Sitangshu Guha is a senior journalist and human rights advocate based in the United States, here, he narrates what he and his family had to bear at the hands of Pakistani Military before the liberation of Bangladesh:
I guess it was hidden in my brain for a long time. Nobody ever asked me, nor did I know that it was so painful or important. But when IsPad asked me, I suddenly became so emotional that, I could not talk for a few moments and my eyes became wet. Initially, it was just an interview, but soon I realized that I became emotional in some instances, especially when it came to my family and what it had to go through. When I was talking about my Mother and how I had brought her from Dhaka to Chandpur in 1971, I became emotional, and still now if I have to talk again about that, I know I will be emotional again.
Here, I will try to write what I had told in answer to a question about my mother and younger siblings during IsPAD (Indian Subcontinent Partition Documentation) Interview on 28th January 2011 on Indian sub-continent partition by emirate professor Dr. SabyaSachi Ghosh Dastidar at SUNY, Westbury, Long Island, NY. It was a casual interview and I had no idea what shall I say and what will be asked by the moderator. This is just a segment of the whole interview and nothing in comparison to what others’ had faced during the partition of India and during the liberation struggle of Bangladesh.
The days of 1971 are not easy to forget.
The price of human life was no more than a Pakistani butcher’s knife on anybody’s throat. With a quick Islamic chant, he could slaughter any non-Muslim without committing any sin, so brainwashed was he.
The main chore for the Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators was to find religious minority Hindus and progressive-minded Muslims and slaughter.
The smell of deaths was always in the air and any good citizen could have been rounded up at any time and vanished with no trace and witness.
While Bengali Muslims could spend their days with some fear and prayers, the Hindus were targeted and hunted down with no mercy when they were caught fleeing from the cities or villages.
My journey to and from Chandpur to Dhaka is simply chilling and I do not think I will ever forget the trauma that I and my family had to suffer during those darkest days of our independence war.
In 1971, my parents and my siblings lived in two different places due to my father’s work at Chandpur while the rest of my family members residing in Dhaka. My immediate elder brother, mother, two younger sisters and a younger brother lived in Dhaka, the capital city of the then East Pakistan. My father used to visit Dhaka very often to see the family and he was in Dhaka in mid-March 1971. It was in the 3rd week of March 1971, when my elder brother came to Chandpur with a plan to go to India for a job interview. I was in Chandpur then. I helped him to travel to Agartala via Brahmanbaria, Comilla. On 24th March 1971, I came back to Chandpur and saw that my father also came back from Dhaka. I was supposed to go to Dhaka within one or two days but that was not to be. On 25th March 1971, Pakistani military seized Dhaka and started to commit massacres on the innocent civilian populations.
Our Dhaka house was adjacent to Sadhana Ousadhanalya (an ayurvedic medicine manufacture company) in Gandaria (old Dhaka). My mother along with my two little sisters and a young brother was stuck in Dhaka. One of my sisters was sixteen at that time and had just finished her School Secondary Certificate examination and was waiting to get into any of the Dhaka city colleges. The other two siblings were ten (sister) and eight (brother) years of age respectively. After Dhaka crackdown, people from all spheres of life were fleeing from the city because of the insecurity that was created by the Pakistani military and its collaborators.
My family (mother and siblings) was pretty much helpless with no adult male around in the house at that critical time. In addition, they were Hindus and that was known in the neighborhood.
My father and I were also helpless in Chandpur and we could not do anything to rescue my mother and siblings from Dhaka. My father talked about them every day while I was busy with my friends and kept an open eye on what was going on in and around Dhaka. About a week passed, my father told me to inquire about Dhaka and wondered whether I could go to Dhaka and see our family. It was almost impossible to make the trip because of the horrible atrocities that had been going on there at that time.
March passed and April came with no news from our family members from Dhaka and people of all shade and hue were coming back from Dhaka in the flock by various means, even on foot or by break journey.
I used to go to the river ghat (boat harbor) to see if any boat was leaving for Dhaka, but found none. On 4th April, I saw some engine propelled boats were going to Munshigang, an area close to Narayanganj. And, Narayanganj is few miles away from Dhaka. I consulted my father and he advised me to go Dhaka.
I do not remember the exact date, it might be on 2nd or 3rd April of 1971, the owner of Sadhana Oushadhalaya, a prominent Hindu was brutally killed by the Pakistani military. Because our house was located next to Sadhana Oushadhalaya, the drug manufacturer, my father was almost sure that none of our family members would be alive in Dhaka. Almost every day, he used to tell me to go and bring the news to confirm what exactly happened to our family. So, the time came to travel to Dhaka but all our kith & kin’s and friends advised us not to take that dangerous journey.
I failed to understand the gravity of the situation and decided to go to Dhaka at the first opportunity that I had. It was important to console my father with whatever news that was waiting for us to face. I was the only young male, who was capable of taking that trip. My mind was blank and I did not think that much about the danger. My father understood the gravity of the situation and perhaps, others told him about the deadly danger of taking the trip. But when the time came, my father was reluctant to send me. I felt that I should go and bring the family back, if not otherwise. I told my father on 5th April that I would be going to Dhaka the following morning. He did not say much but agreed with my decision.
The next morning, maybe, around 5 am, I set out for Dhaka. My father gave me money and told me to come back as soon as possible. I took an engine propelled boat and started my journey to Dhaka around 7 am. That time, everybody was friendly with each other and everybody was ready to extend their hands to each other. I was a good swimmer and considering the smaller size of the boat, I was not too scared of drowning in big rivers like Padma and Meghna. But, in retrospect, the journey was dangerous and I could have been killed if we had faced any Pakistani military patrol boat or a strong rainstorm.
It took me almost 12 hours to reach Munshigang and it was already evening. No military was there. I asked one shop keeper about whether I could spend the night somewhere around in that area. He advised me to spend the night in a college, which was open and ready to provide shelter to anybody whoever needed at that time. I bought some bread and banana and ate for the night and slept on a bare bench in a classroom at Haraganga College. Yes, I slept well. Early in the next morning, I took a boat with others, mostly day laborers, who were heading for Narayangang business center for daily work. It took over an hour to reach Fatullah (a place close to Narayangang) and it was about 7 am.
The boat stopped in a place which was not a regular ghat (where passenger boats stop), but a place where passengers came on board or got off from the boat. I got off and in ten minutes, I arrived at the Fatullah Fruit Bazar (market).
The market was burning. Amid the fire, I saw a baby’s leg. People told us that the previous night military came and set the whole market on fire and killing a few market vendors.
The military left at about 4 am and then the local people came out and put out the fire by themselves. I did not stop there and took a tempo (an open taxi that takes about 10 people) towards old Dhaka. It was about an hour ride and on the way, I got off at Gandaria and walked half a mile to our Dhaka house. I saw a few Biharis (Urdu speaking refugees who were collaborating with Pakistani military Junta at that time) but nobody asked me any question. I finally reached our house.
I knocked at the main door of our house and there was no response. I knocked on the other doors and banged the windows and still, there was no response. I was thinking about my next step. I knew some people around our house but was not brave enough to go around finding those people. About after ten minutes passed, I thought I should knock the upstairs door, where owners used to reside. I started knocking the door and nothing happened. To my desperation, I went to the side door of our house and knocked, and still, nobody opened the door. This time, I really felt very sad and was thinking what would I tell my dear father? Suddenly, the side door opened and somebody just dragged me inside. Most of the doors were locked from outside except only a few that were locked from inside.
My teenage sister pulled me in and I saw my mother and two other siblings. The meeting was pretty shocking! Everybody was very excited to see me and probably sensed a glimmer of hope to get out of the hellish Dhaka house.
I looked at my mother and I was truly surprised by her appearance. My Hindu mother was forced to dress like a Muslim widow to stay alive. She had neither vermillion nor any white Bangals (sankha) in her hands, rather dressed white as a widow. She looked older than her age and the fear of being detected as a Hindu mother was noticeable on her face. A Hindu mother was forced to give up her precious tradition to save herself and her family from the Pak butchers’ knife. My brother and sisters were very distressed from their traumatic situation and we could not speak for a while.
By this time, the landlord and his wife came to see me. The landlord told me that it was great that I came because he was about to send my mother and siblings with his family to his village home, where they should be far safer than staying in Dhaka. When he asked me about my plan, I said that we, all should be going to Chandpur as soon as possible. He asked me whether there was any military there and I replied no. I looked at my mother, landlord’s wife, and told them that we would be leaving within half an hour. I did not know where I found the voice, but this sounded like a strong decision. Nobody argued against that quick decision. The landlord wanted to know how we would go about that journey. I replied saying a taxi would be a better choice to get away since we were five. So, he went out to get a taxi for us.
The landlord was a Bengali Muslim, who had migrated from India and looked like an aged gentleman with a long beard. He was a religious man in both his looks and personal life, which was a great help for us. Landlord’s wife talked about the ordeal they had to suffer the following days of the 25th March military crackdown. My mother told me to eat and I ate some rice, dal, and boiled potato and was ready to start the risky journey. She said they had been eating that kind of food for the last few days and they were tired of eating the same but it was not easy for them to get anything else better at that time.
Soon the taxi came. It could carry six/seven people at a time. So, it was perfect for all of us to travel together in one vehicle. I saw another gentleman who came with the landlord, who was a friend of my elder brother, and incidentally, he was a Muslim Leaguer. My mother got ready with a single dress with no baggage. Even her gold ornaments were left with the landlady. We five sat in the rear seats of the taxi while our landlord and my brother’s friend sat by the side of the taxi driver.
The Good-Bye was really worrisome because the journey was dangerous and we could have been stopped at any time by the military and we could have lost our lives if they could find out that we were Hindus.
The time was around 10 am and our driver stopped at a gas station to fill the gas tank. We were all very nervous and scared and that ten minutes’ stoppage felt like almost ten hours. One Bihari man came towards to us and asked the landlord where we were heading? Landlord politely answered that he was sending his family to the village for a short time. Bihari man asked him again whether we will be coming back soon. The landlord nodded to answer yes. The Bihari man left the place and our taxi driver started to drive again. We were finally relieved and felt very happy. There was no more problem on the road and we reached Fatullah before noon. We almost jumped out of the car and walked faster to a boat, which was heading towards Munshigang.
On the road, we did not talk at all and I am sure that my mother was only praying. Our landlord took a heroic and humanistic decision to provide us a safe passage to Fatullah risking his own life. The other friend also took a big risk to accompany us with that critical journey to freedom. He knew that his company would provide us the safe passage and his presence would have helped us, had we have encountered any military checkpoint. Till today, after 49 years, I still salute the elderly gentleman and my brother’s friend for their kindness and bravery.
Later my mother told us that when I knocked on the door of the house on the ground floor, nobody could hear the knock because they were not living there. Our family was living in a room on the second floor with the landlord’s family and they treated them very well. When I knocked on the second Floor door, everybody got alerted and scared. Because at that time, any sudden knock on the door meant military men might be at the door. After second and third knocks on the door, someone from the landlord’s family tried to find out who would be knocking at that time of the day. One of the landlord’s daughters saw me partially but could not recognize me. She called my mother and sister and they instantly figured out it was me, who was at the door.
Anyway, we started with a boat from Fatullah. The landlord and my brother’s friend waited there as long as we could see them. Soon our boat was in the middle of the river and we were all felt relieved. The boatman told us that the military did not raid in the river and we got more relaxed. I also knew there were no military men in Munshigang. I was thinking that we should travel to Chandpur on the same day as soon as we reach Munshigang. Otherwise, we may not have a place to spend the night. About a quarter of an hour or more, we saw a launch in the river heading to some destination. The launch was better and a bit bigger than the engine propelled boat that we used the day before. We started shouting from our boat with raising our shirts to signal that we needed immediate help.
Some people in the launch saw us and luckily the launch stopped and picked us from our smaller boat. Our boatman tried his best to reach the launch. Finally, we reached the launch and with the help of some good people, we got into the launch for the next leg of our journey. Actually, other passengers just pull us from the boat to the launch. That was an incredible moment and when everybody treated us like brothers and sisters. People gave us the best cabin and my mother and other siblings just fell asleep; it seemed that they had not slept for a long time. I started gossiping and playing cards with passengers. They were asking a lot of questions, and I told them the story.
The captain told me that they will first go to Chandpur and there they will decide the next stop. We felt very lucky. Till today, when I think about that moment, I think how great were those people, who waited for us to be picked up in the middle of the river and how helpful were they to take us to that launch. Till today, I thank those unknown people who helped us. That was a great moment indeed. We reached Chandpur in the evening and said ‘good-bye’ to the fellow passengers. We took rickshaws to reach home safely.
My father was surprised to see us all and felt like something incredible had happened at that moment of the time. Before I left for Dhaka, he told me several times that our family members might have been killed. My father went to the market for a quick grocery shopping and the mother cooked some fish and rice. Till today, I would consider that dinner was one of the best that I ever had in my life. I had no idea that this beautiful thing could happen to our family within only forty-eight hours’ time. We were all under one roof in Chandpur and we felt really great. A dream finally came true when we were expecting the worst.
The views and this article is written by me and CurrenTriggers.com is not responsible for any assertions made by me. The true story was part of my interview about the adverse effect on us for the 1947 partition of India. If this story makes you interested to see and listen to my interview then check this link:
If you want to read more from Sitangshu Guha: