Guard of honour at Mujibnagar

7th April of 1971 dawned on us brightly with a touch of serenity and sublime humidity left by the preceding night’s squally gusts of wind which left many giant trees uprooted, branches broken and baby mangoes strewn all over. Hundreds of giant mango trees, some half a century old, all planted in a geometric fashion, wore a serene and fresh look washed by rain water. The garden and the surrounding area were damp, and droplets of water remained embedded on tree leaves and grasstops like glowing emerald.

Morning dew and raindrops mingled with glittering sun rays permeating the leaves of tree tops. The buzz of cool morning breeze resounding with the rustle of fallen leaves created an air of heavenly bliss all around. The azure blue hot summer sky laden with floating nimbuses allowed the midmorning sunshine to play with the floating raindrops suspended in the air creating specs of rainbows bemused the atmosphere.

Everybody around was busy trying to put up a makeshift stage. Wooden “charpies” were taken out from some poor men’s bedroom to make a raised platform. Someone brought in a mike while yet another fetched a few chairs and spread sheets from the neighbouring church. Some bamboo pieces were cut down from the jungle and ropes were to be had from a home nearby. A group of boys from the neighbourhood under the guidance of Shabuddin Sentu was practising national anthem in a chorus. Even a harmonium, a few tablas and a table were procured. Participants included Asad, Stephen Pinto Biswas and Monsur Molla. ASM Rab joined them at the last moment. Persons were being organised for recital from the holy books. Eventually, however, only Quranic verses were recited during the ceremony.

A large contingent of civis clad soldiers from the Indian side could be seen standing behind tree trunks purportedly guarding the place from any enemy attack. The Indian border outpost could be seen nearby. The place we gathered at was hardly far from the Indian border.

A flag was tied to an indigenously crafted flagpole made out of a cut piece of bamboo fixed in front of the stage. The platform was set up under a huge mango tree with its foliage spread over as an all pervading big umbrella and the budding mangoes hanging like lollypops between the thick green leaves made the greener by the previous night’s freshening episode of rain and wind.

Earlier on the morning of 15th April, however, a scheduled installation ceremony of the government-in-exile at Chuadanga had to be postponed with a decision promptly taken to shift the venue to a safer place: Baiddanathtala was selected. This was perhaps aired to the BSF by the Indians, because some BSF people started to clean the designated venue of shrubs and foliages to set up a stage and in their efforts they quietly sought help from some local youths, viz, Emdad, Shelly, Jelly, Shari, Karam Ali, Munshi Shakhawat Hossain and some Chowkidars and Dafadars. These people maintained considerable secrecy about the matter during the next few hours.

Away at Meherpur, we had heard rumours on the evening before that something momentous was going to happen in Baiddanathtala the following morning. We also heard, while in Chuadanga, that a government was formed in-exile after a lot of deliberations in Agartala by the MPAs and MNAs elect who had managed to reach the safety of the Indian side of the border. This was announced by Tazuddin Ahmed over Akashbani Calcutta on the 10th April night. And, our headquarters in Chuadanga was also considered safe to install a government on 15th April. But as our wholesale withdrawal started even beyond Chuadanga by that fateful day it was put off for a safer and convenient date and place. On the morning of 17th, my friend Towfique, then SDO Meherpur, informed me that the postponed ceremony was to take place at Baiddanathtala that very morning. And, we had to rush.

This place was considered safe because it was an enclave which could not be attacked from the air without crossing Indian airspace. For greater safety, Indian commandoes were put on guard, thinly beyond normal perception in civilian clothes. It was tactical to keep off any possible curiosity about it on the part of foreign journalists. Bangladesh leaders and the authority in India both wanted to make sure that the show appeared to be fully organised by and under the control of the Bangladesh government in exile.

Towfique and I set out early in the morning for Baiddanathtala. As there was a very weak old rotten wooden bridge over the river Bhairab between the villages Dariapur and Monakhali, we had to put reinforcement on the fledgling planks to drive our jeeps through. And, to cross the narrow channels, we had to resort to innovative driving aided by push and pull by local people all the time chanting Joy Bangla. The village roads basically had herring bond redtops broken all over with intermittent mud and slush and were slippery and difficult to negotiate.

The same road still exists but gone are the difficulties. Instead, we have today a black top metalled road.

Anyway, by about 10 in the morning, we managed to reach our destination. It was a big mango groove surrounded by green paddy fields, small hutments, mud houses and many mango gardens all around. There was a church in the vicinity. We halted at the border outpost manned by some EPR men who, as you know, had joined our ranks on the fateful night of 25th March and were guarding the border on our behalf. By the time we arrived at the place it was humming with people converging from different directions. Many young people with firearms could be seen loitering. Within a short time the entire garden was abuzz with “Joy Bangla” chants.

By then, Joy Bangla had become our war cry. It gave us rhythm and inspiration in our moments of danger as well as glory. It became a part of our independence war saga. People embraced death shouting it. People wrote this mantra with blood while in captivity; this was a magical slogan which united the Bengalee nation like a rock behind Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib.

By about 11am we heard the honking of motor cars coming along the kutcha road running almost parallal to the border. Quite a few ambassadors carrying a large number of journalists and our leaders-in-exile suddenly appeared. The whole place dramatically took a festive look with clicks and flashes of camera. As soon as he alighted from a car one journalist started counting the number of steps taken to trek from the nearest point of the border to the stage. I saw this with interest and when he had finished I asked him what he was doing. He said that he was measuring the distance of Indian border from the place where the provisional Government of Bangladesh was going to take oath. It was hardly 300 steps, he said.

All the VIPs were ushered into the EPR outpost. While organisers of the event under the able guidance of the mighty SDO Towfique was proceeding smoothly, journalists were mingling with people and collecting latest information about the current military and political situation obtaining in the country. Among those who came with the entourage were Syed Nazrul, Tazuddin Ahmed, Monsur Ali, Quamruzzaman, Yusuf Ali, Abdul Mannan, Barrister Amirul Islam, Abdur Razzak, Tofail Ahmed, Abdul Quddus Makhan, ASM Rab, Noor-e-Alam Siddiqy, MAG Osmani, Noorul Quader Khan. Nearly a hundred journalists from all over the world came, including quite a few from the major Indian newspapers. There were Aminul Huq Badsha, and many others whom, I did not know at that time. Some local MNAs and MPAs elect including Dr Ashabul Huq and AL party stalwarts of the surrounding areas arrived with their many supporters chanting different slogans. People from all walks of life converged to have a look at the leaders and the ceremony unfolding. Many important persons also missed the occasion as the information was kept secret for reasons of safety.

I was busy talking to some journalists and the commandoes guarding the place. A jeepload of soldiers who had fallen back with me all the way from Jhenidah had accompanied me. They were gossiping under the cool shadow of the mango trees. It was about half an hour after the arrival of the guests when Towfique came running, a little disturbed, and exclaimed, “Osman Bhai has not arrived yet. Time is running out. The guests are in a hurry. Can you suggest what should I do?” Elaborating, he said, “Osman Bhai was asked to come prepared to organise guard of honour for the President after the oath-taking. He has not shown up.” I told him, “Don’t worry, I can do it.” “Sure you can,” Towfique nodded. I said, “Yes, of course. I myself visited many ceremonial guards of honour in the police academy as a training requirement. Besides, as Sub-divisional Police Officer I had to inspect guard every week. So, I know the drill and you need not worry. You prepare the guests, I prepare my boys. Go!”

Towfique was relieved of a great burden, it appeared. I went to a side and called my soldiers. I also asked them to call others who could be found in uniform and fall in line for a parade. Not many were found in uniform. Those who wore uniforms were not shipshape. Most of them have been sporting the same outfit for weeks with nothing to change. Some had tattered apparels and creaky boots. Some had bayonets fixed, others did not have any. It was a motely formation, if you like, with or without helmets, camouflage or no camouflage; “kisti topies” worn by some, others with police blue berets and myself wearing a green beret, one presented to me by Maj Osman on the day I was turned from a police officer into a Muktibahini captain to command troops in the battle fronts.

In fact, there was nothing uniform, except, of course, the 303 rifles and the firm determination and patriotism to destroy the Pak army wherever and however found. Hardly a dozen people drawn from as many as four different sources viz. Police, Ansar, EPR and civilian youth were on hand. I commanded them to stand in two rows with myself in front and carried out several chores of rehearsal. We practised shouldier arms and present arms several times. I had a .38 calibre revolver in my holster hung on the left side of my belt. I tried to command with a loud voice. It took about ten minutes to get ready.

In the meantime leaders were being introduced to the crowd, nay to the world press, as members of the cabinet. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib was named President of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and Nazrul Islam the Vice President. Tazuddin Ahmed was declared Prime Minister with Monsur Ali as Finance Minister and Quamruzzaman as Minister for Relief and Rehab. MAG Osmany was introduced as Commander of the three services. Chief Whip Yusuf Ali administered the oath of office. In the absence of President who was in custody of the enemy, Syed Nazrul Islam, the Vice-president was made Acting President. Once the cabinet was announced, oath of office administered, and the green flag of Bangladesh with the red disc in the centre hallowed by the golden map of Bangladesh was raised with the rendering of Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Bhalobashi, the entire gathering raised Joy Bangla, Joy Bangabandhu slogans in unison. The whole garden appeared to me to be trembling with joy.

As soon as the flag hoisting and rendition of the national anthem synchronised, I raised my voice to the extreme and commanded PRESENT ARMS in honour of MY FLAG heralding our identity to the world. When the flag reached the top of the pole it was tied, and Syed Nazrul Islam, the Acting President of The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, appeared at the centre of the dais with MAG Osmany one step behind him on his right, clad in khaki and Tajuddin watching from the ground near the left end of the dais. In front of them and around the dais was the delirious crowd while my troops and I were facing them. Between the raising of the flag and the tying seconds I had commanded my troops back to attention with “order arms” and readied them for PRESIDENT SALUTE. Syed Nazrul Islam’s face was as determined as ours and the crowd was vibrant and wild with excitement. In a moment there was pin drop silence as the Acting President stood in front of us beaming with the pride of conviction. I felt my breath rising as I once again raised my voice to the extreme pitch and commanded shoulder arms and with a thud the rifles went up to the soldiers and were placed slanted at 45 degrees. My voice was already breaking but I could care a fig. With all the strength left in me I shouted PRESENT ARMS. With double thuds the rifles behind me went up and stood erect and still in front of every soldier. The band of rifles stood unwavering like up-jutting minarets ready to pierce through the webs of Pakistani brutality and murder.

Across the thick green canopy of mango forest and beyond, the bright blue summer sky sparkling sun rays were pouring like gold dusts, while I raised my right hand in SALUTE and so did the PRESIDENT in response. Everybody around came to virtual attention at that moment. A gust of wind suddenly appeared and the flag started fluttering and flying on the flagpole like a live entity. My heart was vibrating like the flag itself and I felt the wind touching the flag was carrying the message of the nation’s birth as far as it would go. With it another burst of Joy Bangla Joy Bangabandhu, Padma Meghna Jamuna Tomar Amar Thikana, and yet another and then another, in thousands of voices multiplied umpteenth time sent the message of the bloody and yet proud naming of a nation across the world like never before.

With it came reeling in my mind the voice of thunder, the voice that said in no uncertain terms on the 7th of March, Ami jodi tomader hukum debar na o pari tahole jar ja achhe tai nie rukhe darao. rakto jakhon diechi, aro rakto debo, kintu a desh ke mukto kore charbo Insha Allah. ……e barer sangram muktir sangram, e barer sangram shadhinatar sangram, Joy Bangla.

In a flash came a cool breeze wheezing and blowing and murmuring between the leaves and branches in the canopy overhead spreading a blissful exuberance all around. The magic sound of Joy Bangla travelled with thunderous applause from the countless number of people standing in the crowd. With the clicks and flashes of camera and flash lights came the lazily blowing summer wind caressing softly on my cheeks, forehead and face like the fondling touch of my mother’s warm love. For a split second it lingered on me like unending bliss and my heart was lost in the thought of my mother and father and my siblings with whom I had lost contact since the eventful night of 25th March.

After a few seconds I commanded again shoulder arms and with it I brought down my hand from the saluting position — to attention. Syed Nazrul Islam brought down his hand as well, and my boys behind me put their arms back on their shoulders. Next, I went forward a few steps and stood in front of the Acting President and informed him that the guard was ready for inspection. So he came down and I chaperoned him in a parade form to the soldiers standing with arms on their shoulders. I started with him on my side in slow motion like any trained army formation would do, in a miniature form. He moved from one end to the other, in front of the soldiers, and thus the inspection was over; and I was accompanying him to the dais. I stopped short of stairs reaching the dais and took position in front instead. I came to attention, and so did he at the centre of the dais. Now, I asked for his permission to let the contingent break up to which he consented and so I ordered the contingent dispersed.

It was a historic event of great import to the furtherance of our war effort. Personally, it was a monumental occasion of my life.

Author : Mahbubuddin Ahmed, Bir Bikram. The author is a valiant freedom fighter