Interview of an Indo-Pak war veteran of 1971
Mohammad Ismail Khan, 2022 July 17
The 1971 Liberation War refers to the civil war in Pakistan between East Pakistan Bengali nationalists and the Pakistani army which started due to several reasons such as economic neglect and an attack on Bengali culture. A genocide would also happen against three million Bengalis in this war perpetrated by the Pakistani army.
Khan was born in the year 1955 to a Bengali family in the Wireless Gate region of Mohakhali. His father was an engineer, and his mother was a housewife. He had two sisters and three brothers. His first intense memory preceding the war was the cancellation of the Commonwealth Test Cricket match after Bhutto refused to hand over authority powers to Mujib after the elections of 1970, “Chairs and tables were being broken and flung from one place to another, and I quickly went home in fear.” He then fast-forwards to Mujib’s 1971 7th March speech (The Daily Star, 2022): “We raced to hear him. Thousands of people went to see him, even the women, though they were given an exclusive zone away from the men.
While returning to our homes, there was the fear that the army would harass us.” That night, they went to Jinnah College and removed the nameplate of the university, and so today we have the new name (which is Titumir college). “Barricading homes and roads common by civilians were common,” he remembers. He then fast forwards to and talks about the night of 24th March, “We could hear faint sounds of bullets far away. Little did we know that it wasn’t kids with ‘potkas’ (a type of handmade toy that gracefully and spectacularly explodes) but rather the military gunning down innocent students inside universities. Came the morning of 25th March, I witnessed the horrors of genocide: burnt pitch-black houses, dead bodies, crying mothers, and empty houses with families leaving everything behind. The gruesome war had started.” 1st April, he says the army decided to occupy his neighborhood as it had facilities for international communications. Then on the 14th of April, he chose to enlist in the war and started journeying towards Agartala city in India where they would get trained in the Lembucherra camp. There he met Rajput and Sikh instructors. His background was checked to see if I was a spy for the Pakistanis or not, and the investigators would go as far as checking one’s hometown. “There was a language barrier, and since I knew some Urdu, I could communicate with the Indians. The captains used to like me, kept me in low-risk missions such as guarding the nearby outposts, and gave me extra bullets to practice. I used to translate everything for my Bengali brothers during training,” he says. He describes the training by mentioning Indian SLRs, technical terms such as firing pin, aiming down sight, and aiming tips like ‘looking at green trees to ease eyesight.’ The training was complete, and he was assigned to sector 03 of the conventional forces. On 28th November, they were given a serious mission: to go near the border with East Pakistan and recon for Pakistani forces. The authorities asked them to make trenches, and he quotes them, “Don’t be lazy. It is you who will die if it’s not deep enough,” implying that the bullets will fly precariously close to their heads. “I voluntarily took the job of reconning,” says Khan. Khan remembers he saw a big tree and decided to take cover behind it, but he was very tired and fell asleep. He then says, “I woke up to swishing streams of red tracer rounds on my right and left. The Pakistani army was using bombs with magnesium compounds that gave off a very blinding white flame in the sky.
The artillery’s sound as the projectile neared the ground was the most terrorizing and gut-wrenching thing I had ever heard. My comrades were screaming at the top of their lungs so that I would retreat to them. After I did so, they cursed me for not coming back earlier, and I was ashamed to say I fell asleep. Someone shouted ‘Retreat!’ and we hastily started dropping ammunition to gain mobility. Most casualties happened as clueless soldiers were trying to leave the trench. We crawled our way to safety to avoid getting hit by incoming bullets. The bullets would hit the road so hard that it would erode and splinters would fly off. Finally, we reached Agartala airport, but it was decimated by Pakistani shelling.” He then recollects that the Indian army soon after bombed Pakistani whereabouts with MiG-21 fighter planes. Even before the war was officially declared on 3rd December, most of East Pakistan was liberated from the Pakistani regime. He had returned to Dhaka, and then on December 16, 1971, he remembers that at night he could hear blank fires, warriors were celebrating the birth of Bangladesh. “Freedom was in the air,” he reminisces.
The night he returned home, he was told about how his father thought he died in the war and how he looked for his body everywhere. His older sister allowed him to take her newborn into his arms, and the weeping of happiness continued, “I took the baby in my arms and knew it was all worth it. And do you know who that was? It was your father.” He ends by saying, “The Pakistanis lost because they were evil. It does not matter what religion you come from: good always wins.”
And so, the war resulted in the birth of a nation that fought for a language – the first of its kind. It proved the strength of unity under cultural aspects such as language. Even against a conventional well-trained army backed by American and Arab (Samad, 2021) wealth and influence, the people of Bangladesh persevered. The bravery of the many freedom fighters like Khan prevented the complete annihilation of Bengalis in East Bengal. This war and the 1952 Language Movement collectively brought the International Mother Language Day (UNESCO, 1970) that we know today.
International mother language day. UNESCO.org. (1970, January 1). Retrieved October 29, 2022, from https://www.unesco.org/en/days/mother-language
Nation to observe historic March 7 tomorrow Bss, Dhaka. (2022, March 6). The Daily Star.
Samad, S. (2021, April 12). Arab nations were on the wrong side of the history during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. Scroll.in. https://scroll.in/article/991876/arab-nations-were-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-history-during-bangladeshs-freedom-struggle