Note: This column, published in monthly instalments, marks the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence. This is the 5th instalment.
“Don’t go! Get out of the car!” my father, Dr Fazle Rabbee, yelled from upstairs to the carport.
My mother, Dr Jahan A Rabbee, peered out the car window. She was confused. It was late afternoon and Mom was going shopping. My father had woken up from a nap and spotted my mother getting inside our chauffeur-driven yellow Vauxhall. Reluctantly, she stepped out of the car. Suddenly, there was a thunderous explosion. We all were on our hands and knees on the floor. We lost power too.
The Mukti Bahini had struck a major landmark in Dhaka. They were cutting off power, water, and food to the Pak army at every chance they got, and we later learned that this explosion was due to a planned operation on power stations. My father had known about most of these operations but never told us ahead of time. Once again, we were grateful that my mother’s life had been saved.
By this time, the humanitarian crisis ensuing from the millions of lives killed was causing international outrage. The United States was now under internal pressures from activist groups, labour unions, the International Longshoreman’s Association, and Senator Edward Kennedy, as well as external pressures from India, the UK, the USSR, the UN, and other forces to stop shipping arms to Pakistan.
By November 1971, more than ten million Bengali refugees had crossed over to India. The genocide destabilised the whole Indian sub-continent. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi started crucial discussions with her army about interventions on stopping the loss of lives across the border in Bengal. It was evident to me that my father was gravely upset and restless because so many men he knew had been abducted and killed in the genocide. He lamented not having been able to do more. My mother pleaded with him to evacuate our family but he was adamant that we’d win the war and that we needed to stay.
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I remember at the time Abba was treating a Hindu contractor and builder, Manik Ghosh, who had been captured and burned with cigarettes by Pakistani officers. He was nearly dead when he was released from the cantonment torture chamber and placed in my father’s care, where he remained until the war was over. The weight of carrying the collective pain could only be carried by brave men like Dr. Fazle Rabbee. It is certainly not a job for cowards or the weak.
In the meantime, the sadistic nature of the Pak army was starting to provoke public outcry all over the world. International media outlets reported that hundreds of women and girls, some as young as twelve, were being imprisoned in rape and torture camps, but we would not know of the extent of the systematic rape, torture and extermination of Bengali women until much later when the war was over.
Despite the night time horrors of the war, my parents did the best they could to maintain normalcy in our home. We played from morning to about 6:00pm in the afternoon when curfew and power blackouts were strictly enforced in Dhaka. During the day, Abba would tinker with his gadgets, and accompanying him provided enjoyment for us. Despite how busy Abba was fighting the horrors of the war, he still found time to play with us—teaching us how to use his new Olivetti typing machine, taking photos with his Asahi Pentax camera, or recording songs on our Grundig machine. He would recite Tagore’s poetry for me, play with me and listen to all my troubles whenever he had time.
The Pakistani army used local traitors, Bengali-speaking, right-wing, fundamentalist civilians called Razakars, to assist in committing the massacres. In addition to these traitors, they also trained and organised two paramilitary groups, Al-Badr and Al-Shams, to carry out special operations. Of these, Al-Badr was charged with helping the Pakistani army to make a list of Bengali intellectuals to be exterminated. This operation to cripple the Bengali intelligentsia they hated so much was masterminded by General Rao Farman Ali of West Pakistan and executed by Motiur Rahman Nizami, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the killing militia, Al-Badr.
It was known by mid-November that the Al-Badr planned to kill Bengali intellectuals, although later we would know that the killing had quietly started earlier. The speech of Motiur Rahman Nizami on 23 September,1971, had indirectly hinted at the killing of political intellectuals. In a speech delivered during this time, Nizami said, “We love Islam, love Pakistan. We’ll have to take all out efforts lest the intellectuals should forget the truth.”
That November, my father was warned by the paramilitary Al-Badr men in a letter addressed to his practice in Baitul-Mukarram. The letter, called Shonir Chithi, or the Devil’s letter, warned him of death as a consequence for his activities. The letter accused him of apostasy and labelled him as a Hindu-loving dog. Abba turned beet red when he explained the letter to my mother upon returning home.
Why were they repeatedly calling us Hindus and Bangladesh a Hindu state and a nation opposed to Islam? This brain-washing propaganda helped recruit and retain fundamentalist youths and mobilise the Pak army with religious hatred towards Bengalis.
However, we know darkness cannot destroy light. The spirit of a free Bengal burns as brightly as ever today! The fundamentalist forces of West Pakistan underestimated the bravery of the Bengali soul. The dark chapter ended at an astoundingly high cost. Bangladesh was created and a new day began for the nation. The Bengali nation was able to leave behind the ugly, vicious chapter and fly into the bright horizon of freedom.
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.