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By S.Rabbani Khan

After the 1970 elections, President Gen Yahya Khan announced Shaikh MujiburRehman to be the next prime minister of Pakistan. Bhutto did not like the idea and, on his asking, the date for the National Assembly session was changed from March 3, 1971 to March 25, 1971. Shaikh Mujib wanted the National Assembly session to be held at Dhaka, but Bhutto opposed the idea. The postponement and Bhutto’s opposition did not go well with Mujib.

On March 1, 1971, a jalsa was organised by the Awami League at PaltanMaidan, Dhaka, which, according to eyewitnesses, was attended by a massive number of people. In that jalsa, a non-cooperation movement was announced. Throughout East Pakistan, Bengalis refrained from attending their government offices. Non-Bengalis, commonly known as Biharis, were not sufficient in numbers to run the government offices. The province came to a standstill in terms of work.


We lived in Dinajpur, a northern district of East Pakistan. During the second half of March 1971, we witnessed many processions with people carrying weapons like swords, bamboo sticks and daggers, since firearms were not common in those days.

My father was a doctor, employed with the provincial government and posted at the southern district of Patuakhali, a day’s distance of rail and ship from Dinajpur where we siblings lived with our mother. Dinajpur was a Bihari populated city and we owned our own house, while in Patuakhali my father was the only non-Bengali.

When the violence started, we shifted to our khala’s house in Parbatipur, a railway junction almost 50 kilometres away.

Bhutto threatened the National Assembly members from West Pakistan going for the NA session to be held in Dhaka on March 25. He was quoted as saying, “If anybody goes there I will break his legs [Main uskitaangeintorrdoonga]. He should go with a one-way ticket.”

The National Assembly session of March 25 was cancelled and the army took control of East Pakistan. Lt. Gen Tikka Khan became Martial Law Administrator. Shaikh Mujib was arrested for treason and sent to West Pakistan. The fate of the majority was to be decided by a minority. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, tanks and armoured vehicles were seen in civilian areas, marching to victory over its own people. In April, due to his strong anti-Bengali attitude, Lt. Gen Tikka Khan was replaced by Lt. Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi.

Soon after our family moved to Parbatipur, train communication between Dinajpur and Parbatipur broke down because of acion by pro-Awami League militants. Massacres in all minor cities with small Bihari populations started. During the second week of April, almost 15,000 Bihari citizens of Dinajpur were slaughtered by pro-Awami League militants. After the massacre, the army took over the city. The Bengalis fled to nearby villages and the city wore a deserted look.

In June 1971, I visited Dinajpur with a friend. We went to the slaughter ground which was near the river. We counted 326 human skulls and then we could bear it no more. Most of the dead bodies were buried. The river bed was black with the stain of blood.

Then, the war started. Indian bombing began from December 3, 1971, and continued till the day of their success. On December 14, Indian helicopters dropped pamphlets saying India had won the war and the people should not resist, they should co-operate with the Indian Army.

The alarm bells rang and, for two days, total confusion and bewilderment prevailed in the city.

On December 16, the local army formally announced that surrender had taken place. The people panicked in the midst of news of massacres in smaller cities and towns. In the absence of the army, they were afraid of getting killed. The leaders of the city decided to shift to the nearby city of Syedpur, which had a larger Bihari population.

Trains were run from the night of December 16, 1971, through the entire day of December 17 to shift the entire population of Parbatipur to Syedpur. We took shelter in one of our paternal uncle’s house. On the radio, we listened to the news of the fall of Dhaka and the surrender ceremony of Lt. Gen Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi in front of the Indian Army commander of the Eastern Wing, Lt Gen Jagjeet Singh Arora.

In his speech to the nation on the historic day, Gen Yahya declared that the war was never-ending; it would continue. The Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report, published by daily Dawn much later in the late 1990s, revealed that Gen Niazi, the commander of half of Pakistan and Chief Martial Law Administrator of the Eastern Wing, was also involved in smuggling paan from East Pakistan to West Pakistan.

My father and elder brother, who was studying in medical college, had joined us in May. After the fall, we had no money; the banks were closed and our bank was not in Syedpur anyway. My father sold two of my mother’s gold bracelets for 250 rupees (gold was around 125 per tola at that time). He gave me and my brother the money to start some kind of small business so that the kitchen expenses could be met. We saw kitchen utensils and crockery coming from India and decided to sell these items.

The jeweller who had bought the bracelets allowed us to sit in the veranda in front of his shop. After a few days, a gentleman came to us saying that he wanted to sell his used crockery. Not sure whether we would be able to sell them or not, we nevertheless took the risk and bought his crockery. After the fall, the Bengalis who had fled from the cities in fear of the Pakistan Army started to return and they needed utensils and crockery. We were able to sell them profitably. A new chapter opened for us.

One day, a gentleman told us that he would go door to door to see if any used crockery sets were available for sale. In return he would take 15 percent commission from us. We agreed. On an average, we visited at least one home on a daily basis to buy their crockery. Our little efforts helped our four families living together to subsist.

When news of our homelessness reached our maternal uncle in India, he sent an agent to take us to India. The agent was totally unaware of the gravity of the situation. My family and my khalas ventured to go with him. We tried to cross the border at Chilahati but were caught by the Bengalis. They took all my mother’s ornaments (more than 300 tolas). They got so much that they didn’t disturb my khala at all; all her jewellery (more than 200 tolas) remained safe. They finally released us. Across the Indian border, we were caught by Indian Army on the night of March 28, 1972, who took us to the cantonment. They offered us food: chawal, daal and aalukabhorta. They kept us overnight and released us in the early hours of the morning.

The locals, seeing us with bag and baggage, suspected us to be from Bangladesh. One of them took us to his house, probably expecting some money for shelter and protection. But we had nothing left. The only valuable thing with us was my father’s wristwatch, which he sold for 50 rupees. We used the money for our two days’ stay there. Left with 20 rupees, which we were sure was enough for the bus fare, we went to the bus stop and took a bus.

By this time my younger brother and sister had chicken pox. In India, chicken pox is called ‘chotimata’ and small pox ‘barimata’, and was not uncommon in those days. They don’t disturb any person having mataas. So no one disturbed us.

We got down in Jalpaiguri, the last town of West Bengal. From there, we hired a taxi for 300 rupees to reach Kishangaj, where my maternal uncle was to receive us. The fare was paid by my uncle. This was the first city of Bihar. My uncle told my father to shave his beard so that he would not be recognised.

The next morning, April 1, 1972, we took the train to Bhagalpur, our native land and the second biggest city of Bihar. Soon after, we started planning on moving to Pakistan. My elder brother came to Pakistan in November 1972and got his admission transferred to Nishtar Medical College in Multan, from where he graduated later. I landed in Karachi on August 31, 1973. The rest of the family followed in 1976.

And so a young boy in his teens, full of aspirations and ambition, came to find his fortune to Pakistan, penniless, shelterless and with no one to hold his hand or offer any support.

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Embattled Ayodhya’s syncretic past

The Kashmir Monitor




The cover title of the book would suggest that even without turning a page we know what it is all about. Since the late 1980s Ayodhya has been lodged into the consciousness of most Indians as a metaphor for growing discord and bloody violence between Hindus and Muslims because of the as yet unsettled Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute. Yes, Valay Singh’s Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord is about the smouldering conflict which continues to hover ominously over the entire country.

However, the book is not just about the long pending dispute over a few acres of land, of Hindu-Muslim, mandir-masjid. The meticulously researched text by the journalist unravels for us the fascinating 3,300-year-old history of this “sleepy city” in north India which for centuries had been considered sacred space not only by the followers of Hinduism but Buddhism, Jainism and Islam as well.


For example, did you know (I did not) that among the Muslims of the region the significance of Ayodhya is not limited to the Babri Masjid which was demolished by Hindutva’s kar sevaks on December 6, 1992, or the fact that even today several dozen mosques dot the city’s landscape? According to the author, “Ayodhya is called Khurd Mecca (mini-Mecca) or ‘Ayodhya Sharif’ [holy Ayodhya] even now?” (p 145).

Or, did you know (I did not) that Nageshwarnath, the oldest temple in Ayodhya, is dedicated not to Ram but to Shiva, that “as in most of the country, Shiva worship preceded the cult of Ram in Ayodhya as well”? Before the Vaishnavas (Ram bhakts) finally emerged victorious in the 18thcentury, “Vaishnavism had to encounter the violent and bloody obstacle of Shaivaism in north India” (p 59). Singh quotes from the biography of one Devmurari (16th century) to record: “’The daily ritual of Shaivas was to kill four Vaishnavas before doing datoon (brushing teeth)’. And on days when they couldn’t find a Vaishnav to kill the Shaivas would make voodoo-like doll-Vaishnavas out of dough and slit their throats.” (p 60).

In other words, long before the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Ayodhya there was the bloody intra-Hindu feud, not to mention the targeting of Buddhists by Hindus earlier. On the other hand, the eruption of the Babri Masjid dispute — for the first time in 1885 — was preceded by long years of Muslim-Hindu accord and the flourishing of a composite culture (Ganga-Jamuni tehjeeb) while the Muslim nawab-kings ruled in the Awadh region, of which Ayodhya was the capital before being shifted to Faizabad nearby and to Lucknowsubsequently.

Singh quotes Lala Sitaram, the first British-era chronicler of Ayodhya’s history who wrote of Nawab Asif-ud-Daulah’s munificence thus: “He was famous for giving large donations. Thousands of rupees were given to Brahmins from the royal treasury. Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi [much revered temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman] was built during his time and stands as a testimony to his religious good”. (p89)

The decline of the Mughals and the nawab-kings of Awadh following the arrival of the British in India coincided with the deterioration in Hindu-Muslim relations in Ayodhya. It is a widely held view among historians that, “the first recorded Hindu struggle for Ram’s birthplace dates back to 1855”. That’s when Muslims attacked Hindus in retaliation for alleged demolition of a mosque in Hanumangarhi. (p 98).

The year 1885 marked the birth of the legal dispute over Babri Masjid when Mahant Raghubir Das of the Janmasthan temple filed a civil suit in the court of the district sub-judge of Faizabad, seeking an order to construct a temple over the Ramchabutra, a raised platform abutting the Babri Masjid. It is significant that until then there was no claim that Lord Ram’s birthplace was exactly on the spot where the Babri Masjid itself stood. His plea in the lower court, as also subsequent appeals before the district judge and the judicial commissioner of Oudh were rejected.

Ayodhya is a book in two parts. Book 1 begins with the city’s early history and ends with the ‘Indian Rebellion of 1857’ (many call it India’s first war of Independence from the British). Book 2 spans the period post-Independence till date.

In recent decades, local guides in Ayodhya have confidently asserted before visiting Hindu pilgrims that, one, “It has been nine lakh and fifty-six thousand years since Ram left Ayodhya for heaven, taking his subjects who loved him dearly along with him”; and, two, Babur destroyed the Ram temple that stood at his birthplace in 1526 and built a mosque over the ruins using “the blood of 1,76,000 Hindus to prepare the mud mortar”.

Relying on facts instead of myths, Singh informs us that the Babri Masjid premise itself was proclaimed as the actual birthplace of Lord Ram after an idol of Ramlulla “miraculously” appeared within the mosque premises on the night of 22-23 December 1949. On the morning of December 23, the then District Magistrate of Faizabad, K.K.K. Nair, sent a radio message to UP’s chief minister, chief secretary and home secretary that read: “A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when the masjid was deserted and installed a deity there… Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night but did not apparently act”. (p 189).

This notwithstanding, thanks to political subterfuge with bureaucratic connivance and failure of the judiciary to intervene expeditiously, from then until 1986 the gates of the Babri Masjid remained locked, Muslims were denied the right to offer namaaz inside, but Hindus were permitted to worship Ramlulla from outside the mosque while his idol remained undisturbed within.

Fast forward to 1984, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) elevated what until then was a local dispute to a national platform with the launch of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti. Two years later, in 1986, in a brazen instance of pandering simultaneously to Muslim and Hindu communalism, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government misguidedly chose to balance its appeasement of Muslims in the Shah Bano case by engineering the opening of the gates of the Babri Masjid for Hindus.

As was only to be expected, before long the Sangh Parivar snatched away the “Ayodhya card” from the Congress and used it to the hilt in its bid to political power. The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, under the watch of the BJP government led by Kalyan Singh in UP, the Prime Minister Narasimha Rao-led Congress government at the Centre, and a Supreme Court which failed to read the ominous signs, is part of that sordid story.

Missing conspicuously from Singh’s otherwise meticulously researched account is the report of the Liberhan Commission, which is a searing indictment of the insidious role played by the entire BJP/VHP/RSS leadership, the UP state bureaucracy and the police, and Muslim communal leaders in the brinkmanship that took the Indian republic to the abyss in December 1992. Albeit obliquely, Justice Manmohan Singh even questioned the role of the Supreme Court.

A three-member committee headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court (a Muslim) is currently at work in an attempt at the Supreme Court-mandated effort at mediation to find a resolution to the decades-old dispute. Among the three mediators is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is on record having warned that any obstacle in the building of a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid once stood will only lead to more bloodbath.

There is little in Singh’s book by way of clues to the committee in its effort at solving the complex communal puzzle. But that does not in any away belittle the importance of Singh’s book in unveiling the role of the various institutions of post-Independence “secular India”, the judiciary included, in the unraveling of a Hindu majoritarian agenda, with more than a little help from a communal Muslim leadership.

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Kashmir: A land with a rich history is now in turmoil

The Kashmir Monitor




Kashmir’s history, especially its recent past, is viewed by most in the Kashmir valley as one long miserable struggle. Professor Saifuddin Soz, an academic and long-time Congress politician from the valley, is apparently no exception.

Professor Soz in his book argues that Kashmir or, more accurately, the Kashmir Valley, is different from the rest of India because it has its own unique civilisation. He claims “no other region in India possesses such an ancient historical record.”


He believes that ever since Independence, the Government of India has wronged Kashmir and this is the reason why the Valley continues to be shaken by an armed uprising. The professor’s Kashmir narrative is not incorrect; New Delhi has indeed often and consistently been obtuse in its dealings with Kashmir. However, the very real and compelling reasons that have often prompted Indian leaders to take hard, and apparently wrong decisions are also not adequately appreciated.

For instance, much is made of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to imprison Kashmir’s most popular political leader, Sheikh Abdullah, in 1953. What are often left unexplained are the reasons behind Nehru’s seemingly undemocratic decision.

The counterview is that Nehru; once a great supporter of Abdullah, felt betrayed after it was known that he was secretly conspiring with the CIA to create an independent Kashmir. The so-called “Kashmir Conspiracy Case” slapped against Abdullah and his collaborators are a fascinating but often glossed over chapter in Kashmir’s slippery history.

In other words, it would be unfair to hold New Delhi responsible for every problem that has beset Kashmir in its recent history. Professor Soz’s narrative fortunately is far from being one-sided and is perhaps one of the best expositions of Kashmir’s history that has emerged in recent times.

Professor Soz is a mild, thoughtful figure who genuinely wishes for the best for Kashmir as well as for India and it is in this context that his work needs to be taken seriously and read carefully.

Especially relevant is the last section of the book where the author offers a roadmap for the future. “I have lived through the years of turmoil in Kashmir, always considering myself to be part of the life of Kashmiris”, writes the author. “I had got elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in June 1983 and since then I invested time to understand the life and times of Kashmiris.”

The author lists 10 points that need to be taken up in order to move towards a resolution of the unending crisis in Kashmir. These need to be perused with great care by all those who would like a solution to the problem.

Professor Soz himself maintains: “My dispassionate assessment is that a credible discussion and dialogue without any pre-conditions can be meaningfully initiated by the emissaries of the union of India directly with the Hurriyat. The dialogue and discussion with other political parties and groups could then follow successfully.”
Where one could differ with Professor Soz is in his understanding of Indian nationalism. Professor Soz’s basic assertion that “Kashmir has the unique distinction of being a civilisation on its own” and is one of the oldest in history is unexceptionable. However, it is equally true that India is made up of several civilisations that are equally unique and thousands of years old.

The Tamil, Telugu, Kalinga, Bengali and other civilisations all have histories that go back several millennia. They too have rich, unique cultures with their individual ethos, language and traditions. Being part of India does not require them to submerge or lose their unique identities.

Professor Soz, like many of his ilk, appears to have completely missed the fundamental precept on which Indian nationalism stands. For, the Indian state is not based on civilisational homogeneity but on diversity. Its people have come together to form a single nation state not because they all have the same history or ethos. They have come together because of the belief that diverse people can coexist and prosper irrespective of history, language, religion or culture.

India, like the highly successful nation state, the United States of America, is not based on cultural or racial unity unlike most other nations in the world, which are dominated by one kind of people. Indians do not even look alike; they have varied histories and legends going back many centuries; their diets are unbelievably diverse and so on.

Yet over the decades they have come to live together and despite aberrations learned to celebrate their diversity. Despite all its shortcomings and myriad problems, India has emerged as one of the most successful nations in the world with a quintessentially liberal ethos and open institutions.

The India concept was perhaps best elucidated by Novelist Salman Rushdie, who wrote: “Churchill said India wasn’t a nation, just an ‘abstraction’. John Kenneth Galbraith, more affectionately and more memorably, described it as a ‘functioning anarchy’. Both of them, in my view, underestimated the strength of the India-idea. It may be the most innovative national philosophy to have emerged in the post-colonial period. It deserves to be celebrated because it is an idea that has enemies, within India as well as outside her frontiers, and to celebrate it is also to defend it against its foes.”

Need one say anything more?

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Blood-splattered birth of a nation

The Kashmir Monitor




But some images remain seared into my memory. Like the famous picture of the surrender of December 16, 1971 which showed General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, in charge of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, publicly surrendering to the Indian Army’s Lieutenant Jagjit Singh Aurora. That clip played in every cinema theatre across India. I also have vivid memories of eagerly listening to the savagely witty news updates from Chorompotro (Extreme Letter), a popular underground radio show in Bengali. While Bangladeshi civilians battled Pakistani armed forces, the radio talk show host shared his humorous takes about the discomforts of the Pakistani forces and the victories of Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters).

Those childhood memories came back in a flash as I read Nadeem Zaman’s In the Time of the Others. Zaman, who was born in Dhaka, and grew up there and in Chicago, uses the format of fiction to give us the multiple sides of the story and the backstory of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. This is his first novel.


Everyone is familiar with the big story of 1971 – the horrific repression of Bengali citizens in what was then East Pakistan by the military regime in (West) Pakistan, the battle for freedom led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and the Awami League, the killings of Bengali civilians, rapes of women and the millions of refugees who poured into India through the eastern border, triggering a military confrontation between India and Pakistan. That blood-soaked, gut-wrenching big story which took such a massive human toll had a happy ending. Bangladesh became an independent nation. And it was among independent India’s most triumphant moments.

Zaman tells the small stories that swirl around that big story.

The novel is a compelling fictionalised account of the lived experiences of a whole galaxy of characters from all sides. The more academically-inclined would perhaps read the book as a treatise on identity and culture, the making of a postcolonial nation state from Bengali nationalism to Bangladeshi sovereignty. To me, the book’s power lies in the many truths it seeks to convey about the monumental, historic event of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 through compelling and nuanced stories.

Zaman’s cast of characters are human beings, not cardboard heroes and villains, with their human frailties, caught in the crossfire of conflict, upheaval and violence.

There is no one central figure. But someone through whose lens the story is largely told is Imtiaz Khan, who arrives at his uncle’s house in Dhaka, for what he imagines will be a short visit to sort out an inheritance issue. It’s a personal matter. But within days of his arrival, the military regime of then West Pakistan declares a crackdown on Dhaka. Civilians are killed in cold blood, and young, feisty fighters from the Mukti Bahini take refuge in the home of Khan’s uncle and aunt. Khan is sucked into the whirlpool of a narrative over which he has little control.

On the other side, there is Faizal Shaukat, a young captain in the Pakistan army, a military man of pedigreed stock, who finds himself conflicted on many occasions, which starts affecting his domestic life. His superior Major Pervez Shahbaz is a more predictable character, cast in a classic, villainous mould.

Interesting though peripheral characters in the novel include Helen and Walter, a journalist couple from the United States who get a ringside view of the momentous events; and Sam Truman, a member of the diplomatic corps.

What really resonated with this reviewer are the internal stories of conflict playing alongside the big story of violence and upheaval.
What does a ‘war’ do to a relationship between husband and wife? A telling example is the conversation between the Pakistan Army captain Fazal Shaukat and his wife Umbreen.

The following passage leapt out. “How many people have you killed, Fazal? Have you raped women? Did you watch your soldiers rape them?” The shoe dropped from his hand. “You are a drunkard and a slut.” Shaukat’s trembling had him spent in seconds. He sank onto the bed. Umbreen’s clenched fist next to his head, inches away. She wanted to ask him how many lowered heads he had looked at in the same position, at his feet, begging for mercy, before sending bullets into them.”

Even Helen and Walter get punchy lines. They spar with each other on whether the Mukti Bahini can be compared to the Vietcong. To Walter, the Vietcong is nothing more than “a bunch of Communist thugs. Murderers.” He is horrified at the suggestion that they have anything similar to the Mukti Bahini. “The Vietcong wants the US out of Vietnam; it is seen as an occupying force and they want them out, the same as here,” quips Helen.

The other interesting character is Suleiman Mubarak, a Bihari judge, who empathises with the Bangladeshi cause but is viewed with suspicion owing to his non-Bengali heritage and is killed by Mukti Bahini soldiers the day Dhaka was liberated.

It’s a sharp contrast to the camaraderie between the Indian and Pakistani military officers, even as Niazi signs the surrender document. Niazi had reportedly refused to lay down arms at the feet of the Mukti Bahini. A decorated officer of the Pakistani Army bowing in defeat to a Bengali guerrilla force was not a humiliation Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was prepared to take to his grave…” the author writes wryly.

The novel is full of these contrasts — between the loud violence and death on the streets and the minds of the characters caught in a maelstrom.

Zaman’s novel deep-dives into the minds of each of his characters, exploring their motivations and anxieties. But it does not shun the raw violence of the events on the ground.

As the author describes in unsentimental detail the Dhaka University killings, the savageries on ordinary civilians, the torture sites, even a brothel where captured women are kept as sex slaves, the effects on the minds of both perpetrators and victims are finely etched.

The storyline is taut; the plot never flags. I finished the book, 300-plus pages long, in one sitting.

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