Stories from the East

A vivid memory of the 1971 war and its aftermath

Stories from the East


is mind could not reconcile with his predicament. Three days of blood and sweat had gone by. The situation was getting grimmer with each passing moment. On the morning of December 19, 1971, he drove through the deserted town to his office, which was in the city centre at the civil courts. He had an eerie feeling while collecting his papers that probably it was his last visit to the office where he had sat as a martial law officer in aid of civil power.

On the way back, as he drove past his house located at the edge of the cantonment, he witnessed a gruesome spectacle. His front lawn was littered with his personal belongings. Suitcases had been ripped apart, and his family portraits tossed around. A feeling of helplessness descended, followed by anger and frustration. Something was terribly wrong.

The Eastern Command at Dhaka had surrendered on December 16. They had received repeated messages from the defunct command to follow suit. However, stubborn resistance at Rangpur cantonment had continued into the third day. It was becoming impossible to continue. For the heartbroken Major Mukhtar, the war was over. Now, he was now a stranger in his own country. Rather than blood and sweat, it was now time for emotional stress, toil and tears.

Major Mukhtar’s thousand-mile journey to the east had begun in January 1970 when the 29th Cavalry Regiment, recently carved out of Pakistan Armoured Corps, received movement orders to proceed to Rangpur. His regiment had been based in Nowshera. Rangpur was a small town in East Pakistan, north-west of Dhaka near the Indian border. All ranks of the regiment, along with their luggage and tanks, were loaded in railway carriages. It took them three days to reach Karachi, where after a day’s break, they found themselves on the dockyard of Kemari. They were reloaded on MV Shams, a passenger cum cargo ship, which took seven days to sail across the Indian Ocean. He remembers that most of the labourers at Chittagong port were Biharis. Curiously, on a cloudless evening, all were carrying umbrellas. At night, they realised the utility of an umbrella as heavy evening dew descended like rain.

The regiment boarded a train for the upcountry and passed through lush green countryside to reach Goalundo Ghat, which is located at the confluence of Rivers Padma and Brahmaputra. The railway journey was broken, tanks were loaded on barges and in three hours, they were deposited across the river. After a night break, the tanks were reloaded on a train, but with a slight difference. The rest of the railway journey was on smaller carriages as they had shifted from broad-gauge to metre-gauge tracks. The train travelled at a snail’s pace and the troops were delighted to see numerous children lined up along the railway track trying to sell coconuts, boiled eggs and steaming tea. On the third day after leaving Chittagong, they reached Rangpur where tanks and troops were unloaded.

Brigadier Mukhtar vividly remembers that on disembarking from the train, the troops were flabbergasted by the tumultuous welcome given by the local populace. They were garlanded like heroes; sweets were distributed and emotional speeches were made. The children would gather around them each morning, trying to sell ripe lychees, eggs and fresh coconuts. The sound of giggling children shouting “ekto taka” (it’s for one rupee) still rings fresh in his ears. Alas, all would change in a year’s time.

Rangpur, established as a municipal town in 1869, the oldest municipality in erstwhile East Pakistan, was of modest size. It did not have a cantonment. Therefore, the first assignment of the 29th Cavalry was to establish a cantonment outside the municipal limits of the city. The fence was raised around a huge parameter with gates and sentry posts to guard entry and exit points. On the far side was a perennial stream that formed a natural barrier and was site of fierce battle in December 1971.

The retired brigadier will often narrate sweet memories of Rangpur. One evening while he was strolling in the city with his wife, they came across a house overflowing with colorful dahlia flowers. While the couple was admiring the spectacle, an elderly gentleman stepped outside the gate and addressed him as Khan Sahib and his wife as Bittiya (daughter). He invited them inside their house for a cup of tea. As soon as they stepped inside, the host’s son and daughter pulled out a harmonium and a tabla and started entertaining them with melodious songs. Apart from one or two Bengali songs, the rest were sung in Bengali-accented Urdu for the benefit of the guests. The melodious tunes still ring in the Brigadier’s ears as if he had heard it yesterday. The family had a caged mynah bird, which kept entertaining in between the songs. It would imitate a man coughing loudly, followed by a shrill voice calling: “Bengali baba, Jadoo wala”. After a sumptuous tea, the young couple took leave. Brigadier Mukhtar was always appreciative of the richness of Bengali culture, a sharp contrast to the Punjab. The society in the eastern wing was more educated and open to art, music, dance and entertainment, things that sounded alien to the troops and officers of the army. No effort was made to create awareness in the troops about the cultural differences between the two wings of the country. As a result, the cultural shock planted seeds of scorn.

The people of Rangpur gave so much love and affection to Brigadier Mukhtar that he fondly remembers it as his “own city.” Every month there was a dinner night in regimental mess with great pomp and show. Civilian officers and other families from the town were invited. “Mr Shamim, the CSP deputy commissioner of Rangpur, was from an Urdu-speaking family of Murshidabad. Mr Barak, the SP, was Bengali speaking. Both gentlemen became great friends.” The DC would reciprocate by inviting all regimental officers and civilian families to his official residence for gazal nights, a farshi session where all would sit down on carpets and enjoy the music.

Friendships with such frankness were something the young Major had never seen in Lahore or Karachi. “We were always welcomed by the Bengali families.” But in the tumultuous months that followed, all those friendships were sucked in the maelstrom of hatred and enmity, a cumulative effect of years of deprivations of the rights in the eastern wing of Pakistan. “The birth of Bangladesh was therefore imminent. But one always wished that the excesses on both sides could have been avoided.”

The writer is a retired civil servant, a conservationist and an animal right activist. He can be reached at

Stories from the East