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A city under occupation - a blend of defiance and tragic pathos

Published: March 23, 2017 21:18:33 | Updated: October 23, 2017 08:31:22


Every nation has its chapters of glory. These are mostly involved with their heroic struggles for freedom. In spite of being replete with sacrifices and myriad types of ordeals and hardship, the last-ditch battles constitute great sagas in a nation's history. For some the time span is long, for others it is brief.
The Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 inexorably emerged as such a time of glory. After the 9-month-long sanguinary war of the Bengalees against the Pakistan occupation forces, the winter afternoon on December 16 found its everlasting place in the nation's history. The nation's independence was declared by its supreme leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib on March 26, 1971, and the country observes the 26th March as its Independence Day. But on the night of March 25, it had been pushed into the nightmare of a brutal genocide that continued for nine months. The nation was able to taste its total freedom on December 16, when the devastated Pakistan Army surrendered to the Joint Command of Freedom Fighters and Indian Allied Forces in Dhaka. Few nations in modern history have been able to witness so many epoch-making events in just nine months.
Similar to the births of many other nations, the emergence of Bangladesh had its moments of prolonged siege. In the urban centres, this meant for the panicky people the occupation army's 24-hour watch on their movements. In the case of Dhaka, a feeling of dread haunted its residents who had to stay back in the city. After the army swoop on the capital that began on March 25 midnight, around 60 per cent of its inhabitants left it for safe shelters in villages in just three months. A large number of youths embarked on hazardous journeys to the camps in border areas to be trained in guerrilla warfare. By August, a significant number of them returned to the occupied Bangladesh to fight against the Pakistani soldiers. The city of Dhaka saw a sizeable section of them engage in hit-and-run assaults on the enemy forces. They used to move in Dhaka in impeccable disguises --- as peddlers, construction workers, beggars --- mixing with the provincial capital's mélange of people of different vocations. 
Upon being hit by the Freedom Fighters, the enemy forces took resort to block raids and witch-hunting. Thus midnight knocks at the door, arrests at the omnipresent army check-posts and disappearances became the order of the day. Bullet-ridden bodies of youths began being found in the rivers and canals. Ironically, this persecution strategy had only made the Freedom Fighters fiercer.
   The Dhaka of March 26 to December 16, 1971, along with the rest of the country, watched the transformation of a time from harrowing bondage into death-defying freedom. The time was of far-reaching effects. As history was in the making, the moments embodied a nation's angst and agonies, and finally the unassailable dream of freedom. In this respect Dhaka can be compared to many other war-time cities. All of them have undergone brief or prolonged periods of siege before attaining liberation. The cities include many during the time of World War-II. Most of them are cities on the Western Front, including Paris and Amsterdam - and most notably, Leningrad on the Eastern Front.
Leningrad is considered one of the few besieged cities suffering silently the worst during the Second World War. With the German Army encircling Leningrad from all sides in a 900-day siege, the city was virtually pushed towards a slow death. There were no killings or attacks, and no restrictions on normal life. Yet Leningrad helplessly stood witness to the deaths of 800,000 people due to starvation. The German Army had blocked all supply channels of food and utilities and the basic necessities. Meanwhile, a punishing winter set in froze piped water. Paucity of drinking water and food scarcity drove lots of people mad.  In the Asian theatre, the city which had to go through the extreme forms of brutalities and miseries was Manila. Formally called the 'Battle of Manila', the Philippine capital's siege began with the overrunning of the city by the forces of the Imperial Japan. It didn't go unchallenged. The joint forces of the Filipino Army and the US Army put up stiff resistance. The one-month battle (February 3-March 3, 1945) that followed witnessed the killing of 100,000 civilians, along with large-scale destruction inflicted on the city. Displacement of the city's residents and other ordeals also comprised the month-long series of woes.
The largely US-occupied Saigon, capital of former South Vietnam, throughout the 1960s until April 30, 1975, was visibly at ease with its normal urban hustle and bustle; but its insidious dread did not remain hidden. The spectre of the occupation forces battling with the North Vietnam-based People's Army and the National Liberation Front (NLF)  of South Vietnam had long continued to loom, with the communist encirclement of the city getting tighter. By the time of the fall of Saigon, the bastion of US and South Vietnamese fire power, the city had been drained of all its physical and moral strength. Before its formal surrender to the NLF and Vietkong forces, the puppet rulers of Saigon had conceded defeat. 
At one stage during the 9-month occupation of Dhaka, the army administration tried to bring a semblance of normalcy to the city. It invited foreign journalists to Dhaka to have a first-hand view of the so-called normalcy. To the utter disappointment of the Pakistani military rulers, the media persons did not fail to read the panic of people written behind the façade of normalcy. In fact, Dhaka had yet to overcome the shock of the sudden unleashing of the genocide on the night of March 25. To be precise, they did not even try to do that. As days wore on with the military savageries spreading across the country, the shock and fear transformed into a kind of hardened resolve. The abductions, followed inevitably by deaths, of people continued unabated. By September, people in the city were found giving shelter to the Freedom Fighters. A spurt in guerrilla attacks ensued. To the people born after the country's independence as well as the younger generations, the Dhaka of 1971 at war with the enemy forces may appear enmeshed in elements of incredulity.
History has a unique story to tell about Dhaka. Despite its fame as the birthplace of the muslin fabric and as the 'commercial capital of the Mughal Empire' with its architectural grandeur, Dhaka has never shied away from its defiance. The city has always found itself rising to the occasion in times of mutiny and mass protest. One such camaraderie was seen during the 1857-1859 Sepoy Mutiny, when native soldiers, or sepoys, rebelled against those of the British East India Company. According to historical records, scores of local soldiers expressed solidarity with the mutiny. Others left the town in droves to join the mutineers in other parts of India. Perhaps as part of an ominous prelude to the mass killings of 1971 just over a hundred years later, Dhaka saw the open-air hanging of local soldiers after the failure of the mutiny. The British soldiers executed the mutineers at the present-day Bahadur Shah Park in Old Dhaka. Like the imposing mausoleum, the Central Shaheed Minar in the other part of the city now stands witness to the martyrdom of the 1952 Language Movement heroes. This very carnage sparked the future movement for independent Bangladesh.
Upon an overview of Dhaka's history, one feels inclined to see beyond Dhaka's characteristically lively character in order to have a look at its sombre past. The episode of 1971, a rare coalescence of heroism and tragic pathos, makes this historic city stand out among many others. Dhaka's uniqueness stems from its resilience and the power to endure, which has mostly ended in its eventual rise in rebellion. The occupied Dhaka was spared the horrors of besieged Leningrad or Manila, but the city was made to savour every moment of the nine months in 1971 excruciatingly as it underwent the pains of rebirth. 
shihabskr@ymail.com
 

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