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Pakistani jailer remembers incarcerated Bangabandhu

  • Published at 05:37 pm August 15th, 2018
It was a long war
It was a long war / BIGSTOCK

An account of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s time spent in prison

Three years ago, a retired Pakistani police officer named Raja Anar Khan appeared on Pakistani television to reflect on the duties he performed as an intelligence officer between April 1971 and early January 1972. 

Those duties related to guarding and keeping watch on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, once the chief of the Awami League had been flown to erstwhile West Pakistan and lodged in solitary confinement in Mianwali.

Khan’s remarks were made before the well-known Pakistani media personality, Mujibur Rehman Shami, who I have had the pleasure of meeting on some of my trips to Pakistan. I have always found Shami to be a pleasant personality, keen on interacting with media people from the sub-continent. 

In his conversation with Khan in December 2015, Shami was able to ferret out some rich information about the dark times Bangladesh’s leader spent in Pakistani incarceration during the entire period of our War of Liberation.

Khan was placed in Mianwali jail in the guise of a prisoner, but really to keep watch on Bangabandhu. This strategy was adopted in order for Bangabandhu not to know that his movements were to be recorded by this officer. Khan told Shami that the Bengali leader, who was in a cell without access to newspapers, radio, and television, asked him why he too was in prison. 

Khan told him a lie. He was there, he said, on charges of abducting a woman. But, as he made it known, something told him Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not believe him, and indeed knew somehow that he had been planted there to keep an eye on him.

Much of what we don’t know about Bangabandhu’s imprisonment by the Yahya Khan junta in 1971 came to light in the course of Khan’s reflections. When the regime placed Bangabandhu on trial before a secret military tribunal, he appeared before it, but after a few days refused to go there. 

He had already made it known that he did not recognize the court. For four or five days he stayed away from the tribunal, but was eventually persuaded by Khan and a couple of other officers to return. 

For the first three months or so, Bangabandhu remained guarded in his conversations with Khan. But then he began to be at ease in his company, at one point telling him after a court appearance that a Bengali brigadier, who had been testifying against him through telling the tribunal of his meetings with Mujib, was lying. 

He had never seen that officer in his entire life, Bangabandhu told Khan. 

At one point, once war broke out between India and Pakistan in early December 1971, the junta decided to shift Mujib from Faisalabad to Mianwali. The vehicle in which he was taken to Mianwali was stacked with pillows and quilts, with barely any space for Bangabandhu and his jailer, so that an observer along the route would not know if anyone other than the driver was in the vehicle. 

The windows of the vehicle were daubed in mud. Bangabandhu asked Khan why all that mud was there. Khan could not possibly let him know that a war was going on, but mumbled a response which the Bengali leader did not buy or could not follow. The vehicle sped to its destination.

In Sahiwal jail, Bangabandhu began keeping a diary into which he made daily entries.

Late in the evening of December 16, 1971, hours after the Pakistan army surrendered in Bangladesh, a senior prison official named Khwaja Tufail knocked loudly on the gate of the corridor leading to Bangabandhu’s cell in Mianwali prison. 

Khan, whose quarters were near the gate, initially refused to open it out of fear that doing so would lead to his prisoner coming to harm in light of the news from Dhaka. But Tufail persisted. 

When Khan let him in, both men unlocked the door to Bangabandhu’s cell and asked him to follow them out of the place. One recalls that a sentence of death had already been pronounced against Bangabandhu. 

Being woken up in the middle of the night somehow convinced him that he was being led to his execution. Indeed, he asked Khan and Tufail calmly if he was being led to the gallows. 

The two men told the Bengali leader his life was in danger in the cell and so they had to move him out of the prison. Information had reached them that the junta had been provoking jail inmates to assault and kill Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in reprisal for the surrender in Dhaka. Bangabandhu was put in a car and speedily moved out of Mianwali jail and to a safe house in town.

On the day Pakistan’s new President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to see Bangabandhu at Sihala rest house outside Rawalpindi, where he had been moved on December 22, Anar Khan, unbeknownst to both men, concealed himself behind a curtain to listen to their conversation. 

Bangabandhu was surprised at Bhutto’s arrival, and once the latter gave him some idea of the change that had occurred, expressed his indignation that power had been transferred not to the majority leader -- which he was -- but to the minority leader. Bhutto did not inform Mujib that East Pakistan had become Bangladesh.

On January 5, 1972, as Bangabandhu prepared to fly to freedom, Raja Anar Khan, who addressed Bangabandhu as Baba, asked him for a parting gift. By then, Bangabandhu had been given newspapers and a radio. 

He had a copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He autographed it for Khan: “In the long war between the falsehood and the truth, falsehood wins the first battle and truth the last.”

Two days later, the Father of the Nation flew to freedom. 

In February 1974, in Lahore for the Islamic summit, Bangabandhu enquired after Raja Anar Khan and asked Pakistani officials to have him brought over. Conveyed Bangabandhu’s wish, Khan decided not to see him. 

He was afraid such a reunion would lead to his persecution by his own government in future. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.