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Chapter I: How I Survived On December 20 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Syed Sajjad Husain   
‘When in disgrace with fortune’- Shakespeare

I confess that as I embark upon what is going to be an exploration into my present and past I have no clear idea what I really intend. I certainly do not wish to attempt an autobiography. It is no use concealing from myself at this age- (I shall be fifty four next January 1974)- that nothing in my life deserves the importance of a record such as in my view an autobiography should be. I have been a witness to great events, but in the events which I have observed, mine has been by and large a passive, unimportant role. Not only do I have an innate horror of the limelight; I feel honestly that I have not on my own initiated or executed any major move in the drama in which I have often found myself entangled, and what could such a person as myself record by way of autobiography which would thrill, enchant, absorb or even deeply interest a reader?

As a matter of fact I am not thinking of any readers at all. How really could I? I write this in prison in 1973 under circumstances which make it extremely improbable that this manuscript would ever reach a publisher who would venture to print what I write. I know that no publisher in my own country would dare touch it. As for publishers abroad, in what was till yesterday the western wing of my country, how could they possibly be interested in such a personal record as mine, particularly when I cannot lay claim to any degree of political eminence? A historical review of the period which my life covers would be of much greater value and interest to them. But this I am not in my present condition competent to undertake. I do not have the materials I would need for it; I do not have access even to my own diaries. Nor are the few books available in the jail library of much help. On the other hand, to try and reconstruct the past on the basis of one's personal, necessarily unreliable memory, would be dangerous. I would stumble at every step, mix up dates and names, give inaccurate information about men and events and mislead where a historical work should enlighten, confuse where such a review should help remove doubts and obscurities.


Then why write at all? I confess again that the principal reason why, after a good deal of hesitation and vacillation, I have decided to put these reminiscences on record is because I want to occupy myself with a definite task to ward off the periodic attacks of boredom which are one of the afflictions of prison life. Reading does not always help. For one thing one does not have enough books to read in prison, not books of the right kind, books which could sustain one's interest in a subject over a period of time. Stray novels, a stray volume of history, some biographies and so on are all that you get. To pursue anyone subject is impossible. If your interest is aroused by a volume on British history, you could not expect to study the subject in depth, the next volume would not be obtainable. Desultory reading, which in the circumstances is impossible to avoid, generates sooner or later a feeling of dissatisfaction, and then the prisoner finds himself once again a prey to that boredom which he dreads.

The second reason for venturing to write about my experience is that I hope some day, after the dust of all contemporary controversies has settled, some one might light upon my manuscript and obtain from it a view of the events of me last quarter century different from the usual version which he would probably be familiar with. A faint hope, really, but a hope is after all a hope.

As I look around my cell, Number 2 in the block known as New 20 in the Dhaka Central Jail, I keep wondering 'even now, nearly two years after I was arrested, how real my surroundings are. I hate exaggeration but cannot help remarking that there is an air of Kafkaesque unreality in all that has happened since that fateful day in December 1971, when a group of armed gangsters burst into my room by breaking a door open and led me away.

They were fully armed and carried modern automatic weapons. Neither myself nor my family could at all have thought of resisting them. But they presumably were under the impression that we would offer resistance. The first words spoken to me were a command that I should hand over whatever arms I had. But I had none.

The date was 19 December, 1971, three days after the surrender of the Pakistan army, and the time about 3.30 in the afternoon. I was in an upstairs room talking to my eldest daughter. There was all of a sudden a hubbub outside, on the staircase, and I came out to the landing to see what it was all about. I saw a number of armed men arguing with my wife and a cousin of mine, trying to push their way up. I realised in a flash what they wanted and thought for a moment of going down, but I suppose the instinct of self-preservation led me to withdraw into the room. The moment I had done so my daughter bolted the door and said I was not to go out. I told her that it was no use resisting, and that it would be best for me to give myself up to the gang. She would not listen and started crying and interfering with my efforts to unbolt the door. In the meantime there began a tremendous banging on the other door giving on the roof terrace, and before I could open it they had smashed down one of the wooden panels, and they shouted in a stern voice, "Come out." As I emerged from the room, one of the men seized me by the collar, and dragged me, unresisting, down the staircase and then out of the house into a jeep waiting outside. I went as I was, waving a farewell to my family, feeling, as I did so, that I would never see them again. A large crowd had collected around the jeep; it consisted mostly of people from our neighborhood; they watched silently as I was pushed into the vehicle and stepped aside as the engine started.

The jeep turned. down the by-lane which meets Nazimuddin Road near the north-eastern corner of the Dhaka Central Jail compound, and moved through Bakhshi Bazar towards the University Campus. As we traveled, I heard my captors asking each other whether I was really the person they thought I was. I assured them that there had been no mistake and said I had no reason for trying to confuse them about my identity.

I was feeling somewhat dazed but even then nursed the illusion, faint I confess, that they wanted me for interrogation only.

We arrived in a few minutes at the Science Annexe Building, where they all got down, myself with them, and I was led up to a large room on the second floor. Five or six of my captors followed me into it and then the door was bolted from the inside.

The young man who was holding me by the collar suddenly slapped me across the face with tremendous force, identifying himself as a former University student and said that four or five years ago he had saved me from a beating, but that I was an unrepentant swine and had not mended my ways and therefore deserved now to be shot as a traitor. All this was news to me, but I did not fail to acknowledge my gratitude to him for the kindness which he claimed to have done me, and inquired why I had been seized. A volley of accusations followed. They said I was responsible for the deaths of University teachers and students killed by the Pakistan Army, and that I had even been supplying girls to the soldiers from the women's hall for immoral purposes. I was--dumb-founded. I told them that they might kill me if they wished, but their accusations were all false, and I was prepared to face a trial. They must have thought it useless to engage in further argument with me; for without answering me, they proceeded with their work.

I was stripped of my cardigan, shirt, and vest and relieved of my watch, cuff-links and spectacles. They blindfolded me, using my own handkerchief for the purpose, tied my hands together behind my back, and began to beat me with a strap of leather, also hitting me with something hard on the knuckles. After they had exhausted the first flush of their fury on me, everybody left the room excepting one armed guard and this time I heard the door being bolted on the outside.

I was feeling parched, and asked for a drink. A cup was brought in and lifted up to my lips, and I drank a little water. When I felt myself really alone with my guard, I asked him to remove the bandage from my eyes so that I could see his face. He seemed to hesitate a little, but finally loosened the bandage. I could now see him, a young man in his early twenties, in lungi, obviously a rustic, now a member of an armed band. I asked him who he was. He introduced himself, if that is the word, as a student from a rural college in Mymensingh district and volunteered the remark that he felt sorry for me. His voice was not insincere. When asked why they had arrested me, he said he did not know what the charges against me were; he had, on the instructions of his unit commander, joined the group detailed to raid my residence, and did not know anything beyond this. He confessed that the sudden capitulation of the Pakistan army had come as a surprise, the Mukti Bahini having almost given up hope of wining a victory.

The young man went on to assure me that he did not think I would be shot straightway; I would be given a chance to answer the charges against me. In any case, he said, he for one would not be able to carry out an order to shoot me.

Needless to say, this was far from reassuring. If they had decided to kill me, and of this there could no longer be any doubt, a single conscientious objector like this young man won't be of much help. But it was nevertheless in those dreadful moments some comfort to know that for a spell at least one had for company someone who appeared to possess some human feelings. I spoke to him, uselessly I knew, about what I had done to save the lives of the University staff at Rajshahi. The only thing he could do was to repeat twice or three times that he won't have the heart to shoot me.

Some one came in, the bandage on my eyes was tightened, and the new arrivals--- it was actually more than one person-- took over from the young student. They were a sterner lot. When I asked to see their faces, they uttered a blood curdling oath, threatening to put me to the torture, saying sarcastically that no God that I believed in could save my life. I lapsed into silence and awaited further developments.

Time passed. I could feel the hours go by. Some one put the lights on. I could perceive a difference in the gloom. I began wondering what would happen next. Were the executioners waiting for the night to advance?

When the noise of traffic outside almost ceased and the time must have been about 11.30 or so, two new men, more authoritative in their gait, entered the chamber, walked up to me, and tied my wrists with stronger twine, gagged me and led me out, I thought, to be executed. I asked them, when they were busy tying me up, what I had done to deserve this punishment. Their answer was, 'Mr Vice-Chancellor, you have lived too long'. According to them, it was I who master-minded the conspiracy that led to the deaths of Mr Munir Chowdhury and other' University teachers on 14 December; it was I who arranged for the women's hall to be raided in November. My denials were dismissed as lies.

I followed them out into what was obviously the corridor--- I knew the lay-out of the building--- we walked some distance, and then they entered another room. One end of the rope with which I had been tied was secured to something firm, and I was made to sit down on the floor. I had been allowed to sit on a bench in the other room. One of the two men said something to the other, and went out. The man left behind bolted the door, and I heard him spreading a blanket or sheet on a bench and lying down. He was soon asleep snoring.

'Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an ajter-diner's sleep,
Dreaming on both.' -Shakespeare

My punishment, I could see now, was to follow the pattern set in totalitarian states, the execution would take place at dawn. Having satisfied themselves that there could be no danger of my being able to escape, my captors proceeded to treat me as a cat treats a captive mouse. The way my guard went to sleep bore ample testimony to their self-assurance and self-confidence. They wanted me, before they killed me, to experience the refinements of torture which certain knowledge of imminent death can cause" a victim.

Calmly I awaited my fate. My knuckles hurt; the wrists had been bound so tightly that the rope or twine seemed to cut into the flesh; I could not change at all from one position to another without excruciating pain. There was nothing I could lean against. The floor struck cold. In my efforts to achieve a comparatively less painful position, I lost track of the pair of loose slippers I had been wearing. I tried sitting cross-legged, then stretched my legs for relief, and again went back to the cross-legged position, varying the posture of my body as frequently as my condition would permit, taking care at the same time not to wake up the fiend guarding me, lest worse torture should follow.

The irony of the situation, the sudden reversal of the world I used to live in, intrigued me. Here was I, captive in the hands of a ferocious gang, awaiting death; even twenty four years ago it had never occurred either to myself or to anyone in my circle that such a thing could happen at all. History is full of strange surprises, and though strange events keep happening off and on, we are always caught unprepared when they happen to ourselves. I had been compelled by air-raids to move on 15 December from the official residence of the Vice-Chancellor in Ramna to 109 Nazimuddin Road, our house in the old town, and even then, a few hours before the actual surrender of the Pakistani army, in spite of the gloomy forebodings about the future and the sinister rumors that were spreading, we had continued to nurse the hope, to prove an illusion so tragically, that somehow disaster would be averted. How, we had no idea. But the overthrow of an established State by violence was something quite outside our experience and comprehension. These things happened elsewhere, in South America or the Middle East; our own homeland, we believed in the depths of our hearts and souls, would be immune from them.

As the night grew still, faint echoes reached me occasionally of distant gunfire. Dogs barked somewhere. A lone rickshaw tinkled past the building where I was being held.

I thought of my family, my wife and children, who must fend for themselves as best as they could in this crisis. I had no property, I did not own a house and had hardly any bank balance. I felt guilty at the realisation that I was leaving my family wholly unprovided for. Was the plea that I had tried to live honestly, not even seeking to earn extra money at the expense of my normal duties, a sufficient excuse for the lapse of which I now found myself guilty? Whatever consolation I derived from the fact that I could not be charged with dishonesty, would the fact be of material use to my family? I did what any man in my situation would do: committed them to God's care. Yet the knowledge that they were utterly helpless in the new dispensation that had just been born, was frightfully mortifying, and continued to haunt me throughout the night.

Almost equally painful was the collapse of the ideal that Pakistan represented to me. Even if I survived my present ordeal by a miracle, how could I live in the midst of the debris which the fall of Pakistan had thrown up around me? Physical survival was difficult enough but life in an environment which was going to be hostile, where everything would be a mockery of the beliefs and ideals we cherished, would be equally, if not more of a problem. A man must have something not only to live by but also to live for. What could a person like me live for after the fall of Pakistan? This was no mere rhetoric. Our lives were so bound up with the history of Pakistan, with the ideals which had inspired the movement out of which it had grown, and with the principles which sustained it, no matter what the shortcomings of those called upon to translate them into action, that it was well-nigh impossible to contemplate a life divorced from this background.

I felt utterly forlorn. I remember thinking of E. M. Forster whose philosophy of 'Only Connect' as a solution to the hatreds which divide mankind we had made great play with in class with students. Foolishly, I now perceived, I too had come to believe that once human beings got to know one another on personal terms, hatreds would cease, animosities abate. But this obviously didn't help in a crisis. My captors who were preparing to execute me were mostly Dhaka University students, to whom I was no stranger. This seemed to have added to their fury against me. All that we used to say about tolerance had not restrained them from beating me up and torturing me.

The moments crawled by. Surprisingly in the midst of all this, with the threat of death hanging over me, I caught myself dozing twice, for a fraction of a second each time. My companion snored on-happily. Throughout the night jeeps and cars kept arriving and departing, I suppose with more victims like myself. For I remember the young student who had been with me in the other room had told me that there were many others held as prisoners in this building which had been converted temporarily into a Mukti Bahini camp. There were occasionally sounds of groups of people marching up or down the staircases. Judging by the echoes of their laughter or talk wafted across to my ears, they were a jubilant crowd engaged in celebrating their victory.

Strangely, despite the fear of imminent death, I did not feel my heart palpitating. The feeling of dryness in my throat which I had experienced on my arrival at this camp now completely disappeared. The only thing that mattered was that I should be able to die a quiet dignified death. I did not believe in heroics, and I saw no point, now that there was no escape, in being hysterical. I sought to draw what comfort and spiritual solace I could from the few verses from scripture which I knew by heart. I wondered what death would be like. I prayed to God to let me die quietly without much suffering. In a few hours from now I would know--if the dead can have knowledge---what mysteries the country' from whose bourne no traveler returns' held.

Some cocks crowed in the distance and I realised that the night was drawing to a close; my executioners would soon arrive. Sure enough, a jeep could be heard entering the compound of the Science Annexe Building. I felt certain that this signalised the approach of the dread hour. A man walked noisily up to our room, knocked, and was let in by his companion inside who had been awakened by the knock. They unfastened the rope---one end of which was tied round my wrists--- from the post to which it had been secured and asked me to stand up and follow them.

I didn't find my slippers, but without bothering about them moved out with them in my socks. I was guided down the staircase and taken to where the jeep stood waiting. There were other people there. I was pushed into the front seat, but a minute after, asked to get down. This time I was lifted onto the back of the vehicle and made to squat on the floor, with, it seemed, a number of armed men on either side. The jeep drove off.

I had heard of people being taken by the Mukti Bahini for execution to Gulshan and other outlying areas of the city, and could not judge from the movements of the jeep what was the distance we travelled before it came to a stop. I was helped to dismount and ordered to stand up.

Two fellows exchanged a few words, the gist of which, as far as I understood them, was that further precautions were necessary to prevent me from screaming. The gag in my mouth was tightened. I now prepared myself for the inevitable shot that would end my life, once more committed my wife and children to God's care, repeated the Kalima-e-Shahadat silently, praying for a quick death.

Some one stabbed me in two or three places on the chest lightly. I felt a spasm of pain; surprisingly it wasn't as great as I had feared it would be; an instinctive cry of ah! muffled by the gag, escaped me. Almost simultaneously I was dealt a tremendous crippling blow on the spine: slightly to the left of the centre and the whole body from the wrist downwards went numb. I lost all sensation, and must also have lost consciousness immediately. For I cannot recall how I fell or when I overbalanced or what else happened to me.

The next thing I remember was that I was lying flat on my back on what seemed to be a road, with blood trickling down my chest, my waist and legs completely, so it appeared then, paralysed. I heard myself moaning feebly. I thought my life would ebb away gradually, and I would slowly bleed to death. Every moment I expected the heart to stop beating, the muscles to contract. I decided to keep repeating the Kalima as long as my consciousness lasted.

To my surprise, I soon discovered that I was taking an usually long time to die. Somebody seemed to be kneeling beside me watching. Was he waiting to see whether the blows I had received were enough? Would he deal me another blow as a kind of coup de grace?

So strong is man's instinct of self-preservation that it crossed my mind that if I stopped moaning my enemy might leave me alone and I might survive. I stopped whatever sounds I had been trying to utter, and lay as still as I could. Some minutes later I felt that the man who had been watching me had left. I wondered what I should do now.

I was not quite sure yet that the crisis was really over, or that my assailants had moved off from the area. Fifteen to twenty minutes passed; I could hear a push-cart being rolled along; a couple of rickshaws seemed to be plying about. The first impression created in my mind was that I had been abandoned on the outskirts of the city near a village. When I could hear sounds more clearly indicative of human footsteps, I decided to attract the attention of passers-by as best I could rather than allow myself to be overrun by passing vehicles or animals. I pushed the gag in my mouth a little outwards by my tongue and cried: 'Who's there'? Some people came over and remarked, 'Isn't the fellow dead yet?' I said I wasn't dead, and would they please remove the bandage from my eyes and the gag from my mouth? They appeared to hesitate for a moment and then someone came forward to untie both bandages.

I opened my eyes, and saw that the place where I lay was the square in front of Gulistan Cinema Hall on Jinnah Avenue. The time must have been about 5.15 or 5.30. The avenue, one of the chief thoroughfares in Dhaka, was deserted except for a few early morning strollers. The bandage from my eyes had been taken off by a youth of about seventeen or eighteen, one of a small group of five or six people present. I asked them to untie my wrists. They wanted to know who my assailants were. I committed an indiscretion unwittingly by saying that they belonged to the Mukti Bahini. No sooner had I said so than they got frightened, and began to look around. They declined to interfere pleading that if they tried to help me. the Mukti Bahini who, they believed, still lurked somewhere in the neighbourhood, would shoot them. I urged them not to hesitate to help a man who was almost dead, and would perhaps not survive long. The youth came forward again to untie my hands, in spite of the objection of the others, and as he was doing so, they remarked that there was another officer like myself whose body lay on the ground near by. The other person must have heard this; he answered: 'I am Hasan Zaman'. I realised that we must have been in the same jeep together and subjected to the same kind of punishment.

I lay near the railed-off enclosure where the famous Dhaka cannon stood mounted on a masonary platform. I caught hold of the railing and brought myself up to a sitting position.

The problem was how to remove myself to safety. I asked the spectators whose number kept increasing to get me a rickshaw which could take me home or at least to the Baitul Mukarram Mosque. One fellow who looked rather aggressive replied that they would do nothing further, that since it was the Mukti Bahini which had punished me, I must have fully deserved the treatment. I thought their attitude might change if I told them who really I was. But the information had a contrary effect on the spokesman. His tone became more aggressive; he began reeling off the lies they had heard from Radio Joy Bangla about how I had collaborated with the Pakistan army in getting some University staff killed and started lecturing me on the disastrous consequences of such collaboration. All I could do was to protest against the falsehoods, but I achieved no effect.

Desperately I myself called a passing rickshaw. But the crowd waved it away. The situation was taking a precarious turn. At this time I sighted a truck-load of Indian soldiers passing through Jinnah Avenue and shouted for help. But I failed to catch their eye, and the truck sped away. Whatever was I going to do? I said to the crowd that they might at least ring up my people at home and ask them to come, and repeated my telephone number. No one responded.

Fortunately, some one who vaguely appeared to be a man from our neighbourhood now came to my rescue. He boldly hailed a rickshaw, lifted me into it (I was incapable of moving on my own) and himself jumped in and held me tight, while I clung to the side of the vehicle as best I could. The crowd did not interfere. We moved off. As I was being carried to the rickshaw I had a glimpse of Dr Hasan Zaman standing up by himself and moving in the direction of the Baitul Mukarram Mosque. He had luckily escaped the kind of paralysis which had been my fate.


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0 # M.Ibrahim Khan 2012-11-20 15:22
The Waste of Time: Reflections on the Decline and Fall of East Pakistan was written by Dr. Sajjad Hussain, former vice chancellor of Dhaka University.
I have translated the for Islamic Research Academy, Karachi. Urdu translation has been published with the title:"Shikast-e-Aarzoo" and has hit outlets in Karachi.

M.Ibrahim Khan
Columnist and Senior Sub Editor,
Roznama DuNYA, Karachi.
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