Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the author’s father, AK Ray (Courtesy: Reshmi Ray Dasgupta)
As far as I was concerned, the war was over. The end of a war is always something of an anti-climax, a sandwich made of two slices—victory and defeat—and in between, a spread of exultation and grief, fulfilment and heartbreak, hope and fear. In the end, every good soldier knows what a terrible waste war is.
The night [after the surrender at Dhaka on December 16th, 1971] was not for sleep, but for a slow and somewhat sentimental journey into the past, memory touching every event, every incident with infinite gentleness and affection. One can recall history, but not live its passions again. They die with those who lived with them and in them.”
The passions that went into the historic liberation of Bangladesh have been recalled by many who participated—activists and fighters, civil servants and military brass. But my father AK Ray, who as joint secretary in charge of the Pakistan desk at the Ministry of External Affairs spent most of 1971 playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in Delhi, Calcutta and Dhaka, left only one brief, tantalising, unpublished account, including the two paragraphs just quoted.
He was the only civilian present at the surrender of Pakistan’s Lt General AAK Niazi to our own Lt General JS Aurora 50 years ago. And the grainy photos of my trilby-hatted father walking alongside the two men in uniform and peeking from behind as the generals put their signatures on the document has left me longing to know more about that day, his role in what led up to it—and his pained silence about the creation of Bangladesh in the decades that followed.
Some events are so proximate and personal, it is impossible to recount or write about them cogently and dispassionately. Perhaps that is why he left only a fleeting glimpse into his thoughts—that too, only about the day of the surrender, nothing more—leaving my brother and myself to piece things together from anecdotes and others’ treatises on Bangladesh, including Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s just-released India and the Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story.
No account can be definitive, of course; most are subjective as writing history, inevitably, is just that. Bangladesh’s history has led to many reminiscences and perspectives, some self-congratulatory, some self-exculpatory, several mutually contradictory. Even then it cannot be said that every angle has been explored, every role accurately chronicled, every twist and turn recorded. My father surely was not the only one involved who decided his story would die with him.
Fifty years is still not long enough for historic events to fade from living memory and become the stuff of only tomes and treatises. It is time the families and confidants of reticent participants disagreed with those maun vrat decisions. More so as the very subjectiveness of history makes it imperative to let a thousand stories add layers, nuances and dimension to historic events, as little-known or newly disclosed/discovered facts can significantly change narratives.
Dasgupta’s book relies on memoirs of prominent players of the time besides his own research and experiences, making it a valuable addition to the panoply of scholarship on the creation of Bangladesh. But the silence of key players leaves big gaps in understanding that can never be effectively filled. At best, orally recounted incidents can shed some rays of light—unfortunately limited by the differing recollection powers of those who were privy to those anecdotes.
Dasgupta’s book, like others on Bangladesh, is peppered with names I heard growing up, wafting across from stray conversations between my parents, both of whom were involved—in different ways and degrees—with the events culminating in the extrication of East Pakistan from under the jackboot of West Pakistan. I also remember the talk of a “Kashmiri cabal” around Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with its own agenda, which informed their memoirs, too.
That Bangladesh was a family matter for us had as much to do with heritage as with circumstance. Not only did my family’s roots, paternal and maternal, lie in lush, riverine East Bengal, but the dramatic story of my own birth in Dhaka just after the 1965 India-Pakistan War—during which my mother was under solitary house arrest—was a sidelight to the tumultuous events that ended with that surrender at Ramna Maidan six years later on December 16th, 1971.
The very subjectiveness of history allows room for constant additions and recalibrations. So, while it is impudent to pitch a single, unpublished document alongside volumes of worthy memoirs, dissertations and analyses, the series of cryptic but crucial comments my father added after the paragraphs quoted earlier about the surrender, gives this daughter the temerity to assert that the Bangladesh story has more angles to it than have been chronicled in books so far…
“Yes, that evening in 1953 at the house of Mohiuddin Ahmed, nephew of Fazlul Haq and a bureaucrat, in Karachi. When a group of young men and women, artists from East Bengal, first murmured the “Bengali Dream” out of disenchantment and frustration with West Pakistan. In 1954, hearing senior Punjabi bureaucrats in Dhaka making disparaging comments about Bengalis, and the fury it provoked among their Bengali subordinates. Pride rose like Phoenix out of the ashes of disgrace.
Then the long vigil for signs thereafter.
December 1964, Dhaka. The air tingled with portents of the future. The reports about the activities of the Awami League and what Mujib had in mind. The growing isolation of the Punjabis—even the local police doctoring and fudging their intelligence reports to befuddle them—and the resurgence of Bengali and “Bangaliyana”.
That brief meeting with Mujib at the British Deputy High Commissioner’s Queens Birthday bash in 1965: “There is no alternative for us except independence.—Will you help?”
A message on a rainy night —August 7, 1965.
Meeting with [Foreign Secretary] CS Jha, 31.8.65 and [PM] Lal Bahadur’s decision.
Meeting Mujib again July 4, 1965 at [US Consul General] John W Bowling’s. Something was on. Poor Ayub Khan was misguided by his court.”
Almost every brief sentence of hi(s)story has been vindicated by other accounts, so it does not matter that he himself never elaborated on them to either family or friends. Given the eventual rise of Bangaliyana—the phoenix—that meeting in Karachi between angry and disillusioned East Pakistani Bengalis and an East Bengali Indian (my father) was epiphanic for him as the importance of language and culture in coalescing a Bangladeshi identity became glaringly obvious.
What was obvious to my father when posted in Karachi in the 1950s and Dhaka in the 1960s was strangely not apparent to either the non-Bengali Pakistani establishment led by General Ayub Khan or indeed to sections of the Indian establishment, even after Indira Gandhi became prime minister as several books have noted. Even Dasgupta mentions the curious stance of India’s (Bengali) high commissioner in Pakistan on the imminence of the East breaking away.
As several authors have mentioned, the ever-widening gulf between Pakistan’s two halves was glaringly evident, especially to those who were there, and those who understood Bengali pride. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s persistent denial of East Pakistani sentiments was expected, but Dasgupta noting that only the redoubtable RN Kao and my father disagreed with the (wrong) assessments of Indira Gandhi’s main advisors PN Haksar and DP Dhar, ought to finally beg the question ‘why?’
My mother’s torrid time in Dhaka made her play a proactive role later. She catalysed the defection of East Bengali diplomats in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi in April 1971 by persuading them to slip away from an urdu mushaira under the noses of their colleagues
Share this on
Indeed, the likelihood of Haksar suffering from selective memory becomes clear in Dasgupta’s telling of how the decision to postpone India’s military help to the liberation forces of the yet-to-be born Bangladesh came about, vis-à-vis (then General) Sam Manekshaw’s recollection. My own memories of my father’s rare, laconic comments vary on many points with Dasgupta’s version that clearly depends a lot on Haksar’s memoir. Thus, many layers remain un(dis)covered.
Such as the serendipitous meeting between two old Calcutta University mates—Asok Ray and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—in Dhaka just before and just after the 1965 war, missing in even ‘definitive’ accounts of Bangladesh. The two ‘Bangals’ (East Bengalis) had been in politically opposite camps as students in undivided India but when they met 20 years later in Dhaka, they found themselves on the same side regarding Pakistan’s intransigent rulers in the East.
Their concord as fellow Bangals probably spurred the Bengali-Pakistani leader to pose that pivotal question “There is no alternative for us except independence. Will you help?”—prompting the Bengali Indian diplomat to rush to New Delhi to inform the foreign secretary, and the prime minister, of his startling request. Had there not been an old ‘friendship’ to bolster confidence, whether Sheikh Mujib would have broached it so long before the watershed 1970 general election, is moot.
Historians cannot be expected to know about the other bond between the two Bangals: both lived in the same upmarket Dhanmondi area of Dhaka and had children born on the same day—October 18th—a year apart. Sheikh Mujib’s youngest son Russell (named after Bertrand Russell) was born in 1964 and Asok Ray’s daughter—me—in 1965, preceded by an extraordinary display of disrespect and high-handedness by the Pakistanis towards my mother.
Though he was away in India on consultations when war broke out, as the wife of the deputy high commissioner (DHC), my expectant mother was the highest-ranking Indian national in East Pakistan at the time. Still, she was put under solitary house arrest by the Pakistanis. In violation of all international conventions—and despite repeated requests from the acting DHC MK Roy—she was not allowed to see her regular US doctor despite being due to deliver that very month, September.
After a stressful standoff, the Pakistani authorities finally ‘permitted’ her to be airlifted to Singapore for her baby’s delivery preceded by a meeting with her US obstetrician, instead of the Pakistani doctor they had insisted on. Minutes before she left the house, however, the ceasefire was declared, so she refused to fly out. But in flagrant contravention of norms, they cussedly did not rescind her house arrest till my father returned to Dhaka in mid-October, two days before I was born.
It is surely not outrageous for a Bangal Indian born in Dhaka after the 1965 war to believe that the travails and dovetails of their personal histories drew two daring East Bengali men to forge an alliance that set in motion events that led to the birth of a new nation in 1971
Share this on
My mother’s torrid time in Dhaka made her play a proactive role later. As Salam Azad chronicled in his 2008 book, Role of Indian People in Liberation War of Bangladesh, she catalysed the defection of East Bengali diplomats in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi in April 1971 by persuading them to slip away from an Urdu mushaira under the noses of their colleagues. She drove them to a safe house in Gurgaon, then still a village, where they met the press and declared their allegiance to Bangladesh. That was a personal payback for her.
At every level, personal experiences led people to play key roles in the liberation of Bangladesh and their accounts sometimes provide surprising answers to why some things happened the way they did. So, it is surely not outrageous for a Bangal Indian born in Dhaka after the 1965 war to believe that the travails and dovetails of their personal histories drew two daring East Bengali men to forge an alliance that set in motion events that led to the birth of a new nation in 1971.
The two Bangals never met again after my father greeted Sheikh Mujib at the airport in Dhaka as Bangabandhu stepped on the soil of free Bangladesh for the first time on January 10th, 1972. Thereby hangs another painful, untold story, of which I know very little. That is why while one can indeed only recall history, but not live its passions again as my father wrote, the stories of those passions should not be allowed to die with those who lived with them and in them.