On a picoscale I am part of history. I was the first person to voluntarily visit Dhanmondi Road No 32 on15th August 1975.
During the General Elections of 1954, the United Front made a clean sweep in East Pakistan, conceding the ruling Muslim League only 10 seats. Among the new faces in the provincial parliament was a young fiery orator named Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a disciple since their Kolkata days of Hossain Shahid Suhrawardy, the leader of Awami Muslim League. There was also a former bureaucrat turned journalist who had no regular job after his newspaper had been shut down by the Muslim League government a week before 21st February 1952. He belonged to the Krishak Shramik League led by Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, because he too had known the former Chief Minister of Bengal since they both lived in the Park Circus Area of Kolkata. Awami League was the majority party in the coalition, and bagged most of the ministries, including one for the former student leader. The other person regained his editorship after the ban on his paper was lifted. When Dhanmondi Residential Area was being developed, both of them received plots from the government on the same road, within a stone’s throw. The minister constructed a small house soon after the allotment, the editor had to wait seven years, but frequently used the free phone offered by the (then ex-) Minister whenever he went to check the construction of his tinier house. They did not have the same philosophy, the same politics, the same education, or the same charisma, but had mutual respect for each other. They visited each other’s house occasionally for a chat.
The student leader of Kolkata eventually became the undisputed leader of Awami League after the death of Suhrawardy and kept pressing for the demands of East Pakistan in public meetings, news conferences, and meetings with the army in power. The Editor wrote editorials and columns on similar points for a gradually emerging class of English reading Bengalis. Both were imprisoned at various times, the former actually spending a large part of his youth in jail. In 1970 the Awami leader won virtually all the seats of East Pakistan in the general elections of 1970, right after the devastating storm and tsunami, where the Pakistani army played an inactive role and alienated the people of the province. The army dilly-dallied in handing over power, creating mass discontent in the province. Then came the irreversible plan spelled out in the speech of the 7th March 1971. The holder of majority seats was imprisoned and taken to West Pakistan, never to be seen again until January 1972. The Editor had to stay in Dhaka with his big family and edit a controlled newspaper, though one of his sons-in-law escaped and managed to publish a full front page news feature on “Pogroms in Pakistan” in the Sunday Times, that wakened up the world as much as Anthony Mascarenhas’ writing as to what was going on in East Pakistan. The Editor was threatened by the army for familial sedition, and his name was included in the hit list made by the killer squads, though the sentence was never carried out.
In January 1972, the President of the new Republic came back. The Editor wrote an editorial entitled “the Supreme Test”, where he advised a new election appropriate for a new country. This was misinterpreted by sycophants who deified their leader and offered him power for life. Unaccustomed to ruling a country in a democratic atmosphere, the President forced the Editor to resign from a position he had held since 1949. Sheikh Mujib was advised by a strong left-wing pro-Russian gang who determined all policies of the new nation, reducing him to almost a figurehead. Then came the grand idea of BAKSAL, a one-party system, as in Russia. The KS in the name was for Krishak Shramik, the name of Sher-e-Bangla’s now defunct party. Mujib, whose magnanimity has never been questioned, did indeed want to be everybody’s leader, not only of the Awami Leaguers’, some of whom had irritated him by stealing relief goods and by showing a weakness for all kinds of petty and serious vices. But he also liked the prospect of a tension-free life-time tenure.
I was only an Assistant Professor at Dhaka University when all this was happening. It appeared in the media that it had been made mandatory for all government servants, employees of autonomous bodies, and even army officers, to become members of BAKSAL. We had just come back from England, where we were actually voters by contemporary law, being commonwealth citizens, and were wooed by both conservative and labour candidates. I found the prospect of becoming a citizen of a one-party country unpalatable, and for the first time began to regret coming back at all. Soon, one of my former teachers approached me. He had been assigned by the Vice-Chancellor to get everybody’s signature on a sheet of paper to be delivered to the President in a special ceremony on the15th August. This particular teacher did not like me much and always under-marked me, and hence I was doubly annoyed. I told him I would sign only if all other teachers of the department signed before me. In a couple of days he showed me the long signature list. I found two names missing, the two most political elements in my department, one of whom has recently won the Ekushey Padak. I felt relief, but only for a brief moment; the signature collector explained that these two were high-ups in the one-party hierarchy and had already become members of a higher echelon. With trembling fingers I signed the document and, agnostic as I have always been, kept praying to God, “Please do something miraculous so that it is never effective.”
On the night of 14th August I was completing one of my first days in my new abode, on Indira Road, a separate house not too distant from my father’s Dhanmondi house on Road No. 32. Early in the morning we were awakened by the sound of heavy gun fire. To me, it seemed at that time to be coming from the Dhaka University area. Only a few days earlier, one of the smaller cupolas of Curzon Hall had been damaged by a bomb. The sound of gunfire did not frighten me. I was hoping the disturbance in the university area had grown and there would be no function and no handing over of the collected signatures in a golden boat casket to the President. Even delaying the inevitable seemed quite desirable. However, a little later my brother-in-law, who lived in the adjoining house told me about the broadcast by Dalim and Moshtaque announcing the coup and the death of Sheikh Mujib. I was too shocked even to think clearly. I called our Dhanmondi house and my sister replied. They knew everybody had been killed, but did not want to talk much. There was a curfew on, which was later lifted temporarily during Juma prayers. I borrowed a cap from my brother-in-law and despite my dazed wife’s strong protests, began to drive towards Dhanmondi as soon as the curfew was lifted. There were fewer than normal people on the road, but otherwise it could have been any other peaceful Friday. I came to the intersection of Road No. 27, and found the first barricade – no further movement allowed toward No. 32. So I went into Road No. 27 and then took a turn and arrived at the bridge. Here an army officer stopped me and asked me very politely where I wanted to go. I showed the direction of my father’s house which was the same direction as Sheikh Mujib’s. He first refused to let me go, but when I told him I lived in that house, he relented, with the warning that I should drive very slowly and not go beyond the corner of Dr Alam’s house, which was right in front of our house. As I drove slowly, I saw fresh tank track marks on the road. I came near the turn for our house and noticed that an old battered blue Toyota I had always seen coming out of the President’s House was lying across the next turn, half overhanging the ditch there. Then my heart sank. I saw lots and lots of ice blocks dumped in front of the President’s House. So the bodies were still there.
My sisters told me my father had become sick and had taken so much sedative he was still asleep. As I looked at our gate I could almost see Russell there, as he used to stop there often on his little black motor bike. He would look at me with some confusion, as I never smiled at the cute little boy, unlike other people, because I was terrified of being labelled one more bootlicker. But today I blurted out something like – “Why did these monsters kill the little boy or the women?” Sheikh Kamal’s wife Sultana Ahmed was the best sports woman of Bangladesh and was not politically involved. The other daughter-in-law was a cousin, also no beneficiary of AL, or BAKSAL. My sister put her hand across my mouth so that my words could not get very far.
I was fearing the worst – some kind of civil war, at least on a small scale. Nothing like that happened. Awami leaders either joined with Moshtaque, or went to jail tamely, or simply fled. My former teacher, the signature collector, also left Bangladesh somehow and never returned. BAKSAL was dead within a couple of hours. Years later Abdur Razzak Bhai, who always showed his affection for me when we were in FH Hall, tried in vain to revive BAKSAL, after Sheikh Hasina had already abandoned the idea of a one-party nation. But the lust for everlasting power is difficult to get rid of. Our ministers never resign willingly. Our PMs are ever forgiving to loyal men and women who have helped them in difficult times, and shower rewards on them even at the cost of the whole nation. They never let anybody grow to a stature where their own leadership can be challenged.
BAKSAL remains in one form or another in all parties.
Ahmed Shafee is the Vice Chancellor of East West University.