In 1971, Bangladesh had fallen under attack from the Pakistani army. It was a horrific genocide during which Pakistan attempted to take away our cultural, moral, and professional leadership. They especially wanted to cripple the nation economically.
Fifty years later, we can clearly see how Pakistan failed in its mission. Today, Bangladesh has the fastest-growing economy in Asia and is slated to become a middle-income country in the near future. Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s leadership this past decade, and through the sheer resilience of ordinary Bengalis, we have propelled ourselves forward. However, we must continue to strengthen our moral, cultural, and professional backbone as a nation. As poet Maya Angelou stated, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” Thus, it is important to recount the values of our founding intellectuals: religious tolerance, pride in Bengali language and culture, gender equality, economic upliftment of the poor, and access to medical care and education.
What makes a Bangladeshi person distinct from other nationalities? The founding values and spirit of 1971. In this monthly column, I’ll write about my parents—Dr Mohammed Fazle Rabbee and Dr. Jahan Ara Rabbee—whose lives embodied that spirit. My parents were nation builders who pursued excellence, defied the limits put on them, and bravely stood up to the tyranny of the government at that time. They infused the unique values of excellence, integrity, public service, and cultural pride into a new nation of South Asia and the world.
Also Read: March 1971 Diary: Too little and too late
My parents graduated with medical degrees from the Dhaka Medical College (DMC) in 1955 and 1957, respectively. My mother was one of two females in a class of about a hundred students in 1952. Out of all the students, she was drawn to Dr Rabbee because he was undoubtedly the brightest product of DMC. They eventually fell in love and got married on January 8, 1957. My father went on to earn post-graduate degrees in internal medicine and cardiology in London and returned on January 1, 1963. During this happy and blessed time, I was born.
Abba (Father) built a career that took off like gangbusters. His name became synonymous with cardiology in erstwhile East Pakistan. He advanced the disciplines of internal medicine and cardiology through his leadership in both departments, his supervision of generations of medical doctors, and his prominence in national and international medical organisations. In 1968, he was simultaneously appointed professor of medicine and cardiology at the DMC. A student dorm at the College, Dr Fazle Rabbee Hall, is named after him in honour of his contributions.
During the 1960s, West Pakistanis were given most of the opportunities for fellowships, promotions, and raises. Despite the discrimination, my parents’ careers soared. In 1967, my mother was selected for international training in the Population Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was a great honour to go to the United States, especially as one of the first female physicians from Pakistan.
We lived at the center of social and cultural life in Dhaka, and my parents were included in the exclusive roster of Bengali intellectuals in East Pakistan.
Despite political turmoil, my childhood was like a movie from my birth in 1963 until 1970. That year, my father was chosen as the best national professor by the Pakistan government, but a 1969 interrogation by the army, where Abba was questioned about why he was so popular with his students, left a bad taste in his mouth; he refused to accept this accolade. My father’s ideology, popularity, and success earned him the wrath of the Pakistani military regime.
Since March 1969, the country had been under Martial Law, with Yahya Khan acting as the chief martial law administrator. When the elections were held in December 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the overwhelming majority of the votes and enough seats in parliament to become the next prime minister of Pakistan. Yahya Khan, the martial law administrator of Pakistan, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the People’s Party in West Pakistan, had miscalculated the results and it became clear they were not going to cede power to Mujib when they cancelled the National Assembly meeting, which had been scheduled for March 3, 1971.
The mood in Dhaka went from euphoria to rage. On Sunday, March 7, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave an electrifying speech during which he called for a non-cooperation movement. He asked for immediate withdrawal of martial law and for the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people. He declared that East Pakistan would no longer be enslaved under military rule and ended his speech by proclaiming, “Joy Bangla!” (Victory to Bengal).
I remember discussions between my dad and others about how we would fight if we were attacked. How would civilians fight back such a violent, well-funded army?
While the citizens of East Pakistan vigorously staged daily protests, Yahya said he would be coming to Dhaka to speak with Mujib. He arrived on March 15, followed by Bhutto on March 21. The talks continued through March 25. Meanwhile, truckloads of soldiers, officers, and ammunition began arriving in East Pakistan. Yahya quietly left Dhaka right after sunset on March 25. News spread rapidly that the talks had failed. Yahya had never intended to have serious talks to reach a compromise—his intention was to buy time to get “Operation Searchlight” underway.
There was a disturbing sense of unease and anxiety in the city. By early evening on March 25, people barricaded the streets so that the army could not open fire on houses and businesses. We finished dinner early, around 9pm, but my mother had not joined us. She was anxious about my father, who was still working at his chamber in Baitul-Mukarram.
By the time my father returned, it was almost 10pm and intensity of the noise had increased outside. We heard gunshots and grenade explosions. The shots, which sounded like firecrackers, were constant. There had been some random gunshots over the past few days, but this was much different. We were scared not knowing what was going to happen. Were they going to kill us?
My parents finished their dinner quickly and talked quietly to each other. Many people called my father that night to discuss what was going on and what they should do. My father was informed that the killings had already started.
It was well after 11pm when we went to bed. Abba walked us to our rooms and tucked us in, then turned off the lights. We closed our doors; not a word was spoken amongst us as we were scared. It was pitch dark and I didn’t know when I’d fallen asleep. When I got up it must have been close to 1:30 or 2am. The sky had turned orange by then. There were bombs exploding and machine guns firing everywhere! I had never seen anything like it in my seven years of life.
Thankfully, my father came to our room and asked us to get on the floor. Bullets flew through the air outside. The cracking sounds, the brightly lit sky, and the smell of gunpowder seemed out of a movie. We crawled through the veranda into our parents’ bedroom. All the lights in the house were off. Now not only did we hear explosions and gunshots, we heard people's voices—the screaming, crying, and howling of the terrified masses. We were less than a mile from the Rajarbagh police station, where we later learned a massive attack was carried out.
The sky was so bright—so unusual and abnormal. I’d never forget that apocalyptic sky. I barely noticed when I fell asleep again. When we woke up the next morning, the whole world had changed.
Dr. Nusrat Rabbee is a biostatistical leader in the pharmaceutical industry. She holds a PhD from Harvard University. She is a writer on the 1971 War History of Bangladesh.