of the student movement were not political entities any more. We became individuals with no one to guide us politically. Those first weeks, I wasn’t looking for a leader, because I knew I wouldn’t find any. I was simply looking for war.’
Shahadat had made contact with Ashfy in early April. By the middle of the month, his brother Fateh had left to join the guerrillas, and by the end of the month, Shahadat was officially part of the war, as the ‘post office of Dhaka’.
By April, Badal and his friends had made contact with Khaled Musharraf, whose Sector Two was conducting the war in the greater Dhaka area. They had set up camp at Melaghar, just across the Comilla border and were recruiting students from Dhaka. Badal and Major Haider were in charge of organising and training the students across the border, while Ashfy and Shahadat were given the responsibility to physically transport them from inside Dhaka. A line of communication and transportation was in place, and scores of fresh recruits and families in search of safety were transported out of Dhaka everyday. And many guerrillas would come into carry out ‘operations’ through the same route. Shahadat’s house at Hatkhola was almost at the entrance of Dhaka city, and also with various outlets onto four major streets. So it quickly became the contact point for almost all the guerrillas flowing in and out of Dhaka.
‘Badal and Ashfy had begun the process to organise a few bases and safe houses in Dhaka,’ Shahadat says. ‘But after the news of their dramatic escape while ‘smuggling’ out Khaled Musharraf’s wife from the city had been made public, the army were actively looking for them, so they came into the city less often. Alam and I then took charge of organising the group here.’ Under Shahadat and Alam’s wings, Shahadat’s house in Hatkhola Alam’s house in Dilu Road, Chullu’s office at Road 28 Dhanmondi, Dr Samad’s house in Maghbazar, Wasefs house in Dhanmondi became the safe houses from which all the operations in Dhaka were carried out. And where the guerrillas, not being able to return to their own houses for security’s sake, would spend days and nights, training, plotting, and hiding. Shahadat first went to Melaghar as late as the first week of June. ‘I had this glorified idea of the war camp, of it being something out of the ordinary, something too big to handle. And I wanted to see it first-hand,’ Shahadat says. ‘But when I went to Melaghar for the first time, I was surprised to see the atmosphere, especially among the Student Platoons. There was Fateh, my brother, smoking away his Charminars. Bodi reading a Norman Mailer (which I noticed had been missing from my bookshelf since my house became a free-for-all hostel), Rumi listening to the radio, Badal, studious as ever, busy with his files of names and numbers, sharing a bed with Major Haider. But the normalcy of it all wasn’t a disappointment — it was refreshing. And I realised that what I had been doing so far, that had seemed mundane, was as much part of being in the war as anyone else’s.’ Shahadat returned to Dhaka rejuvenated, and some of the most daring operations on the urban guerrilla front were planned and carried out in the time between June and August of 1971.
And one person involved in almost all of those actions was Habibul Alam. He was the heart and soul of the active guerrillas in Dhaka. A renowned young hockey player of the time, Alam had also joined the war early, and was hand-picked by Khaled as one of the most trusted and brave guerrillas of the lot. The first operation Alam led was probably the one most well-known internationally — the blasts inside the Intercontinental Hotel (now the Sheraton) while a World Bank delegation and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan were staying there on June 9. Alam was also a part of the operation, that blew up the six power stations that supplied electricity to the city, in mid-July. But his most audacious feats, along with Fateh, Maya, Rumi, Shapan, Kazi and others were on the streets of Dhaka, chasing down entire trucks of Pakistani troops and killing them all, and spraying army guards with bullets in drive-by operations in front of key instalments around town.
Alam told me of his favourite Farmgate operation. ‘The triangular island at the Farmgate crossing was one of the most prominent checkpoints in the city. A good number of Pakistani soldiers were stationed at the camp there. Our plan was to kill them all, and send shockwaves down the army platoons that patrolled the streets of Dhaka.’ The plan was to attack the island in early evening, when the army contingent would usually have their dinner. Around the third week of July, Alam, Bodi, Shopon, Maya, Pulu and Dr Samad took off from one of their safe houses in a metallic green Toyota, the first four carrying Chinese sub-machine guns, Pulu carrying grenades and Dr Samad in the driver’s seat. Alam narrates: ‘At about 7:30 in the evening we pulled up by the lane that goes to the Holy Cross school, with the island to our right. I was the first to get down from the front seat and run across the 30/35 feet of road to the edge of the island and fit my SMG to the grill fencing that surrounded the island. The others took their positions behind me, along the footpath on the Holy Cross side.’ All this while three Pakistani soldiers patrolled the street right opposite them, while scores more were busy eating inside the tents. Alam was the first to fire, first on the guard pacing closest to him, and then on the startled other two. His four partners took their cue and immediately after brush fired at the army tents. Alain retreated, and Pulu threw the grenades. ‘Within seconds, we had carried out a perfectly planned operation, and downed scores of Pakistani soldiers,’ Alam says. ‘By the time the people around — shopkeepers, vendors, pedestrians — could react with panic, we were long gone in our green Toyota’ But Alam’s operations and Shahadat’s planning were soon going to end.
On August 27, Alam and Shahadat made a routine trip back to Melaghar. Khaled was to give them more ammunition and a letter of appreciation for the Dhaka guerrillas, to motivate them further. But before they could leave Melaghar for the trip back, Fateh suddenly arrived, unscheduled, with the bad news.
On August 29, Bodi was picked up by the army from a card game at the house of his old friend Farid, brother-in-law of the current AL general secretary Zillur Rahman. He was duped by Farid, and he fell for it. The same night, twenty-two houses were raided in Dhaka, including Shahadat’s Alam’s, Altaf  Mahmud’s, Dr. Samad’s, Road 28, Wasef’s and Baker’s — all the guerrilla hideouts in Dhaka that had so painstakingly been picked and prepared by Badal, Ashfy, Shahadat, Alam and others. A number of the guerrillas were picked up, including Chullu and Jahanara Imam’s son Rumi. Khaled immediately ordered the remaining guerrillas back from Dhaka. The new modus operandi would be sorties from outside Dhaka, not from within. ‘We were getting a little sloppy, especially at Road 28, which was an office and where there was no family etiquette to follow to keep our bubbling adrenaline in check,’ Shahadat admits. ‘People would later tell me that they could tell from my expression that I was involved in the war. They could see it in my eyes. I’m sure they could see it in others as well.’
Bachchu, also a pre-war leftist student activist, was part of this new plan to attack Dhaka from the outside. He had been training under Badal and Major Haider for the weeks before he crossed over the border with the new Dhaka North Guerrilla Unit, as its second-in-command. By the end of August, their contingent of 52 guerrillas, on four boats, had crossed the Turag to set up camp, first in Dhamrai, then in Savar. ‘The 52 of us came in carrying 2 LMGs, 20 SLRs, 6 SMGs. about a hundred grenades and 100 kgs of PK2 explosives. Bachchu says. ‘By the time we entered Dhaka in December, we had trained 250 more recruits at our base in Jirabo.’
This was a more organised and planned effort, and Bachchu’s men carried out frequent sorties into Dhaka, operating at Baitul Mukarram, Malihagh rail crossing, the Election Commission, the television tower on top of the DIT building, etc. At the same time they made steady progress towards Dhaka as well. ‘We started off modestly, ambushing Pakistani ration boats and travelling contingents,’ Bachchu says. ‘But we gradually got more daring, and more successful. By September 10, the highway was ours by night, and by the first week of December, we had advanced as far as the Mirpur Bridge.’
Along the way, on November 14, the unit lost its commander, 22-year-old history student Manik, at a battle on the Bhayadubi Bridge. Bachhu, a 21-year-old student of journalism, then took command. The Dhaka North Guerrilla Unit, led by Bachchu, entered the heart of Dhaka on December 16. They met up with the forces that came from the south, led by Fateh and Maya. The bell-bottom guerrillas had liberated Dhaka.
Shahadat and Alam, both engaged in frontal war alongside the military forces since their withdrawal from Dhaka, also entered the city on the 16th along with Fateh and Maya and Major Haider, who had taken command of Sector Two since Khalid’s injury in November. Shahadat remembers the quiet tension in the streets of Dhaka, and the gloom of the unlit houses around him. ‘It was eerie. This wasn’t the Dhaka I wanted to return to,’ he says. ‘I screamed as I walked the streets, “Switch on the lights. Don’t you see, we have won!” but there was no response. I took out my gun, and screamed the same again, and fired blanks.’ One by one the lights came on, and people men and women — began to flood the streets, tugging at the guerrillas, touching them, embracing them, lifting them on shoulders. A city that had been dead for nine months was coming alive again. And it was embracing its heroes.
Alam, Bachchu and Shahadat all mention their one regret in that joyous night. ‘We didn’t have Badal with us that day, and even after so many years, I still cannot reconcile myself to that fact,’ Shahadat says. ‘I had left my city, feeling a vacuum in politics. But I returned engulfed by the politics that took Badal away from us.’ As Khaled Musharraf’s Staff Officer in charge of students, Badal was a key figure in recruiting and training the Student Platoons. But his leftist roots came to haunt him soon. In early October, Badal was ordered by Khaled to leave Sector Two, under instructions from the Indians, who were then fighting the Naxalite movement within their own boundaries and were wary of anyone with leftist affiliations. Badal was sent to Kolkata, and was attached to the office of the Chief of Staff, General MAG Osmani, as far away from the frontal war as possible.
When news of Khaled Musharraf being wounded in battle came to him, Badal was moonlighting at Major Manzur’s sector. On hearing the news, he rushed immediately to Khaled’s side at Agartala, and accompanied him to Kolkata. When Dhaka was liberated on December 16, Badal was attending to Khaled, far away from the celebrations.
Although the others regret his absence on the day, Badal is more philosophical. He only says, ‘Bodi was caught and never returned, Ashfy died in frontal war (in November). Four of us friends left for war together, and only two returned. Being on this side of that fifty-fifty situation can be counted as pretty lucky, can’t it?’
The article was earlier published in Slate, the monthly magazine from Holiday, in its December 2002 issue.

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