By R Chowdhury 30 May 2023
Following my escape from Pakistan Army in 1971, I was assigned to Z Force of Colonel Ziaur Rahman in the eastern theater of the Bangladesh liberation war. The nearly 20-day journey took me from Lahore to Khem Karan to (India’s) Rajoke to Ferozepur to New Delhi to Kolkata to Agartala and finally to Masimpur, Headquarters of the Number 4 War Sector, on a late afternoon. Colonel C R Dutta received me cordially on the verandah of a tin shed building. A humorous person, his Sylheti accent was unmistakable. They had prior information sent from Agartala.
“Dutta da,” I heard a familiar voice coming across the partition of my temporary accommodation. I walked over and found a gentleman in khaki, half-lying on the bamboo platform used as a bed, talking to the Sector Commander. Semi darkness did not reveal his face clearly.
“Slamualikum, Sir,” I wished and introduced myself. The man sat up and said, “So you are the Captain who came to raise my artillery. Sit down.”
My brain was struggling to recall the identity. Second Lieutenant Sajjad Ali Zahir, another escapee from West Pakistan and posted to my unit, joined me at Agartala. He followed me to the room. As I introduced Sajjad to the man, the name instantly flashed across my mind.
“Major Ziaur Rahman,” I told Sajjad. The moment I noticed his new rank, I corrected my statement, “Sorry, Colonel Ziaur Rahman.”
Major Ziaur Rahman was an instructor in the military academy when I was a cadet, and his solid, deep voice was well-known to me.
On his query, I gave my brief defection story: crossing the Lahore-Khem Karan border in a military jeep, miraculously surviving after falling into the Kasur River and reporting to various Indian and Mujibnagar authorities. He seemed to know my escape route and the area pretty well. Somewhat surprised, I asked how he knew the names of those villages, tracks, BRB canal and barriers.
“I fought the Indians there in 1965 with 1 E Bengal,” he said.
(Ziaur Rahman received Hilal-e-Jurat for his gallantry in that war).
We ate dinner together. Before leaving for his Headquarters at Kailashahar, Colonel Zia told me to take stock of my unit at Kukital and report to him in a day or two to find out what I needed to make the unit battle worthy within the shortest possible time. Captain Oli Ahmed and my Sialkot friend Captain Halim, Brigade Major and Quartermaster respectively at Z Force, were very helpful in meeting my requirements.
Whole Bangladesh is Your Firing Range
Two weeks later, Colonel M A G Osmani, Commander-in-Chief of the Mukti Bahini, was visiting the area. Zia brought him to my camp with a view to showing the readiness of my guns for operation. I arranged a mock gun-firing drill for the visitors that included a few Indian officers.
“Sir, the Chief was very impressed with the exercise,” said Lieutenant Sheikh Kamal, ADC to the C-in-C, to me afterwards. “I heard him commenting to Colonel Zia.”
Colonel Osmani himself appreciated the preparedness and congratulated those who participated in the drill. During the impromptu luncheon at my camp, I asked him if I could conduct a practice fire, for which I needed a firing range, before going to the real one.
“The whole Bangladesh is your firing range, my boy,” said Osmani. “Go ahead.” I received blank check.
After a day or two, while returning from forward positions, I noticed a large convoy full of troops passing by. Initially I thought they were Indians. On a closer look, I recognized they were our Mukti Bahini soldiers. In those days, most of us had the same OG (olive-green) uniform worn by the Indian army in that area. After a while, I noticed Colonel Zia coming in a jeep. He stopped when he saw me. After military greetings, I asked him what was all that.
“That’s your 1Bengal.” His hint at making me feel proud was unmistakable.
“Where are they going?”
He got out of his jeep and asked me to follow him. We went up on a high ground from where we could oversee the convoy passing through the hilly tracks. We sat down on grassy patch.
“To Zakiganj and Atgram.” He briefly explained the plan for a 3-prong attack on Pakistanis in northeastern Sylhet with his 1, 3 and 8 Bengal regiments. I sprang on my feet.
“Am I not part of your brigade?” He must have noted the anger in my tone.
“Of course, you are.”
“Then why am I left out of this?”
“Are you ready?”
“Anytime.” My confidence was evident. I noticed a flash of happiness and pride in Zia’s face.
“Can you move tonight?”
“Fine. You are going in support of 8 Bengal. On my way, I will talk to Brigadier Sandhu, Zia’s Indian support counterpart, to issue the ammunition and gun towers (trucks) to you on a priority basis. See me at headquarters later tonight. I will give you further details.”
My excitement knew no bounds and was about to run away to arrange the details for the D-day I was waiting for.
Fight the War Our Way
“Wait. Wait. Sit down,” Colonel Zia stopped me. “There is time. Give me company while I see my unit clear away.”
As the convoy moved on, our discussion shifted in different directions. I told him how Pakistanis in the west had been conducting misleading propaganda about our war, our heroes and our future. In Pakistan, Osmani, Zia and many others were already “dead.” I discovered a different Zia from the reclusive and serious one that most people knew. It looked like he wanted to open his mind.
We talked about the war, the strategy, its conduct and the policy makers at Mujibnagar. He expressed his frustration at the style and pace of the war. He did not like too much dependence on India.
“It is our war. We should fight it our way. Not on someone else’s convenience.” Then referring to Osmani, he said, “That man with white moustache has no idea about the situation on the war fronts and the enemy. Just passing orders off the map at someone else’s dictation. I don’t like it.”
I was a bit embarrassed that he would open up like that before a subordinate and junior officer. But I also knew that Zia, for whatever reasons, had developed a liking for me and could confide in me.
When I asked about his family, quietness descended. He looking around vaguely for a while before saying in a low tone, soaked voice, “I don’t know.”
(Our association continued until I met the president last, in September 1980).
The sun was setting when we got up. I told Zia that I could be late to reach his headquarters tonight because I had a number of errands to complete before the move.
“Don’t worry. I don’t go to bed early.” I later learnt that Zia usually worked until the early hours of the morning in those days. He slept very little.
I came to Zia’s headquarters around 11 pm and found him working in his tent, which was dimly lighted by a lantern. Our meeting was brief. He showed me the deployment of 8 Bengal Regiment on the map; I was to place guns suitably to support its operations and advances. If within range, I might also be required to support 1 and 3 Bengal to the north. The Commander marked their positions too. He then called his BM and DQ and asked them to provide me whatever materials I needed. I gave them the list.
My unit’s first operation at Baralekha, Sylhet, was an unprecedented success. Next morning, an overjoyed Colonel Zia, accompanied by Captain Oli, visited my gun position, which was on a hill ridge in Lathitilla forest.
“You made history in our liberation war,” said a beaming Commander with a warm handshake. He went around, shook hands and congratulated every man I had. “Joy Bangla” slogan kept ringing everywhere.
Before Zia left, I informed him that I would be going to the forward locations of 8 Bengal as FOO (Forward Observation Officer) soon.
“Make sure the guns are safe,” he advised. “These are very precious for us.”
“They are in good hands, Sir,” I assured him.
(After the war, Colonel Ziaur Rahman recommended me for a “Gallantry Award of the Highest Order.” What happened to the recommendation is another story!)
Sometime in 1973, then Army Deputy Chief Major General Ziaur Rahman was on a visit to Chittagong, where I was a staff officer to Colonel Mir Shawkat Ali, the local commander. At a luncheon for Zia at the commander’s Flag Staff House, Brigadier Khalilur Rahman, who had just been repatriated from Pakistan, was also present. Zia and Khalil were discussing our liberation war. At one stage, Zia called me to tell the brigadier how I raised my artillery unit and how long it took me to train and make it ready for the war.
“The whole thing took me less than three weeks, Sir,” I said.
A skeptical brigadier asked, “If you are given the men and material, would you be able to accomplish the same now?”
“Definitely, Sir,” I said confidently. “Please bear in mind,” I added, “it was wartime, and that too a liberation war. Our only mission was to fight and win. We used every minute of our time, day and night, to get ready. I had some excellent trained artillerymen from the Pakistan army. They formed the core, while the rest were ordinary soldiers, students and others. You had to see their spirit to believe it, Sir. The beauty was, the unit that went to operation on a Ramadan afternoon, without prior practice firing had its very first shell falling right on the target, a Pakistani concentration in Baralekha, readying for an attack on 8 Bengal positions. That unexpected (Pakistanis never knew before that Mukti Bahini had artillery power) and devastating artillery shelling forced the disarrayed enemy to start a process of retreat, leading to a complete defeat in that area.”
I could see a proud General Zia, enjoying our conversation, standing nearby. He perhaps desired to highlight my contributions in our liberation war to the one who had missed that chance.
The Revolt in Chittagong
Once at Kailashahar, Captain Oli told me the story of how 8 Bengal revolted in Chittagong on the night of March 25, 1971. The facts were later corroborated by Major Shamsher M Chowdhury, a batch mate, Brigadier Chowdhury Khaluquzzaman and Captain Mahfuzur Rahman. They were all serving in 8 Bengal at that time.
Lieutenant Colonel M R Chowdhury of East Bengal Recruits’ Center (EBRC), Major Ziaur Rahman, Second-in-Command of 8 Bengal, Captain Rafiqul Islam of East Pakistan Rifles and a few other officers had a number of secret coordinating meetings in Chittagong to cope with the situation, if Pakistanis attacked the Bengalis. They sent messages to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to inform him that Pakistanis were preparing to disarm and attack the Bengalis, and sought his advice. They did not get any. (Please see “A Tale of Millions” by Major Rafiqul Islam.)
8 Bengal was under order of transfer to Multan and an advance party had already moved to the new location. The present strength of the unit was about 300. Lieutenant Colonel Rashid Janjua, a Punjabi, was the Commanding Officer with Major Ziaur Rahman as the Second-in-Command. Major Mir Shawkat Ali had just joined the unit after completing his Staff Course in Quetta and was temporarily appointed as the Adjutant of the unit. Captain Oli Ahmed was the Quartermaster and Captain Khaliquzzaman was the MTO (Mechanical Transport Officer). Lieutenants Mahfuzur Rahman and Shamsher M Chowdhury were company officers.
The Pakistani ship MV Swat, with a huge consignment of Chinese arms and ammunition, was docked at Chittagong port for some time. The stevedores refused to unload it and the local people erected many a barricade from port to Bayezid Bostami, with a view to preventing the arms from reaching the cantonment. Captain Enam Chowdhury of EBRC was responsible for unloading the consignment. He reported his helplessness to the new EBRC commandant Brigadier Ansari. Former Bengali commandant Brigadier A R Majumdar was flown off to Dhaka in the name of consultation a few days earlier. He never returned.
Ansari asked Janjua for help in the unloading, and sent a large navy truck with a few naval personnel to 8 Bengal in the afternoon of March 25, 1971. Janjua ordered Khaliquzzaman to take a company to the port, but Khaliquzzaman said that he could accommodate only a platoon in the truck. Janjua asked him to take whatever he could and the rest would follow. By evening, about 30 persons were ready, but they had no weapons.
The Bengalis in the military and police by then had been disarmed and the Kotes (armory) were sealed under instructions from higher authorities.
Khaliquzzaman argued with Janjua that under the explosive political situation, it would be dangerous to move into the city and port areas without weapons. Janjua had to give in, and the Kote was opened. Khaliquzzaman later told me that the ploy was to open the Kote and get the weapons for his troops.
Meanwhile, Janjua devised a different plan. Around 8 pm, he called his Second in Command.
“Zia, I think you should go to the port with the troops,” he asked.
Zia thought for a while and then tried to avoid the duty, saying he had important tasks to do in the unit. As the Commanding Officer insisted, he grudgingly agreed to go to the port. Janjua assigned Punjabi officer Lieutenant Azam to accompany Zia and ensured he sat with Zia in front.
After Zia left for the port, Khaliquzzaman and Oli discussed the matter and suspected a conspiracy behind the move. Zia was too senior an officer to be detailed on a fatigue duty. Moreover, why was a Punjabi officer asked to escort Zia? Disarming the Bengalis, sealing of Kotes, transfer of 8 Bengal to Multan at a time when plane and shiploads of Punjabi troops were landing in East Pakistan on one hand, and no progress in political talks between the central and Awami League leaders on the other, pointed towards an imminent military crackdown. Plenty of rumors were already in the air.
Shamsher and Mahfuz were on patrol duty near Bayezid Bostami and K Rahman industrial area, south of Chittagong cantonment. Around 10 pm, they brought the news that 20 Baluch and 31 Punjab regiments had attacked the unarmed Bengalis in the EBRC, and were planning to advance towards 8 Bengal in Sholashahar. Pakistan military commenced Operation Search Light, designed to annihilate the Bengalis.
The two captains had premonition that Zia was not to return to the unit and that they needed to act fast. Otherwise, Zia could be lost forever. While Oli was quietly getting the unit ready for any consequences, Khaliquzzaman got a pick-up truck and rushed to the port to intercept Zia. Luckily, Zia’s team could not go much further, as it had to clear barricades after barricades on the way. They met at Dewanhat level crossing area. A tense Zia was smoking a cigarette (Zia was a light smoker then, but quit later) standing by the side of the navy truck, whose engine was kept running. Lieutenant Azam and a Navy officer were supervising the troops in clearing the barricade, at a distance ahead.
Khaliquzzaman quietly approached Zia, briefed him on the latest situation and said that the unit was ready for his instruction. Zia thought for a while and then roared between his teeth, “In that case, we revolt.” Immediately afterwards, they casually but quietly walked to Azam and said that Khaliquzzaman brought a message from the Commandant and CO that they did not need to go to the port and should return to the unit immediately. Azam did not suspect any foul play and followed Zia’s instructions. They returned to the unit.
Upon arrival at the unit, Zia quickly took a rifle from one of the soldiers and arrested Azam. Other Pakistani officers were also arrested immediately and sent to the Quarter Guard (unit prison) under commando Havildar Shafi. Zia was so angry with Janjua that he went to arrest him personally. As Janjua came out in sleeping suit, Zia grabbed his shirt collar and said, “Bastard, you sent me to the port to be killed!”
When 20 Baluch attacked 8 Bengal, an angry lieutenant killed the Punjabi officers.
As Major Shawkat was new in the unit, other officers could not take him into confidence at first. Some young officers were not sure if Shawkat, with his fair complexion and stylish moustache, was a Bengali at all. He was at his quarters and knew nothing about all that was going in the unit at that moment. Zia went to Shawkat, who was reading a book, and asked if he would join the revolt. Shawkat thought for a while and then decided to join the group.
Though 8 Bengal troops readied themselves to meet the attackers, they were outnumbered. Zia decided to fall back to Kalurghat and reorganize. They fought pitched battles and suffered heavy casualties in the process. Captain Harun Ahmed Chowdhury, an officer of Rifles came from Cox’s Bazar and joined Zia, Shamsher and others were seriously wounded. They were captured by the Pakistanis and remained confined in hospital.
On March 27, 1971, Zia made his famous declaration of independence at the Kalurghat Radio Station. The first announcement went in Zia’s name. Under pressure from local political leaders, as well as to giving the declaration wider acceptability and legitimacy, it was changed to “on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
Audacity to Distort Zia’s Role
Many Awami leaders conducted a dirty campaign disputing Zia’s participation in the war of liberation. Former ministers Sheikh Selim, Prof Abu Syed and many others had the audacity to claim that Zia was not a freedom fighter. Another minister claimed that Zia was a Pakistani spy during the war. Someone even produced a fake letter of a “Pakistani colonel” to prove his point. I can only say that these persons need to get their brains checked.
In September 1980, I was sent to Dhaka on a special mission concerning military cooperation in one of the Middle Eastern countries. My meetings with Foreign Minister Prof Shamsul Huq and Foreign Secretary Kibria were not positive. Army chief General H M Ershad and Chief of the General Staff Major General Abdul Manaf were hesitant. I wanted to talk to the president.
While I was waiting in the office of the Military Secretary to the President Colonel S R Chowdhury in Bongabhaban, President Zia suddenly burst in and asked me, without any prelude, “What kind of proposal is it? How can we agree to this? We have no capability to undertake such a task. Besides, we can’t afford to enter into a kind of rivalry with a superpower.”
I understood that the president came straight from the meeting deliberating on the issue. While coming to the Bongabhaban, I saw Ershad in the lobby.
“Sir, give me a few minutes,” I requested of the president. “I will explain the stakes involved, how it can be possible, and what we stand to gain. There is no superpower rivalry. And I believe you were not given the correct picture by our Foreign Office.” The president tried to defend the Foreign Office.
We sat down and I stated what I thought right. I also said something to the president in confidence that only I could dare say. I pointed out that the peripheral and invisible resources (I even listed those resources) of our military would be more than enough to make an initial commitment. In return, we can seek financial assistance and resources to raise more units, modernize, equip and train our forces. It would be an ongoing process.
That did the trick! I could see a glow in the face of the president.
“Please do not say NO, Sir,” I begged the president, “For the first time, a rich friend requested Bangladesh for something.”
“Wait a moment,” he told me and turned to the MSP, “Sadeq, get hold of Ershad, he was leaving. I need to talk to him again.” The president went out of the room, and I was hoping for the best.
After half an hour, the president came back and told me, “Okay, you tell them we accept the proposal in principle. But we need to discuss further. We may have to send a team of experts to examine the details.”
“Thank you, sir. But it needs to be conveyed by our Foreign Office,” I humbly submitted.
“I will talk to the Foreign Minister,” the president said.
A little relaxed, we now had time to exchange pleasantries. At one stage, he picked up a newspaper; (I thought it was the Holiday) from the desk of the MSP and proudly showed me a news item that said Bangladesh would export a certain type of quality rice.
“How can we do that?” It was my time to be surprised now.
“We will do it, you will see,” asserted a confident president.
I later learnt that the Foreign Office maintained its original position. I felt that a huge overseas opportunity for our defense forces was sabotaged. That was the last time I saw President Ziaur Rahman.
After his death, I went to Bangladesh from abroad. My wife and I visited a bereaved Begum Zia at her residence. Brigadier Mahtab, an old friend, was with me. Begum Zia talked very little, but acknowledged receipt of my condolence letter. In the course of our discussion, she asked me, “What do you think should happen now and how things should be run?” I could not figure out what she meant. Mahtab clarified: who did I think should take the leadership and carry forward the ideals of Zia at that juncture.
I was not prepared for such a question and had no idea what Begum Zia was trying to lead me to, least of all her political ambition.
I just mumbled that if anybody could come close to the stature of Ziaur Rahman, I thought it would be General Manzur. Unfortunately, he was the man behind the assassination of the president. (At that time, we were made to believe it was Manzur who masterminded the bloody coup in Chittagong. Later, however, I had a different view about Manzur’s involvement. He was made a scapegoat). I expressed my inability to name a successor to Zia.
Years later, I said to myself in retrospect, “Stupid, the right answer should have been: You, Madam.”
In a letter to General Ershad commending his efforts in quelling the Chittagong rebellion, I said, “Given the peoples’ love and respect Shaheed President Zia received (reportedly more than 2 million people mourned at his funeral in Dhaka), a Zia-like death is worth a million times.” I also submitted that he had huge responsibilities for the stability in the military, as well as the nation. Ershad was kind to reply saying he was “working” on some ideas and would seek our support. I soon learned what he was up to. He overthrew the newly elected BNP government and took over in March 1982.
We Have Been Orphaned
I went to the Bongabhaban again, this time to see Justice Abdus Sattar, the Acting President. As I was waiting in the office of Colonel S R Chowdhury, the MSP related an experience. While on a visit to Zia’s Mazaar one night, he found an old man crying by the graveside. Colonel Sadeq went to share his feelings and console the man. The old man came all the way from Rangpur to pay his respect to the Shaheed president. “Badsha Zia had walked through my front yard,” the old man continued to cry. “How can I forget that? We have been orphaned.”
During a courtesy call on Major General Mohabbat Jan Chowdhury, Director General of the Forces Intelligence (DGFI), I asked how come his intelligence had failed when such a tragedy had taken place in Chittagong. General Chowdhury said that they knew something was in the offing in Chittagong and warned the president accordingly, but the president did not take it seriously. They also reminded the president on more than one occasion that General Manzur was getting out of control, often refused to follow orders and instructions from army Headquarters and mostly did things his way. According to M J Chowdhury, the president never believed them. He would rather rebuke them–repatriated and non-freedom fighter officers– instead, saying that they were jealous of Manzur, who was far more superior in intellect and competence than they were.
Ershad and M J Chowdhury were on the same page about dissemination of (mis)information on the Zia assassination (One that Ershad put in his White Paper). Knowing nothing much at that juncture, I fell for the misinformation.
A footnote: The President’s rehabilitation of the repatriated officers in high positions in the military enraged the young freedom fighter officers. The coup that killed the president was staged mostly by freedom fighters (who were said to be insinuated by the RAW). During a discussion with General Manzur in his office in Chittagong in 1979, I discovered how bitter he was against the non-freedom fighters. I knew Zia and Manzur enjoyed great cordiality, mutual confidence and close relations. After the November 7, 1975, Sepoy-Janata Uprising, the situation in the military was almost out of control and discipline was the worst. Zia brought Brigadier Manzur from New Delhi, where he was the Military Adviser, and appointed him the Chief of the General Staff. It was Manzur who helped Zia in bringing order back in the military.
President Ziaur Rahman’s austere and honest lifestyle was legendary. Even his worst enemy cannot dispute that. Critics, however, blamed him for doing little against the corrupt practices of some of his ministers and political leaders.
In late 1972, I called on then Brigadier Zia at his residence to introduce my newly married wife. Other than being overwhelmed with the extraordinary beauty of Begum Zia, my wife noticed that Zia was wearing an ordinary pair of leather sandals with repairs done at torn places.
It was common knowledge what contained in Zia’s broken suitcase at the Chittagong Circuit House following his assassination on May 30, 1981. They were a few changes of clothes, including a torn vest.
Here is a story I heard from Hussain Ahmed, a former Inspector General of Police, and Secretary to the government. A Superintendent of Police came to his residence late at night with a request to cancel his posting to a distant place. The much-annoyed IGP dismissed the request, more so because he had come to his house so late. Before leaving, the disappointed SP pointed to an accompanying gentleman, who remained absolutely silent the whole time, “Sir, do you know him?” The IGP replied in the negative. “He is Mizanur Rahman, brother of the President,” said the SP. Naturally, the IGP became a little more accommodating and asked the SP to see him in his office. He, however, did not recall if that request was ever met.
Later, the IGP casually related the story to Air Vice Marshal Islam, then DGFI. A day or two later, IGP’s red phone rang at around 3 AM. Disturbed to be awakened at that odd hour, he casually picked up the phone and received a thunderbolt.
“I heard that b—— went to you for a favor?” It was the president, and the IGP did not understand what he was referring to at first. When recollected, the IGP tried to pacify the president, saying that his brother just accompanied the SP and did not utter a word. “I would like to have a full report tomorrow.” the president insisted and hung up the phone.
Reportedly, President Ziaur Rahman sent out circulars to all departments that personal requests by his family members should be directed to him immediately.
Everybody knew that Zia refused to intervene when his son Tareque was thrown out of Shaheen School.
During an official visit to Zambia, High Commissioner A N Hamidullah was briefing the president on the program, repeatedly mentioning an appointment with the president’s brother Rezaur Rahman, who was working there as an engineer. The president rebuked the High Commissioner for putting his brother’s appointment in the official program. “I know my brother is here. I will meet him at my own convenience,” the president reminded the High Commissioner.
Another story from Hussain Ahmed. The almost daily Bongabhaban evening meetings used to run for long hours and working dinners were served. The menu was more than simple: rice or roti with a bhaji, one curry and dal. Minister Maudud Ahmed had difficulty with that. One day, he requested the president if he could be excused, as he had promised his children they would eat together. The president smiled and let him go.
Ziaur Rahman introduced Toyota Corolla as the official car at all levels, including for himself (Once during a home visit, I went to see him. He had busy schedules, from one office to another. After drinking coffee, we travelled in his white Corolla and talked.). A few Mercedes Benz that Bongabhaban had were used only for foreign dignitaries during official visits.
- First published in the Holiday in 2008 and later in the South Asia Journal in 2019.
- As an army captain in 1971, the writer escaped from Lahore in a military Jeep and took a hazardous journey to join the Bangladesh Liberation War. Authored a few books and co-authored a few others. Writes regularly, mostly on Bangladesh’s contemporary politics.