Some months back, while I was working on an article on the liberation war of Bangladesh, I encountered Motahar Hossein on social media. The 64-year-old Motahar Hossein was in class four on 25 March 1971. He was a student of Central Government School. His father was a railway clerk and they lived at the Shahjahanpur railway colony in Khilgaon.
On 25 March 1971, Motahar, with his siblings and parents, was hiding under a bed and a table. "Back then", Motahar told me, "Rajarbagh police line had a bamboo-made hostel and that night the Pakistani army set it on fire. That fire was so massive that we could see the adjacent field turn absolutely white from the light of it."
For the next two days, they remained in the capital, preparing to migrate to their village in Dohar, eventually leaving on 28 March. But his father stayed behind in Dhaka as the Pakistani government had ordered the offices to be kept open.
As I was studying further for this article, many such stories came to my newsfeed. Amitav Basak Bappy remembered the moments on 25 March when the Pakistani military rampaged through the Basak lane in old Dhaka and burnt down the 'Sangbad' newspaper office; and how at 11:30 pm on that night, the Pakistani army got out from the cantonment and started the massacre from the Farmgate area.
It was then when I recalled the line by Major Rao Farman in his table diary: "Green land of East Pakistan will be painted red." These stories prove that Bangladesh was indeed painted red with the blood of the Bangali people.
Right after the birth of Pakistan, the two parts of the country found themselves differing on every front -- from cultural to economic and political. At the foreword of the book Genocide They Wrote by Inam Ahmed and Shakhawat Liton, the publisher Mahfuz Anam wrote, "In March 1971, we were still a part of Pakistan. People of East Pakistan- Bangalis- were as much citizens of the country as the Punjabis, Balochis, Pathans and the Biharis with equal rights in every aspect. So how could "our" own army cool-heartedly plan a systematic killing of its own citizens?"
"That's because", writes Anam, "we Bangalis were never equal citizens of Pakistan." And that's what we see in the photographs and documents of 25 March and from later -- how brutally the Bangalees were killed. As if it was the physical manifestation of what General Tikka Khan said: "I want the land, not the people". The Pakistani army worked accordingly.
Prelude to 25 March
From the very beginning, Bangladesh was going through an uprising starting from 1952 and stretching out intermittently to 1969, before eventually heading into the liberation war.
On the other side, West Pakistan was going through a leadership problem since the death of Jinnah. In March 1969, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan staged a coup and seized power from President General Ayub Khan. It was right at the time when the mass upsurge of 1969 was going on in East Pakistan.
In Genocide They Wrote, the book mentioned above, the writers note, "Like any other military dictator, Yahya Khan was quick to announce that he would return the country to democracy soon and accordingly held general election in December 1970."
But just like any other military dictator, it was never his intention to let go of the power. It's just that he couldn't fathom the popularity of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his political party. "Whatever Jinnah knew about East Pakistan, his successors appeared to know even less," wrote Inam Ahmed and Shakhawat Liton.
The Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the 1970 election decisively, making the party eligible for forming government. But Yahya started his evil games and postponed the national assembly on 1 March for an indefinite period.
At this point, we have to mention Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the villain extraordinaire. "It was he who had advised the military rulers not to hand over the power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was he who had staged a game of dialogue with Mujib on power-sharing just to buy time for the military to get into action. It was he who 'slept' blissfully throughout the March 25 night while Dhaka burned," wrote Ahmed and Liton.
Bhutto left Dhaka the next day. He put much effort into making the diplomatic case for the war. Even at the last stage of the war in December, Bhutto had been to the United Nations Security Council and demanded a ceasefire and withdrawal of the Indian troops. It was the Soviet Union, who denied this and vetoed it three times.
If Bhutto was successful at the Security Council, history would have been very different for us, the people of Bangladesh.
The planning of the 25 March massacre
It was Major General Rao Farman Ali who designed and executed Operation Searchlight -- the crackdown on the sleeping people of Dhaka from March 25 night onwards. And Major General Khadim Hussain Raja was the man who wrote the detailed plan of Operation Searchlight.
Rao Farman himself prepared the five-page operation plan. It was decided that at the 13:00 hours of 25 March General Rao Farman Ali will give the lead in the Dhaka operation and General Khadim Raja will give the lead to operations in other regions of the province. Over the course of the next nine months, he made sure that his soldiers painted the green lands of Bangladesh red with the blood of Bangalees.
And the planning was impeccable and brutal, for which Raja was later rewarded. In 1972, he became the managing director of the Army Welfare Trust of Pakistan, later still, he became the ambassador of Pakistan in Mozambique.
In 1971, East Pakistan had around 12,000 troops in the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), most of whom were Bangalee soldiers. The Pakistani military, already preparing for the genocide secretly was bringing soldiers from West Pakistan in white clothes every night, to avoid alerting the Bangalee soldiers. The Bengali brigade major was kept out of this arrangement for reasons of security, as Siddik Salik, the public relations officer of the Pakistani Army wrote in his book Witness to surrender.
While the Pakistani soldiers were carrying their light weapons, a separate ship brought more weapons and ammunition. Inam Ahmed and Shakhawat Liton mention in their book that seven thousand tons of ammunition were brought in on the ship MV Swat to the Chattogram port.
This makes it very clear that they were not here to quell any political unrest, they were here with a preparation of a full-fledged war, a war against the sleeping civilians. They were prepared for a cool-hearted genocide.
That night at about 11 pm, the green telephone of general Khadim Hussain rang. It was General Tikka Khan on the other side and he said, "Khadim, it is tonight."
And with that phone call, the annihilation began. Not just in Dhaka, but on the next day the Comilla Cantonment massacre was carried out by the Pakistan Army. Lt Colonel Mansoorul Huq claimed that 17 Bangalee army officers and 953 soldiers were executed in Comilla Cantonment on the night of 27–28 March.
But this was apparently a "patriotic task" for the Pakistanis. In the book How Pakistan got divided Rao Farman Ali wrote, "The ensuing operation was not the same as the other usual army operation. A usual army operation is carried out in aid to the civil government. But there was a need to use the force to restore the government's authority. It was necessary to suppress a mutiny."
This is the voice of a master talking about his slave. A master that wanted only to dominate us.
But that didn't happen. Although Lt General Niazi planted a strong defence strategy with a target of not yielding any ground to the Bangladeshi Mukti Fouj, in the end, the Pakistani military had to yield.
But today I, as a citizen of a free country and writing about the liberation war, cannot fathom the difficulties people went through. How little Motahar Hossain felt when he saw the bright white fire burning at Rajarbagh? Or how Amitav feels when he talks about his uncle who was slaughtered by the military?
All the bloodstains have been removed, and we have green fields filled with crops again. We sure have some new difficulties -- the price hikes, inflation, unemployment caused by the pandemic, traffic and air pollution, and so on. But all these are now 'our' problems that 'we' can fight and improve. We no longer have to bow down to some ruler living 1200 miles away from us. Now, after 50 years of independence that we earned, this alone feels like an achievement to me.