Perwez Abdullah provides a first hand account of how Indian soldiers, bound by the ties of ethnicity rather than religion, helped and protected a community of fellow-Biharis in newly liberated Bangladesh
The shock, disbelief and dismay of the Urdu-speaking populace of Dhaka on December 16, 1971 had given way to fear and the realisation that indeed the inevitable had happened and now it was time to save their lives from the onslaught of the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force).
Muhammadpur and Mirpur, the only localities with Urdu-speaking majorities saw a mad rush as people from various other localities converged there, seeking safety in numbers.
My brother who worked for Habib Bank Limited called his colleague, Aziz Ahmed who had a two-storey house at Taj Mahal Road (interestingly most the roads and streets were named after Mughal rulers or related to them). Luckily the ground floor was vacant -- the tenant, a Chinioti businessman, had gone to West Pakistan. Aziz Ahmed opened the portion for our family. By afternoon our cousins and their families joined us.
The talk of the time was: What will happen now? It was a gloomy environment and everybody was apprehensive. Fear loomed large about a bloodbath of the Urdu-speaking community, something that had already happened in the small towns of East Pakistan after March 3, 1971.
It was just before sunset when several truckloads of Indian army troops arrived in Muhammadpur and Mirpur. I vividly remember the tired soldiers in their olive green uniforms, carrying long guns. There was anxiety among us as we witnessed the arrival of the victorious army. As it transpired, many spoke in Bihari accents, some even spoke the Bhojpuri dialect we perfectly understood.
One of the soldiers informed us that their battalion consisted of soldiers from Bihar and their commandant was one Major Abbas. Their tone and body language was sympathetic and they assured that nobody would hurt us.
Our surprise turned into relief as it became evident that some senior officials in the Indian army or government had realised the gravity of the situation and tried to prevent a further massacre. We found the Indian soldiers to be friendly, even diffident. Four soldiers came to the house where we were staying and engaged us in conversation. They asked if we were from Bihar. We replied in affirmative.
Two of them told us that they came from near Koelwar in Shahabad (Arrah) district, 40 km from Patna. My bhabi (brother's wife) was also from there. The soldiers (who were Hindu) asked for details. They were impressed by the information that her maternal grandfather was a Darogha (Sub-Inspector of Police, a post that inspired awe in British times). They left, but returned half an hour later and announced that they would stand guard at the gates of the house.
It seemed so odd but reassuring, a real blessing in disguise. It was not religion but ethnicity that bound them to us.
Since the bank's Bengali employees had frozen my brother's bank account we were out of cash. I decided to try my luck at Dhaka College where I was a second year student of Intermediate Science - I had some scholarship money due to me that I had not received for some time. One of the soldiers accompanied me. I encountered steely eyes and curious glances as we passed through the streets and reached the Dhanmandi area. The presence of a single soldier from the Indian army kept people at bay.
The Bengali principal Dr Hafeezuddin Ahmed was sympathetic as well as very helpful. He gave me money from his own pocket. I filled the form, signed it and gave it to Dr Ahmed. I do not know if my worthy and adored principal was ever reimbursed.
Most of the Bihari community was selling valuables to keep body and soul together. My cousin wanted to sell his Philips black and white TV set. I mentioned that to one of the soldiers and lo and behold -- a young Captain turned up the next morning to buy the set. My cousin insisted upon giving it for free. The Captain refused, and gave a better than market price for a second hand set. Indeed there are no boundaries for sterling character and honesty of purpose.
This real life drama would be incomplete without mention of another episode. An aunt who was in her home, alone, in old Dhaka, called for help -- a crowd had surrounded the house and was preparing to loot it. I informed the two soldiers from Koelwar about this. They roped in two more soldiers and we went to my aunt's house. The crowd ran away when they saw the Indian soldiers. We brought back the aunt to Muhammadpur.
The most interesting part of the incident is the short speech that one of the soldiers from Koelwar made. He reprimanded some onlookers for bothering the lady, pointing out that she was a Muslim and so were they.
It is indeed difficult to fathom human nature, and the twists and turns that happen with unforeseen circumstances.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
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