‘Mujib Bahini didn’t fight liberation war’

On December 16, 1971, MAG Osmani was eagerly waiting in Comilla to join the surrender ceremony at the Ramna Race Course and was communicating with the Bangladesh government-in-exile in Kolkata to get the clearance. But he did not get the clearance and later a visibly upset Osmani decided to go to his ancestral land,  Sylhet, Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury — an organiser of the war of independence in 1971 and founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra, who was accompanying Osmani that day — tells Khadimul Islam and Taib Ahmed in an interview with New Age

Zafrullah Chowdhury

Zafrullah Chowdhury

New Age: The competing political parties of the ruling class, the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in particular, accuse each other of distorting the history of our liberation war. What is your view about the alleged distortion of the history?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: Academics are responsible for that. I would hold them more responsible than the Awami League and the BNP. I would hold boot-licking academics of Dhaka University responsible. It is their responsibility to write history neutrally. Due to sharp polarisation even amongst academics, we have failed to stop the distortion of history.
New Age: There is no doubt that the Awami League, under the active leadership of Tajuddin Ahmad, politically presided over the nine-month liberation war against Pakistan, and that the Tajuddin government conducted the liberation war in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the Awami League often claims to be the sole champion of the country’s war of liberation. What role did political parties play in the liberation war?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: When everything is politicised, nobody feels interested to disclose the truth. The academics should protest at the distortion of history. We all had a role in the war. All seven crore people of the time played a role in the war. Almost all the families either played a role or suffered or sacrificed a lot for the war.
New Age: There are allegations that the government-in-exile of Tajuddin Ahmad and the Indian authorities refused to provide training and weapons for leftwing political activists? Why? How was the issue eventually resolved?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: This is not the whole truth. It is not the Indians but some Awami Leaguers who did not want certain people to be engaged in the war. Some of them even tried to oppose our involvement. There are two major groups within the leftists. The pro-Russian leftists wanted to get special privileges from India because of the close relations between Russia and India. The role of the pro-Russian leftists was almost like the role of the Mujib Bahini. They wanted special training from them. The Matin-Alauddin group, the Siraj Shikdar group and the Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan group fought the battle inside Bangladesh. The Awami League always tried to engage leftwing people as less as possible. The Awami League had always doubted the leftists. However, those who travelled to the training camps in India got the training.
New Age: It is common knowledge that Awami League leader Khondaker Mushtaque Ahmed wanted to compromise with the Pakistani authorities during our liberation war. Was any other leader or faction of the Awami League supporting Mustaque’s move? How was the suicidal move thwarted?
vic010Zafrullah Chowdhury: The question is whether Khondaker Mustaque moved alone. Forty-three Awami League MPs had extended their support for the move of Khondaker Mushtaque. His move was, however, not that apparent. All of them, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Khondaker Mushtaque, wanted a solution, remaining within Pakistan in line with the Six-Point Charter. Kamal Siddique was private secretary to Khondaker Mushtaque. His [Kamal Siddique’s] silence made me believe that he knew something about the move and there may be some truth in it. It was not as if Khondaker Mushtaque alone became the US agent during the war. I think that he made the move in concurrence with Sheikh Mujib. Sheikh Fazlul Haque Moni played the biggest role aimed at thwarting the move. As we met at Agartala, I started criticising Sheikh Moni saying that all of you are retreating, going hand in hand with the US [to reach a consensus with Pakistan] and it is the proof of our longstanding claim that you all are collaborators with the US. He replied, ‘It cannot happen.’ I then said, ‘No, this is going to happen.’ He then went to Kolkata [Calcutta] and played a vital role there in thwarting the move.’ Sheikh Moni had good connections with the Indians. It was in no way acceptable to the Indians as they did not want a united Pakistan. Although we are making Khondaker Mushtaque a scapegoat regarding the move, historians will judge whether there were others involved in it.
New Age: There are allegations that youth leaders of the Mujib Bahini, formed and specially trained by the Indian authorities, did not properly cooperate with the government of Tajuddin Ahmad during the liberation war. Why, in your view, the Mujib Bahini was formed in the first place and how did it affect the process of our liberation war?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: India did not want to keep an absolute command of Tajuddin Ahmad on the liberation war. It created the Bengal Liberation Force, BLF or better known as the Mujib Bahini, outside the command of Tajuddin Ahmad. Tajuddin Ahmad and MAG Osmani knew nothing about it. The BLF for all practical purposes fought the liberation war nowhere. Everybody should go through the book of AK Khandaker to know the reasons behind the formation of the BLF. India had a plan to liberate Bangladesh under its clutch even if they could not make it a country like Bhutan and Sikkim. This is why they also formed the Rakkhi Bahini. Sheikh Mujib did not take part in the war. He surrendered to the Pakistani force. But the biggest contribution of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the liberation war was that India withdrew its army from Bangladesh within three months only for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He made his charisma work in the pullout of the Indian army.
New Age: Is the allegation true that the Mujib Bahini did not properly cooperate with the government of Tajuddin Ahmad during the liberation war?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: The Mujib Bahini did not fight the liberation war. It did not cooperate with Tajuddin Ahmad. The force, including people like Sheikh Moni, always tried to disown Tajuddin Ahmad. Sheikh Moni and others used to think that they could enjoy the right to rule the country in the absence of Sheikh Mujib and Tajuddin does not have that right. But Tajuddin has made great contributions to the liberation war. It is a matter of great misfortune that our constitution included the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman whereas it has not included names of Tajuddin Ahmad and MAG Osmani. It is really disrespectful to the whole war of independence.
New Age: Allegations also have it that in order to take control of the war, the Mujib Bahini often engaged in the clashes with the Mukti Bahini. Did such clashes upset the morale of freedom fighters on the ground?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: Clashes between freedom fighters and the Mujib Bahini took place at many places. The Mujib Bahini people used to say that their war would be waged after the independence. The morale of the freedom fighters was not harmed but they came to realise that India had a different design.
New Age: Different sections of people of Bangladesh took part in the liberation war. Did all sections of people have the same expectations from an independent Bangladesh? What were the aspirations of the poor masses who had made the greatest sacrifice?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: Some of the expectations were similar. Everyone had expectations that peace and tranquillity would prevail in an independent Bangladesh and there would be no disparity in society; everyone would get equal opportunities. Educated class in society expected that hundreds of flowers would bloom and there would be space for dissident voices. People would meet their basic needs and get justice.
Now, more than four decades into the independence, the mismatch between achievements and primary aspirations behind liberation became evident. Disparities are everywhere today.
New Age: What are the impediments you think towards the fulfilment of those aspirations?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman himself. It is Sheikh Mujibur Rahman if I answer your question in one word.
New Age: Why and how?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: As he was not involved in the war of independence, he was completely detached from people’s aspirations. He had grown imbued with Pakistani ideals and thinking. There is no doubt that he was a great leader. But his absence from the nine-month war detached him completely from people. Shortly after the liberation war, he had to get himself engaged in running the administration. He had to remain busy tackling different forces apart from working hard to ensure the basic needs of people.
New Age: There is some documentation, inadequate though, about sacrifices of women in the liberation war but their sacrifices are not yet discussed in public forums.
Zafrullah Chowdhury: The main reason behind it is that it was not a long-drawn-out war. People did not pay much attention to the documentation during the war. They used to say that fighting the war was the primary job and not the documentation. Sacrifices of men have also not been duly recognised.  However, Bangladesh needs to conduct extensive research to document the contribution of the women in the liberation war.
New Age: How should the problem be addressed?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: It is the responsibility of historians.
New Age: There is still controversy at home and abroad over the actual number of martyrs in our liberation war. What is the scientific way to put an end to the controversy?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: There had been some surveys to establish the figure by the SDOs under the instruction of the prime minister Sheikh Mujib. It does not matter what is stipulated in the constitution or which judge termed it a settled issue. It is our moral duty to prepare the list of the people who sacrificed their lives. It is our duty towards them. What we are not mentioning is that some one crore people took shelter in India, and of them more than five lakh people died either from starvation or from lack of health care, or from any other reasons in the camps. It is the duty of historians to find it out.
New Age: In what circumstances and when did you set up the field hospitals?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: We, along with Dr MA Mobin, [one of the founders of the field hospital] came back from the United Kingdom… we never expected that the war would end in only nine months. We thought it would be a long-drawn-out war. We set up a field hospital in June at Melagar, close to Agartala. We thought we need to treat and cure the injured freedom fighters in order to boost their morale. Khaled Mosharraf and others, particularly from army personnel, were asking me to manage arms from foreign friends for the war. They asked me to go back to England for collecting arms. In fact, they also asked us to join the guerrilla warfare. We said that in any warfare, they needed a good medical backup. It would have demoralising effect if the injured freedom fighters had not been treated and cured. That is why Dr Mobin and I talked with Tajuddin Ahmad and Osmani and they finally agreed with us. But we faced shortage of nurses and doctors. With little training, we got some paramedics and nurses to run it. It was a hospital with 480 beds.
New Age: Why, you think, could MAG Osmani not attend the Pakistani force’s surrender ceremony at the Ramna Race Course?
Zafrullah Chowdhury: Osmani was not allowed to attend the programme. The Bangladesh government-in-exile signed an agreement with India in October 1971 that India would liberate Bangladesh by December. When I was returning from New Delhi to Kolkata via Lucknow, I found Abdus Samad Azad on my plane, from Lucknow to Kolkata; he was sitting next to me. He was also returning from New Delhi after signing the agreement. When he requested me not to tell anyone about his visit [to New Delhi], my doubt about the agreement deepened. Shortly on reaching Kolkata, I met MAG Osmani and told him, mentioning the incident: ‘You have sold out the country.’ He was furious and went to Tajuddin Ahmad and others. He knew nothing about the agreement. But Moni Singh knew of it. Then Osmani came to know about the terms of reference of the agreement. According to the agreement, Indian civilian bureaucrats, including police personnel, will move into Bangladesh to keep law and order the way they ruled other countries. Osmani opposed the agreement saying, ‘We have adequate number of civil bureaucrats and we do not want any Indian bureaucrats or police force.’ Against this backdrop, Indians came to realise that Osmani would not go along with their plans and tried to keep Osmani aside as much as possible. In December, I asked Osmani why he was still sitting in Kolkata. ‘You have to be on the front. You will have to visit different battlefronts.’ Osmani told me that on December 1, he sought a plane for the visit but he was denied. Then at his instruction, KM Obaidur Rahman and I reached the Jessore cantonment on December 5, 1971, and found that the Indians were plundering. Then I called Osmani from Jessore and went back to Kolkata on December 6. On his insistence, Osmani was given a helicopter on December 8 to visit war fronts. Sheikh Kamal was the ADC to Osmani. We — Osmani, Sheikh Kamal, chief of staff General MA Rab, Brigadier Gupta (Indian) and I — reached the Comilla circuit house on December 12 and found that the rooms were occupied by some Chatterjees and Banarjees. Osmani asked them who they were and why they were there. They replied that they were there to maintain law and order in an independent Bangladesh. It put Osmani at pains to see Indians in the circuit house and he refused to stay with them. All of them were Bengali (Indian) officers. Later, we stayed in another guest house.
On December 15, we came to know that Pakistanis agreed to surrender on December 16. Sheikh Kamal, who was Osmani’s ADC, told me, ‘Zafar Bhai, let us go to Dhaka to join the surrender ceremony’ and I told Osmani, ‘Let us head towards Dhaka.’ Osmani said ‘I am waiting for the reply from Kolkata. I wrote to the Bangladesh government in Kolkata and they have asked me to wait. I insisted on his going to Dhaka [even without any clearance from the Bangladesh government-in-exile]. I told him, ‘You are the joint commander of the joint forces. Pakistani forces will have to surrender to you.’ He replied, ‘Look, there is a democratic system.’ I told him again, ‘You are the commander-in-chief.’ He replied, ‘So what? I am under the government. I cannot make any move on my own unless the Tajuddin government gives the clearance. They [the Bangladesh government] asked me not to go there alone saying, “We will go there together.”’ Many claimed that they could not locate Osmani that time. It is a total lie. He was visibly upset. Osmani contacted them [Bangladesh government officials in Kolkata] even on December 16. Towards the afternoon of December 16, Osmani said, ‘Let us go to my ancestral land — Sylhet.’ Then Brigadier Gupta, who was in charge of the Indian helicopter, readily replied, ‘That is a good idea and the sky of Sylhet is clear as the Pakistani force has already surrendered in Dhaka.’
Then we — Osmani, Sheikh Kamal, chief of staff General MA Rab, Brigadier Gupta (Indian),  someone called Allama, a journalist or PRO and I — started our journey with two pilots towards Sylhet in the afternoon. We were all very disappointed that we could not attend the surrender programme in Dhaka. As our helicopter reached Sylhet, all of a sudden our helicopter caught fire as the oil tanker of the helicopter was hit with a bullet from the ground. Brigadier Gupta lied to us that the sky was clear. There was fierce fighting still going on in Sylhet. However, all the Pakistani planes had already been grounded by the time we reached Sylhet. A bullet pierced through the thigh of MA Rab. Sheikh Kamal was also injured slightly. Brigadier Gupta was also wounded. However, we could land the helicopter safely at a place close to the Fenchuganj Fertiliser Factory. Soon after, we all got down from the helicopter and it burned down.

2 Comments

  1. This is a very important document, how come that no comment here? Is Dr Chowdhury speaking some truth? Why not a discussion on the whole story?

  2. This story conforms to already known facts of War for independence, and nowhere contradicts at any point.

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