A Tea Estate in Sylhet

The following edited extract is taken from Anam Zakaria’s wonderful book 1971 and includes difficult content including violence that requires real consideration before using in the classroom. Questions that could guide a sensitive class discussion can be found below and could be used alongside a glossary and timeline.

Khalid told me that he moved to Sylhet (from West Pakistan). By 1971 he was working as a manager on a Tea estate in Sylhet. ‘I joined the company in 1960… I had joined right out of college, so I really valued his guidance. Over the years, we were transferred to different places but we never stopped being friends. We became family.

‘Now, I would like to emphasize some facts about East Pakistan before I share my experience,’ he began. ‘People in Pakistan say a lot of things about Bengalis that I don’t agree with. The Bengalis have been very good. We mistreated them, looked down upon them. When I went to East Pakistan for the first time in 1959 for an interview, I was shocked to see Dhaka. It was like some small place; it was bad compared to West Pakistan. There was development taking place, but it was slow, both for financial reasons and because of the [landscape]. I met an engineer who built roads and he explained to me that it cost seven times more to build a road in East Pakistan than in West Pakistan because it was a low-lying area and there were streams at every 10 yards over which one had to build bridges. All of this slowed down progress.

But in the eleven years that I was there, I saw tremendous progress. Many Pakistani entrepreneurs had set-up industries there. However, the fact remained that the West Pakistanis were arrogant and thought that the Bengalis were not good at all. My experience with them, however, was completely different. I admired them. From the moment I landed in East Pakistan, they had been helpful and kind.’

He added that his fellow passenger on the flight from Lahore to Dhaka was a Bengali woman. Upon hearing that he was moving to East Pakistan, she insisted that he meet her family who came to receive her at the airport. ‘Her brother insisted that I couldn’t go to my hotel like that. They took me home, asked me to eat with them and then her brother drove me to my hotel. The next morning, he picked me up to take me to the railway station to catch my train to the tea estate. The Bengalis were always very nice to me.’

In 1971, Khalid told me it was the Bengalis who saved his life. When he was posted to the tea estate in 1968, the former boss there—a Bengali—had mockingly warned him that the ‘Bengalis would eat him up.’ Perplexed by this mysterious threat, Khalid asked his staff what the tension was all about.

‘I was told that there were eight villages outside the tea estate. The Bengalis from these villages used to come and (illegally) take away grass from the tea gardens. My colleague, the Bengali, had caught them, beat them up and locked them too on one occasion. When they were released, they warned him that they would kidnap his family and him. As luck would have it, he was transferred and I was given his position.’ As a West Pakistani, Khalid was all the more susceptible to local hostilities. He told me that he was very concerned about the situation. ‘I had sleepless nights,’ he said.

Khalid decided that he would have to take a different approach with the villagers; making amends and sharing a cordial relationship was the only way forward if he was going to make his posting work. ‘I asked the guard to call the headmen from the eight villages and asked them what they wanted. They told me that they were poor and didn’t have much grass in their villages, which they needed to feed their animals, and that they needed branches as fuel. That’s why they had been coming to the estate. I told them that since we were neighbours, we had to help each other. I gave them permission to cut grass from the old tea areas, which have a lot of grass and don’t get damaged as easily as the young tea areas do, and to pick up fallen branches instead of breaking new ones. They agreed and for the next three years things were fine. I would run into them often while they were cutting grass and they would say, “Salaam, kya haal hai, saab? (Greetings, how are you, sir?).”’

However, the tranquillity of the tea gardens was soon to be disturbed. ‘After the trouble started in March 1971, our company director came to visit the estate. He said that given the situation, it would be better if I lay low and handed over the keys to the Bengali assistant. I did that and moved into the Bengali assistant’s home, who suggested that I would be safer there. So, I stuck around there, in his house for a while, until one day the Mukti Bahini came. This was in April 1971. His wife began to fight with them saying, “How dare you? What’s your problem? Leave Khalid alone.” But then they took out their guns and I thought it wise to just go with them. They took me to a place called Shamshernagar and put me in a big room with ten armed boys who told me that their commander would decide what to do with me. When the commander arrived, I saw his face and immediately knew there was no getting out of there.’

Khalid explained that he had had a scuffle with the commander three years ago. He had come to sell the company rice, which they bought and sold at subsidized rates to the labourers. However, since Khalid already had a supplier, he had refused. When the man kept insisting, Khalid had lost his temper and said, ‘You bastard, get out!’ Now the man he had insulted had become the commander of the Mukti Bahini in that area. Khalid’s life was in his hands. ‘They put me in a jeep and were taking me to Moulvibazar to hand me over to the authorities when a car full of local Bengali boys, who were also carrying guns, stopped us. They gathered around the commander and asked him why they were holding me. The commander said it was because I was a Punjabi. I knew enough Bengali to understand that the boys were telling him, “We have a grouse with the Punjabi army, not Khalid.” I suppose my reputation of being good to Bengalis must have travelled. I realized this to be my opportunity. I got out of the jeep and jumped up on a stone to make a speech. I said, “Look I’ve been here for eleven years. If you’ve heard anything adverse about me, you have guns. Do what you want.”’

The speech gave more impetus to the locals’ insistence that the Mukti Bahini let Khalid go. Eventually, the commander caved in. Khalid said, ‘Three days before this, the same boys who rescued me had ambushed two Pakistan Army jeeps, killed the soldiers and taken their weapons. And here they were helping me. They carried me on their shoulders and sent me home. What I’m trying to tell you is that if you were good in your relations with Bengalis, they were good to you. They saved my life. They were good people.’

From there, Khalid’s Bengali colleague continued to help him until he crossed over into India (he explained that they were surrounded by the Indian border, which was about 4 km away. All the roads were blocked, and so there was no other way to get to Dhaka, from where he wanted to fly to West Pakistan). From India, he travelled to Nepal before flying back into Dhaka and then finally Karachi. Unlike Shahid, Khalid was more fortunate, not getting caught during his escape. ‘I reminded myself to keep my mouth shut, ears open and body language confident. I changed my name to Kennith Brown as I thought having a Muslim name might be dangerous, and I didn’t know anything about Hinduism. I thought a Christian name was the safest. I was in India for three months before going to Nepal. There, (in Nepal) I met a Bengali. After hearing my experience, he invited me over for dinner and insisted on giving me Rs 500. He said, “I hope you don’t mind. I’m sure you must be short on money. When you fly to Dhaka, you can return it to my wife. Even if you don’t, at least the money will help you.”’

When Khalid landed in Dhaka and collected money from his company, one of the first stops he made was at this Bengali’s house, returning the money to his family.

‘When was this?’ I asked

‘July 1971.’

‘And it was safe enough for you to go back to Dhaka?’

‘Well. It was the calm before the storm.’

Khalid made it back to Karachi safely, but East Pakistan continued to burn behind him.

Questions to guide class discussion

  1. Where was Khalid originally from and where did he end up by 1971?
  2. How does Khalid describe the relationship between East and West Pakistan? (Give details)
  3. What, according to Khalid, did many West Pakistanis think of Bengalis? What did Khalid think?
  4. How does Khalid say he treated local Bengalis? (Give an example)
  5. What happened to Khalid in April 1971 when the Mukti Bahini arrived?
  6. How was Khalid saved from being, likely, killed? Who helped out?
  7. What did Khalid do after this? How did he eventually return to Pakistan?
  8. Why could Khalid’s story be difficult to hear in Bangladesh?
  9. Why could Khalid’s story be difficult to hear in Pakistan?
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