by Obaid Chowdhury * 5 February 2019
Little is known about the 1971 jail life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Pakistan. It remained shrouded in mystery amidst various rumors and narratives. Recently, I had an opportunity to watch an episode of Naqta-e-Nazar, first aired in December 2015 by a Pakistani television channel. My interest was evoked as it contained an interview of Raja Anar Khan who served Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the jails in 1971. The program was in Urdu, which might be a reason why it did not reach Bangladeshi/Bengali viewers. Even if it did, official scorn might have silenced it, because it revealed certain facts that betrayed Awami propaganda narratives about Mujib’s Bangladesh. The reader may click the links below for the video.
Syed Badrul Ahsan wrote a guarded piece in the Dhaka Tribune on August 15, 2018. For understandable reasons, he omitted the material parts. ( https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2018/08/15/pakistani-jailer-remembers-incarcerated-bangabandhu).
Raja Anar Khan was a young Police Inspector of Special Branch and acted as an unpar decoy of Mujib’s co-prisoner. He was detailed to serve Mujib, in reality to watch him and his activities. Raja told Mujib that he was serving a jail term for abducting a girl. Mujib’s jail room had an attached bathroom and a kitchenette. “Prisoner” Khaja Ayub cooked food for Mujib as per his choice. Ayub was also said to be a convict on abduction. Mujib once jokingly told Khan why all girl abductors came to him. Mujib had his regular supply of tambaku (tobacco) for his pipe. Sheikh Abdur Rahman, perhaps the Jail Superintendent, looked into the details.
At retreat (night), Raja Khan would lock Sheikh Mujib’s room and sleep outside the room. He would reopen the room at reveille (morning). Khan addressed Mujib as “Baba”, a respectable term for elders. Over time, Mujib and Raja developed an affection for each other and could confide. Mujib once told Khan, “You are unpar (illiterate), but you are pretty sharp.” Khan retired as a Senior Superintendent of Police. Being a veteran jail-goer, Mujib must have understood what and why they were.
Coming after 44 years, on a Bangladesh Victory month, there was little reason for the interviewer to concoct or hide facts in his revelation. He spoke good of Mujib and appeared credible. I give below a few important elements that I could extract from the interview.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won majority in the December 1970 elections, but Islamabad’s military leaders refused to honor the popular verdict. The junta decided to unleash the military to “teach the Bengalis a lesson” for their audacity to ask for equal rights and freedom from the domination of Punjabi overlords.
Following the crackdown on March 25, 1971, Sheikh Mujib surrendered to the military. He ignored the repeated requests of his close associates to leave his residence and lead the fight for independence. Terms of surrender had earlier been arranged through US Ambassador Joseph Farland in Islamabad. Mujib’s family would be protected by the military in Dhaka, in addition to receiving sufficient cash allowance and free provisions. Sheikh Hasina delivered son Joy in July 1971 at Dhaka Cantonment amidst military fanfare.
A commando platoon picked up Mujib and his wife from their residence at Dhaka’s posh Dhanmondi area. They stayed at the newly built MNA Hostel at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar for a night or two. Mujib was then taken to Dhaka Cantonment and later flown to Karachi, West Pakistan. Begum Mujib was sent to her family that was housed at 19 Dhanmondi for the entire period of the war. On April 1, 1971, front pages of almost all dailies of Pakistan published an image of a pensive Mujib in his trademark white kurta-pajama and black half-overcoat surrounded by police escorts, said to be at the Karachi airport.
Mujib was lodged at a jail at Faisalabad, about 60 miles west of Lahore. When the Indo-Pak war broke out on December 3, 1971, the authorities feared that the jail could be attacked or bombed, or even a rescue attempt made by Indian commandos. They shifted Mujib to Mianwali jail, another 150 miles northwest. After the fall of East Pakistan, Mujib was taken by helicopter to a Rest House in Sahalla, perhaps somewhere close to Islamabad. Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Raja Khan accompanied him.
According to Raja Khan, Mujib was totally unaware of the developments outside, military or political, not even the start of the Indo-Pak war. During his road travel from Faisalabad to Mianwali, Mujib pointed at the movements of military in camouflage gear outside. Khan explained that it was perhaps a military exercise. While in jail, they heard occasional firings and bomb blasts. Again, his prison mate explained that it was due to the presence of a firing range close by. This appears somewhat odd to me. How could a politician of Mujib’s stature remain totally in the dark or not concerned at all after what he had left the country before surrendering, unless he was too naive.
At the Mianwali jail, an “L” shaped air raid shelter, a trench, was prepared with mats and blankets inside for comfort. Upon arrival in Bangladesh, Mujib claimed it to be his would be grave, ostensibly to draw public sympathy. First, Muslim graves are not made “L” shaped, nor do they contain mats and blankets. Second, why would Pakistan bury Mujib in the jail compound, if they had to?
Mujib had no access to media (books, newspaper, television, radio), not even visitors. This contradicted somewhat to the finding of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci to whom Mujib admitted to have done “some reading” in jails, despite his earlier denials. (Ref: Fallaci, Oriana, 1972, L’ Europeo, January 24, 1972). Jails had libraries and Mujib could have access to the books, unless authorities put a ban on it. Inspector Khan perhaps meant information materials like newspapers, tv, radio etc. At the Sahalla Rest House, Mujib got all the media materials he needed.
When asked by the moderator if Sheikh Mujib Rahman ever requested him to meet any officials, people in higher up, Raja Khan was quick to answer, “How could he? I was a low level “prisoner.” If he did, it would be to Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the Superintendent, but I was not aware.”
Mujib’s defense attorney AK Brohi met him from time to time. During the meetings, in which Raja Khan was always present, only his case was discussed. No political topic or outside information could be exchanged.
After becoming president (on December 20, 1971), Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came to meet Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Rest House. During the meeting, Khan was hiding behind a screen with a loaded pistol, for whatever reasons. Below was what transpired between them.
After greeting each other, Bhutto sat on a sofa. Mujib sat by his side. Mujib started the conversation.
Mujib: Ap kaise? (What brings you here?)
Bhutto: I am the President and Chief Marshal Law Administrator of Pakistan.
Mujib: How come?
Bhutto: East Pakistan has fallen. India won victory and Pakistanis surrendered to India. General Yahya Khan resigned.
Mujib was outraged. He sprang to standing position and scornfully demanded.
Mujib: How can it be? How can you be the president? You are a loser, a minority (in the elections). I am the majority leader. I have the right to those positions, not you. Take me immediately to a radio or TV station, I will denounce all these and keep East Pakistan as before. I will nullify all these and fix everything.
Bhutto: Please calm down. This is the reality now. Sit down please.
Mujib sat down. After a silence, Mujib expressed his disgust at Tajuddin Ahmed, Secretary General of Awami League and wartime Prime Minister based in India, and said that he suspected he would end up with something like this (in collaboration with India). This corroborates with the assertion of Prof Aftab Ahmed of Dhaka University. Prof Ahmed wrote in his book that upon landing in Dhaka on January 10, 1972, Mujib rebuked Tajuddin saying,
“শেষ পর্যন্ত তোমরা পাকিস্তান ভাইঙ্গাই ফেললা? (So, you finally broke Pakistan?)”.
Before leaving, Bhutto asked what he could do for Mujib, the latter asked for tv, newspapers, radio etc., which were immediately provided. He also wanted to meet Dr. Kamal Hossain, who was brought down from Nowshera shortly.
After Bhutto left, Mujib locked himself in his room. Raja Khan and others were worried that Mujib might do something in desperation, given his earlier tantrums at the break up of Pakistan and Bhutto becoming the new leader. Khan finally succeeded in getting the door opened after repeated knocks and appeals to his “Baba.” Mujib then fell prostrate on a prayer mat and cried out (in Bangla), “Ya Allah, why all these happened? I never wanted it to be like this….”
It testified that Mujib remained committed to a united Pakistan, refused to accept the surrender of Pakistanis, and of course, did not seem happy with the creation of an independent Bangladesh. His sole aim till then was to be the supreme leader of Pakistan, while gaining full autonomy for East Pakistan.
Please also see what Sharmin Ahmed, daughter of Tajuddin Ahmed, had to say about her Mujib Kaku: “মুজিব কাকু প্রচন্ড ক্ষমতালোভী, সুবিধাবাদী ভীতু মানুষ ছিলেন। তিনি কখনও বাংলাদেশের স্বাধীনতা চাননি। তিনি পাকিস্তানের প্রধান মন্ত্রী হতে চেয়েছিলেন। (Mujib kaku was highly power hungry, opportunist and a coward. He never wanted the independence of Bangladesh. He wanted to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan)”—Sharmin Ahmed (from her book Tajuddin: Neta o Pita).
If Khan is to be believed–there is no reason to disbelieve–was it a drama on the part of Mujib? If so, to what end? East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Pakistan had a new leader, apparently treason charge against him had been quashed and that Mujib was a free man. There was no need to act or play the Pakistani tune anymore. And, if it was a drama, his prayer would have been in Urdu, not in Bangla, to be clearly understood by Khan and others in the hearing distance. So, what would one deduce about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: a trickster, confused or a true Pakistani?
Stanley Wolpert writes in his book Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan, in a meeting on December 27, 1971, Mujib assured Bhutto that their two countries would have a Confederation relationship. “I told you it will be confederation,” said Mujib. “This is also between you and me… You leave it to me…Absolutely leave it to me. Trust me… My idea is we will live together and we will rule this country. You know the occupation (Indian) army is there.”
Mujib said similarly to Anthony Mascarenhas in an interview in London on January 8, 1972, “Going to keep some link with Pakistan.” (Ref: Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood).
Earlier in a jail room conversation with Khan, Mujib blamed President Yahya Khan for destroying Pakistan. On the other hand, in his Affidavit for the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, Yahya credited Mujib to be a patriot and blamed Bhutto for breaking Pakistan. “It was Bhutto, not Mujib, who broke Pakistan,” Yahya wrote.
When time came for Mujib to leave, he wanted to go to India first. Why? Was it Mujib’s political trickery, a quick change of mindset and game plan? He had earlier denounced Tajuddin’s India collaboration that materialized Bangladesh, now he became an India lover overnight. Reasons are not far to seek. Bangladesh became a reality despite Mujib’s best efforts to keep Pakistan united and finally keeping himself out of the trouble. India was instrumental in the process (he had little idea about the Mukti Juddho fought by the Bengalis). He, therefore, had to reorient and readjust his political strategy and loyalty. Under the changed circumstances, he needed India’s blessing to reassert himself. Otherwise, he would soon lose ground to Tajuddin.
Bhutto declined the request on political and technical grounds. It was finally decided to send him to London. Raja Khan said to have played a role in convincing Mujib in accepting the London route. Mujib invited his close attendants, Raja Anar Khan and Sheikh Abdur Rahman, to come with him to Bangladesh. He even offered Khan a befitting job in Dhaka. It could not be done. They, however, accompanied him up to the airport.
When Mujib visited Lahore in 1974, he wanted meet his former jail mates. Khan thought Sheikh Abdur Rahman had met. He didn’t, because he didn’t want to get entangled in any political controversy subsequently.
At parting, Mujib presented Raja Khan the book Crime and Punishment written by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in addition to one of his smoking pipes. The book was displayed during the interview. Perhaps borrowing a line from the book, Mujib wrote: “In the long war between falsehood and the truth, falsehood wins the first battle and the truth the last.” He signed it on 5.1.1972 (January 5, 1972).
In London on January 8, 1972, in an interview with David Frost, Mujib invented the figure of 3 million (some say, it was his misunderstood version of 3 lakhs) Bengalis that the Pakistanis killed during the 9- month war. Serajur Rahman of BBC, the first Bengali to meet Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in London, asserted in The Guardian on May 24, 2011 that he had mentioned to Mujib of about 3 lakhs (300,000) Bengalis dying in the war. Serajur Rahman had also noticed that Mujib looked somewhat nervous and kept smoking his pipe too much, at times smoke covering his face completely. This was not the first time Mujib faced public adulation; he had them before. But, this time, he stood between his lifelong conviction and reality, as well as between truth and false. Oriana Fallaci, who interviewed Sheikh Mujib almost immediately after his arrival in Dhaka, also observed him to be somewhat nervous, inconsistent, continuously shifting stands, as well as arrogant throwing couple of rebukes at Fallaci.
It was rather strange that the man who left the seventy million people at the mercy of the Pakistani killers–while arranging security for his own family– suddenly became their champion and started shedding crocodile tears!
That’s what the leader and politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was! Awami League made him the father of a country he did not want, nor did he believe in.
*Obaid Chowdhury USA is the pen name for R. Chowdhury
February 4, 2019
As a captain of Pakistan Army in 1971, the writer escaped from Lahore and joined the War of Liberation of Bangladesh under Z Force, later winning a gallantry award. He has three book publications to his credit.