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.
Born in Hyderabad Deccan (a princely state that was located in the south-central region of India) in 1947, his family migrated to East Pakistan in 1952. Born in the year of Partition, I could only assume that Mr Jinnah’s parents must have been supporters of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, naming their son after the man who was going to become the founding father of Pakistan. In fact, in the years after 1947, Jinnah’s father had travelled to various parts of Pakistan, from Khyber to Karachi, trying to decide where to settle in the new homeland for Muslims. As a student leader at his college, he had been active in politics. Now that Pakistan had been created, it felt like the natural move to make. However, it was only when he reached East Pakistan in 1951 that his heart finally settled on a place. ‘The moment he landed in East Pakistan, he liked the place. The very first day, as soon as he landed, he knew this was where he would settle,’ Jinnah told me. A year later, Jinnah followed him to Chittagong along with his mother, grandmother and two younger brothers.
Jinnah too was very fond of East Pakistan. When I asked him to tell me how it compared with West Pakistan, where he lived briefly between 1957 and 1964, he said that East Pakistan had an entirely different atmosphere. ‘People were very rough and tough here (referring to West Pakistan). They were very crude, very arrogant. In East Pakistan, it was just the opposite. It was very calm and quiet; people were very helpful and loving. Even today, after coming to Pakistan, I’ve gone back to Bangladesh twice and found the same love and affection, the same culture there.
‘. . . In spite of all that has happened, I still receive calls and mails from my friends over there. I am in touch with them. The Bengalis’ grievances were against the West Pakistani government, not us people. I have heard from people here in West Pakistan that the officials never treated Bengalis serving in the government well. They were all discouraged, looked down upon. I never saw anything personally, but it is a fact that it happened. I have heard about a lot of senior government officials in Islamabad who looked down upon their Bengali counterparts. This created hatred, resentment. These feelings developed over time. Over and above this, India was flaring up things. India really played a vital role in all this. They helped the Bengalis in the creation of Bangladesh. The Mukti Bahini was funded and arranged for by India. I did not know this earlier; I read about it recently in one of the articles. There were people going to India for training. They were well trained in every aspect.’
‘How did you start to experience the tensions personally? When did you start to notice that the situation was worsening? Was there any conversation in your family about it?’ I asked.
‘There was no conversation, nothing at all, in my family. We knew what had happened in the elections. Sheikh Mujib had won by a very good majority and we were happy. We were citizens of Chittagong, of East Pakistan; we had no problem if Mujib was in power. All my friends, colleagues, all Urdu-speaking people, we were comfortable there.’
‘Did you anticipate anything like . . .?’ I asked, wondering if people were anxious about the open conflict and violence that would soon erupt, but he interrupted me before I could finish.
‘No, not at all. Never. Never ever. Not until it really started.’
‘And when did it really start?’
‘After 26 March.’
I noticed my own surprise as he said this and realized that I had come to assume binaries of my own. For me too, the non-Bengali narrative was centred around events prior to 25 March and the Bengali narrative post that. However, reality is far more complex. All Bengalis and non-Bengalis cannot be lumped together as one – with all the same experiences.
Jinnah told me that while there were some instances of fighting, burning of houses and other issues that the non-Bengalis faced in pockets of Chittagong and other parts of East Pakistan (particularly where a large number of Urdu-speaking people lived or worked), they only started to hear such news in the last few days of March. ‘We were living in a posh area of Chittagong and so we were not worried. We thought nothing would happen here. We had Urdu-speaking people, Bengalis, Punjabis, Hindus, foreigners, all sorts of people in the area. We never had any problem with each other, never . . .’ It seemed to him and his family that they could remain insulated from the happenings outside. Despite being a non-Bengali amidst heightened Bengali nationalism, Jinnah said that he was never scared.
‘But then messages and news from different parts of Chittagong, even from remote areas of East Pakistan started to come in. After Sheikh Mujib announced the independence of Bangladesh, the massacres and mass troubles started. The army moved on 25 March. I remember it was a Friday. The next day, on 26 March, my father and two younger brothers were taken away (by Bengalis) and never returned.’ It is no wonder that 26 March is the most important date for Jinnah. It is when the war reached his home. Everything else, before and after, fades in comparison. This is when he lost most of his family, it is the day, as it is for so many Bengalis, that the conflict became personal, the wounds raw, the pain unimaginable.
He explained that his father was a social worker, a local councillor and a very popular man. ‘He was very social and had a lot of friends all over Chittagong. In fact, he had more Bengali friends than Urdu-speaking friends. Soon, family friends, my father’s friends, everybody started calling to say they were facing trouble. My father simply asked everyone to come over to our house. He called everybody. Our area was considered safe . . . and it was safe then . . .
‘People from different areas were coming to seek refuge in our house. All of a sudden, unfortunately or fortunately, I came down with jaundice. My father insisted that I wouldn’t be comfortable at home with so many people around. He advised that I go to my sister’s house where I would be able to take better precautions. My elder sister was also in Chittagong, not too far away. I kept insisting that I didn’t want to go, but he said I better. This was on the evening of 25 March. I sat on my cousin’s motorbike—which was safer than travelling in a car as by then people had started breaking, hitting, splattering the glass of cars. So, we just took the motorcycle and headed to my sister’s house. I spent the night there.’
It was while Jinnah was still sleeping in the early hours of 26 March that his father rang up his sister and her husband. He explained that there had been disturbances in the area. Students had come out of their colleges and were ‘creating havoc’. The events at Dhaka University the night before had shocked people (the massacre at Jaganath Hall). There was no going back after the operation had been launched. I am told that appalled, shaken and charged Bengalis were out on the streets. Pro-Pakistan Bengalis and non-Bengalis had taken their own positions. The Pakistan Army had entered. It was chaos all around. East Pakistan was going to see indescribable pain and suffering in the months to come.
‘My brother-in-law came to me and said, “Look, father has been taken by the Mukti Bahini.” I asked, “What!” He repeated, “Yes, he has been taken away by the Mukti Bahini. Your younger brothers are gone too.” I kept asking him to call my father, but there was no connection. The telephone lines had been snapped. I didn’t know what to do. My mother, grandmother, two of my younger sisters and all the other people who were staying at my house were still there.’ It was Jinnah’s Parsi neighbour who came to their rescue. Upon hearing what had transpired, he agreed to take all the women to his house. ‘They were there for a good number of days, till the Pakistan Army moved in and cleared things up. It was only then that we could go back to our house.’
I asked him if he was frightened at that time, but he said he wasn’t. ‘No, I was not frightened, I was not frightened at all, I was not frightened at all . . .’ he kept repeating.
He stammered for a few seconds before saying, ‘My sisters were scared. I was . . . I was . . . I was really taken aback . . . I was really sorry that this had happened to my family because my brothers and my father had so many Bengali friends. We never thought this would happen to us . . . it was a surprise . . .’
It was once the army came in that Jinnah’s family felt safer. They went around asking if anyone knew what had happened to Jinnah’s father and brothers. People pointed him towards an under-construction building. ‘The East Pakistan Rifles regiment had an office there. That’s where all the Bengali officers and soldiers were stationed. My father was taken there with a lot of other people. When we went there, we could see blood on the walls and on the floor. The place had been abandoned. Once the army had moved in, the people had run away. We tried to find out what happened later on, but nobody was able to tell us. With all the bloodstains on the walls, the shoes and slippers scattered on the floor, we could understand what had happened . . . they had really killed all the people there.’
Jinnah’s father was only forty-two years old. His brothers were eighteen and twenty. He himself was only twenty-two. For years afterwards, he tried to find his family, particularly one of his brothers. ‘My younger brother had been studying inside when the mob came to take my father and other brother. When my mother told him what had happened, he ran after them. I always thought that maybe he went into hiding, that maybe he wasn’t killed, that he would come back. People told me that he would’ve contacted me if he were still alive, that I should let it go, but I couldn’t. I still have a feeling that he is around somewhere…Maybe something happened to him, he lost his senses, which is why he couldn’t come back. Maybe he doesn’t know where he is, he doesn’t remember anything . . .’
The first time Jinnah went back to Bangladesh after the war, it was to search for his brother. He had googled his name and saw four or five people with the same name pop up. He investigated deeper and found out where one of them worked. ‘I started to get goosebumps,’ he told me. ‘Instantly, I called one of my family friends’ in Chittagong and asked them to start looking for him. In the meantime, my friend also called his contacts in Bangladesh to follow up.’ The man, however, was frightened that somebody in Pakistan was trying to find him. He started to avoid the visits and phone calls. He probably assumed that this could only mean trouble, given the strained Pakistan–Bangladesh relations. When Jinnah finally made it to Bangladesh to meet him, it was difficult to locate him. He had gone away on leave, presumably to dodge what he deemed was a suspicious and worrying situation. Days later, when they were finally able to trace him, it turned out that he wasn’t Jinnah’s brother.
To this day, Jinnah continues to hope that his brother might reach out to him one day. A part of him continues to believe that he is alive somewhere in Bangladesh. It is difficult for him to cut that cord with his past.
Questions to guide class discussion
- Where was Mr Jinnah’s family from and how did he end up in East Pakistan?
- What was Mr/Jinnah’s opinion of East Pakistan?
- How does Mr Jinnah describe the rise of Bengali nationalism?
- What was life like according to Jinnah and those around him in Chittagong?
- What did Jinnah’s dad use his house for? Why was Jinnah not there?
- What happened to Jinnah’s dad?
- What happened to Jinnah’s brother?
- Why did Jinnah return to Bangladesh later in life? Was it successful?
- Why could Ansar’s story be so difficult to tell in Bangladesh?
- Why could Ansar’s story be one regularly told in Pakistan?
Challenge: Why is the author surprised that Mr Jinnah says it all started after 25 March?