848Published on September 1, 2021
Syed Badrul Ahsan:
A half century after Liberation, there is a need for a full and proper list of freedom fighters to be compiled in the interest of a preservation of history as it was shaped in 1971. We owe it to the generations born after the war as also the generations to be to remember — for those of us who experienced the war or directly contributed to the guerrilla struggle for liberty, who are today inexorably passing into old age, will finally fall silent.
And while we do that, it is equally proper to record the chronicles of those Bengalis who, despite observing the atrocities committed by the Pakistan occupation army in this country, opted to stand by the enemy. Yes, there have been collaborationist elements throughout history in different countries and global regions. The difference between the Vichy regime in France and the Bengalis who defended the Yahya Khan junta in 1971 is simple: Petain and Laval were effectively condemned to perdition once France was reclaimed from the Nazis, but a good number of the collaborationists in occupied Bangladesh went on to deepen the darkness which seized the country for the twenty-one years between 1975 and 1996.
It is this record which needs to be updated as we celebrate fifty years of our sovereign statehood, as we celebrate the brilliant leadership provided to the nation by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the leading lights of the Mujibnagar government. As we travel back to history, as we recall the sacrifices of our freedom fighters and our peasants and farmers and all our struggling masses, we need to inform the nation yet once again of those Bengalis who stabbed us in the back a half century ago in their misplaced loyalty to a state that had repudiated the results of the December 1970 election and had turned on us in all medieval fury. And here is what we remember. Here is what ought to be part of the historical record, thorough unassailable documentation.
Think back on the collaborationists who cheerfully travelled to New York in 1971 to speak for the Yahya Khan junta at the United Nations. There were Shah Azizur Rahman, Mahmud Ali and Syeda Razia Faiz, among others, who loudly defended the militaristic state that was Pakistan and its army with little compunction. Students of Bangladesh’s history, both at home and abroad, ought to keep a record too of what such elements did after the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971.
Shah Azizur Rahman, arrested by Bangabandhu’s government on charges of collaboration, emerged in the sunlight when President ASM Sayem and General Ziaur Rahman, having jettisoned the Collaborators Act in December 1975, opened the door for the Bengali defenders of the 1971 genocide to return to politics in a Bangladesh they had vehemently opposed. Shah Aziz would serve as prime minister in the five-year military rule of General Zia. As for Mahmud Ali, he was among a group of Bengali politicians who travelled to Rawalpindi in November 1971 for consultations with the regime and was thus unable to return home, for by then East Pakistan had become Bangladesh. Ali served as a minister in Pakistan’s Bhutto government and was instrumental in badmouthing Bangladesh on his travels abroad on Pakistan’s behalf.
Syeda Razia Faiz, who had been a member of Pakistan’s national assembly between 1965 and 1969 from the Convention Muslim League, was elected to Bangladesh’s Jatiyo Sangsad from the rehabilitated Muslim League after Khan Abdus Sabur vacated one of the two seats he had been elected to at the vote called by the Zia regime in 1979. In the Ershad years, she ditched the Muslim League and joined the military ruler’s Jatiyo Party, eventually becoming a minister in the regime. In the post-Ershad years, she joined the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, becoming one of the eighteen vice presidents of the party. Khan A. Sabur, who headed the Muslim League in the post-1975 era, had earlier been a longtime minister for communications under Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan. A couple of days before Bangladesh’s liberation, he publicly derided the soon-to-be born country as an illegitimate child of India.
Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, who had served as a minister under Ayub Khan and also as speaker of the national assembly, died in prison, where he had been lodged on charges of collaboration in 1971, soon after the emergence of Bangladesh. His son Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, who was part of the post-1975 Muslim League under Sabur and Justice B.A. Siddiky, at one point joined Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and held ministerial office. After the fall of the Ershad dispensation, he joined the BNP, serving as a leading parliamentary affairs advisor to Khaleda Zia. He was subsequently convicted and executed on charges of collaboration with the Pakistan army in 1971.
Among other elements who were to go to the gallows on the basis of the record of their wartime collaboration with the enemy were Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid. Both men had been rehabilitated after 1975 and served as ministers under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia as part of the BNP-Jamaat government holding sway over the country between 2001 and 2006. The chief of the Jamaat, Ghulam Azam, having arrived back in Bangladesh in 1978 on a Pakistani passport, never went back to Pakistan. He was among the pro-Yahya Bengali politicians who called on General Tikka Khan within days of the commencement of genocide in March 1971 and played a leading role in forming ‘peace committees’ and the al-Badr and al-Shams goon squads, their responsibility being to violently undermine the Bengali struggle for freedom. He was tried for war crimes and died as a convicted war criminal.
Moulvi Farid Ahmed, leader of the Nezam-e-Islam Party, was caught by the guerrillas of the Mukti Bahini on 16 December 1971 and never seen again. Two Dhaka University academics, Syed Sajjad Husain and Hasan Zaman, were sent to western capitals by the Yahya regime in 1971 to argue the case for its defence. Despite all the evidence being there in the international media of the army massacring Dhaka University teachers, students and employees, the two men brazenly denied that the soldiers had committed such atrocities. Husain, severely assaulted by freedom fighters after liberation, left for Saudi Arabia, where he taught for a number of years. He returned to Bangladesh in the Ershad period and died not long after.
Hamidul Haq Chowdhury, owner of the Pakistan Observer newspaper and a former foreign minister of Pakistan, was stranded in Pakistan after the war. He came back to Bangladesh in the 1980s and reclaimed his newspaper, by then known as the Bangladesh Observer. Chakma Raja Tridiv Roy, one of the two non-Awami Leaguers (the other being Mymensingh’s Nurul Amin) winning seats to the national assembly in December 1970, did not come back home from Pakistan after Liberation. He loyally served the Bhutto government as a minister and even went to the United Nations as Islamabad’s principal spokesperson at the General Assembly.
The elderly Nurul Amin was appointed Pakistan’s Prime Minister by a swiftly collapsing Yahya Khan regime in early December 1971, with ZA Bhutto as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Once General AAK Niazi had signed the document of surrender as commander of a defeated Pakistan army in Dhaka, the political situation changed swiftly in what remained of Pakistan. On 20 December 1971, Bhutto replaced Yahya Khan as Pakistan’s new President and Chief Martial Law Administrator. He appointed Nurul Amin as the country’s Vice President.
These are but a few of the tales of Bengalis who did not stand by us in the months of terror we lived — and died — through between 25 March and 16 December 1971. There are others — in politics, education, journalism, the civil service, the foreign service — whose names too need inclusion in the record, for they were vocal in defence of the state of Pakistan and its army but later had happy careers in Bangladesh, a country anathema to them in 1971.
The objective is obvious — to let the people of Bangladesh and people beyond Bangladesh know that fifty years on, the truth of what these individuals, our own Bengalis, did to us, remains an indelible part of history.
We remember. And we will not forget.
Writer: Senior Journalist and Political Analyst