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.
‘Three men, an officer and two sepoys barged in from the back door, pushing our maid to the side, demanding: “Professor Sahib kahan hai? (Where is the professor)?” When my mother asked why, the officer said, “Unko le jayega (We have come to take him).” My mother asked, “Kahan le jayega (Where will you take him?).” He repeated, “Bus le jayega (We will take him).”’
It was the night of 25 March, when Meghna, then only fifteen years old, had been woken up by her father, a provost at Jagannath Hall, a non-Muslim residence hall at Dhaka University. It was the night Operation Searchlight was launched, the Pakistan Army’s action to crush the secessionist movement in East Pakistan. Dhaka University, whose students were actively engaged in the resistance movement against Pakistan, would be one of the primary targets. The operation would unfold into a long, bloody war, first between East and West Pakistan and then between India and Pakistan, finally culminating in Pakistan’s surrender on 16 December 1971, and the birth of Bangladesh.
‘There was a lot of firing that night, but we assumed that it was the Dhaka University students, excited and eager to show their spirit to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was in town. By then, the firing had become a regular occurrence,’ Meghna told me. ‘Our flat was opposite Jagannath Hall, overlooking the Shahid Minar, the monument for the martyrs of the language movement of 1952. In fact, we were at the centre of all the things that were going on,’ she said, referring to how Dhaka University was one of the major centres of political activity, right from when the language movement started to the 1970s. ‘We even went to see Bangabandhu’s speech of 7 March (held at Ramna Race Course, now called Suhrawardy Udyan) 1 and I remember, my father kept saying, “I don’t see any mediation. I don’t know what will happen.” He feared that the army would clamp down because there was no way they would let things continue as they were . . . The radios were broadcasting their own programmes in Bangla, there were marches happening, there was an active civil disobedience movement. But even then, my father thought the army clampdown would just involve forcing students to stop protesting and return to university, or at most translate into the arrest of teachers (who, the state thought, were instigating trouble). We could never have imagined what happened.’
‘After that incident, we all feared that Jagannath Hall would be targeted,’ Meghna continued. It wasn’t long before this happened. On 25 March, when the Pakistan Army entered Dhaka University, the hall and its provost—Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, Meghna’s father—would face the brunt of the action.
‘I was sleeping when my father woke me up and asked me to go lie down on the floor in the other room. We could hear shots being fired. He assumed that it was the students at Dhaka University, eager to show their spirit to Bhutto, who was in town. By now, Sheikh Mujib had called for people to be prepared with whatever they had, and so whenever night came, students would parade with their arms, shooting something or the other with hunting rifles. But this night the noise was too much. I remember my mother peeked out of the window and saw a convoy of army jeeps enter the campus. She turned to us and said, “The army has come.” Even then, we thought that all they would do was to take away the rifles and force the students back to their classes . . . or arrest the professors at the most. And so when they entered our home, my mother went to get my father; he was going to be arrested, we thought. She handed him his Panjabi and told him, “They have come to take you.”’
Both Meghna and her mother believed that Jyotirmoy would return in a few days, so much so that when they saw the family of Professor Maniruzzaman, a professor of statistics who lived in the same building as the Guhathakurtas, refusing to let go of Maniruzzaman, Meghna’s mother assured them, ‘Look, let them take him away. They have taken my husband too. They will shoot you if you don’t! If you resist, they will shoot.’ Meghna told me that she and her mother had thought they would call up their friends who had connections and held powerful positions; they were confident that their friends would help get Professor Guhathakurta and others like him out.
‘I rushed to call my friends, whomever I thought could help,’ Meghna said, ‘and that’s when I found out that the phone line was dead.’ I noticed dread creeping into her voice; the fact that the phone connection had snapped indicated that things were far worse than they had imagined, shattering the hope that her family had held on to until then. It was going to be one of the darkest nights of their lives. ‘Suddenly, we heard shots and ran outside, finding Maniruzzaman and the others lying in a pool of blood. The women in their family were trying to get them to drink water. One of the women told my mother, “They have also shot your husband! I gave him water, he’s calling your name.” In that moment, the world collapsed around me . . .’
My body trembled as I sat besides Meghna, observing her narrate these horrific memories with such composure. She told me that she had repeated this story many times. ‘I feel like it is my duty,’ she said. Meghna added that she wanted to play her part in ensuring that the historical realities she lived through were documented. Like so many others in Bangladesh, she wanted to archive these histories so that the struggles of the people, the memories of the war—one that took away so much from her—aren’t forgotten.
‘We took a pitcher of water and ran out of the back door, finding my father lying on his back. He was conscious. He said, “They (the army) asked my name and then they asked me my religion. I said I am a Hindu. After that, they gave the order to shoot me.” One of the bullets had pierced his waist, leaving him paralysed, while the other had punctured his neck. That . . .’ she took in a deep breath before continuing, the only moment she stole for herself in the middle of the narration, ‘that was the critical injury. By then, other people from the building came down and helped us carry him across all the bodies and the blood back to our house. The medical hospital was just opposite the road, but we couldn’t take him there because of the curfew . . . the army was patrolling. So, we just stayed with him, my mother trying to calm him down and stop the bleeding. All through that night, all through the next day, and the next night, he lay there like that. It was only on the 27th morning, when the curfew was lifted, that we were able to take him to the hospital.’
A few days later, on 30 March, Jyotirmoy succumbed to his injuries, leaving Meghna and her mother grief-stricken and displaced for the months to come. For the remaining part of the year, they would go from one friend’s house to another, often taking refuge in hospitals and orphanages to save their lives. But when I asked her if she or her mother ever wished that their family, like so many other Hindu families—that had moved to India during or after Partition—too should have made the move, given what it cost her family, she shook her head.
‘We were born here. This is our desh, our ancestral land. My father used to say that one does not leave one’s country . . .’ She paused to reflect for a moment and then said, ‘My mother and he, both teachers, were married in 1948. They loved what they did. They enjoyed a vibrant social and cultural life in Dhaka. People would gather around them, reciting poetry, putting up plays . . . my mother and my father, like so many others in the intellectual circles, didn’t really believe in Partition, but they also didn’t mind it. They thought that if Pakistan was for everyone, they were very happy to be Pakistanis. They didn’t have anything against Pakistan until Pakistan had something against them,’ she laughed.
Long before his death, Jyotirmoy was targeted by the state, like many other Hindus. He was put on the enemy list, blacklisted during President Ayub Khan’s regime. ‘Hindus, who held high posts, were blacklisted as Indian agents. My father’s radio broadcast, which included book reviews, talks on literature, etc., was prohibited until Ayub Khan stepped down. When my father inquired, he was told he had been blacklisted because of a poem he had written as a young man, praising (Indian nationalist) Subhas Chandra Bose. In fact, when he returned after completing his PhD from England in 1967 and submitted his passport for renewal, they never returned it to him . . . it was always stopped from Islamabad.’ Yet Jyotirmoy refused to leave. ‘This was home for them,’ Meghna said, reflecting on her parents’ choice. There is no regret in her voice; the difficult history of her nation and her family has settled with her as the only truth.
According to official Bangladeshi history, and in people’s memories, the night of 25 March, when Meghna’s father was shot, is imprinted as the beginning of a gruesome war. It was the night that Bangladeshi history would be written from. It was the night that would serve as a constant reminder of the ‘brutality of Pakistani forces’, etched into textbooks, walls and museums of Bangladesh even today. It was the night into which all the struggles of East Pakistanis 1947 onwards, against the discrimination and hostility they had experienced from West Pakistan, would converge. As many Bangladeshis put it, there was no going back after 25 March 1971. As the army operation began, the fate of Pakistan, and of Bangladesh, was sealed. The following day, on 26 March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence. That day has ever since been marked as Bangladesh’s Independence Day. 8 By the end of that year, the subcontinent was once again divided, leaving one nation rejoicing its new-found independence and the other mulling its loss.
Questions to guide class discussion
- What are some key details about Meghna worth knowing?
- What was Jaganath Hall? Why could it have been a target for the Pakistani military?
- What woke Meghna up on the night 25th March? What happened next?
- Meghna mentions having a maid – what does this suggest about her class/wealth?
- Meghna describes at one point the ‘world collapsing around her’ – what had happened?
- Meghna talks about her duty to tell her story – what could she mean by this?
- According to Meghna, why did the Pakistani army shoot her father?
- The interviewer asks whether Meghna or her mother regretted living in Bangladesh – what was her answer?
- Why is Meghna’s story so difficult to hear?
- Why could Meghna’s story be so difficult to hear for some in Pakistan?