The national uproar caused by the February tragedy forced the Government of Pakistan to investigate the event, in particular the action of the police.
Justice Hamoodur Rahman, who would later famously be appointed to investigate the 1971 Muktijuddho, acted as counsel of a number of government officials appearing at the Enquiry. Advocate Syed Abdul Ghani was also appointed to represent those witnesses who spoke about excessive police brutality. No other Advocate applied for permission to appear nor did any other party ask to be represented by an Advocate. The Government of East Bengal had submitted a statement it did not consider itself a party to the enquiry and was not legally represented.
A.R. Osmany, the Assistant Registrar in Dhaka High Court, acted as Justice Ellis' Secretary in the Enquiry, and was aided by Din Mohammed of the Secretariat staff. Mohabbat Ali, Senior Reporter of the East Bengal Legislative Assembly, and his colleagues Lutfur Rahman, Syed Bazlur Rahman, Abdus Samad, Abdul Mohaimen and Osman Ali spent long hours transcribing the statements of the witnesses and typing up the report.
There were 64 witnesses whose statements were recorded in the enquiry.
Statements of witnesses who supported the police action, claiming it was justified and not in excess, were examined on the 8-10th, 15-18th of April, i.e., for 7 days. Few days later, the statement of the other witnesses who disapproved police firing were examined on the 21-30th (except 23rd, 27th and 29th) of April, i.e., for a similar period of 7 days. After the statements had been recorded, two days were taken up in argument. Hamoodur Rahman presented the case for his clients on 2 May 1952, and Abdul Ghani argued his case the very next day.
Each of the witness was examined and cross-examined by the two advocates, and their statement was produced during this examination.
According to the Ellis Enquiry, the police had received information at the Control Room and at various police stations in the early hours of Ekushey February that attempts were being made to enforce hartal (protest) by closing down shops interfering with vehicular traffic and compelling passengers to dismount from buses, taxis, rickshaws and hackney carriages.
The situation deteriorated throughout the day with the student crowd growing in numbers and getting more vociferous and aggressive. The police charged with 'lathi' (baton) but it only provoked the student into further frenzy. They kept assembling and reassembling in front of the Medical College gate and in the compound and, across the road, in the University playing ground.
It is only too obvious that the students regarded the University compound, the Medical College compound and the Hostel area as "sanctuary" from which they could with safety sally out and attack the Police.
Repeated warnings were giving by Deputy Inspector-General A.Z. Obaidullah, District Magistrate S.H. Quraishi, and Superintendent of Police Md. Idris before firing took place.
Failing to control the 'mob', the police opened fire at 3.20pm. They fired 27 rounds under the command of SP & DM - 5 towards the rioters on the University playground side and 22 rounds towards the rioters on the Medical College Hostel side. This led to the death of Abul Barkat who dropped dead near the corner of the University ground and was removed to the hospital in an ambulance. According to the Ellis Report, all in all there were 'nine casualties of whom three were students and six outsiders'. Two died in the hospital that night at about 8 p.m., one being a student and a third succumbed to his injuries during the course of the enquiry. No knowledge of any further casulties because "the attitude of the mob was very violent".
Firing was deemed "necessary" for the protection of the force and to 'save' themselves as they were being 'overpowered' and 'overwhelmed'. The student killing was in "self defense".
We tried to dissuade the crowd from throwing brickbats but all that failed. Some policemen were manhandled by the crowd. Still we were trying to keep the crowd away from the gate by continued lathi charge whenever possible and in doing so the number of casualties on the side of the police, was mounting until the position became such that lathi charge was done but it did not have any effect on the crowd. It rather increased the casualties on our side. Use of tear gas also had no effect, and actually at one stage showers had become so intensive that the Police party had been collected and put near the shops in order to have some protection against the missiles and brickbats. That was all happening after 3 p.m. but even in this position the crowd won't stop. They advanced again on the spot where the police was posted and came within the striking distance and concentrated their shower of brickbats.
Almost the cry was that the police party might be overwhelmed. All efforts to keep the mob away had been exhausted. Our attempt to keep a bit away from the crowd again became fruitless. We discussed the situation — Deputy Inspector-General, the Superintendent of Police and myself — and we were strongly of opinion that firing had to be opened; otherwise the police party would be overwhelmed. This was about quarter past three. We again decided that there must be a final attempt to disperse the crowd by determined lathi charge and we did so. Our men had advanced, the lathi charge failed because before we could come in contract with them we were almost littered with stones and the police party which was now posted on the road found itself in an awfully hopeless position. The crowd seeing this again converged and started brickbating with increased severity. To meet the situation, in my opinion, there was no way left to disperse the crowd or to extricate the police force from being overwhelmed except by opening fire. The S.P. asked me for permission and I gave permission for opening fire.
According to the report, even after the firing the crowd did not stop throwing brickbats—a microphone was set up in the Medical College Hostel compound and fiery speeches were made against Government and the Police. Bloodstained clothes were displayed to the crowd to keep its excitement high. And the Police had to make a lathi charge to prevent another concerted rush on the Assembly at 4-30 or 5 p.m.
Having heard all the eye-witness account and the prosecution and defendent's cases, Judge Ellis was 'satisfied' that "the firing was controlled and was effective". He concluded that "the force used by the police was justified in the circumstances of the case" and, having examined the registers of Medical College Hospitals, the number of casualties (allegedly 9 with four dead) was "not unexpected" in view of the fact that the Police expended a large quantity of gas grenades and shells and made two determined lathi charges.
His findings were presented in the report entitled "Report of the Enquiry into the Firing by the Police at Dacca on the 21st February 1952, by the Honourable Mr. Justice Ellis of the High Court of Judicature at Dacca" on 27 May 1952.
In an attempt to justify his remarkable conclusion, Justice Ellis acknowledged the lack of depth in his investigation due to boycotting by prominent organisations and members.
It is unfortunate that certain Associations and Organizations decided to boycott the enquiry as they disapproved of its limitations. Had they taken part in proceedings, the official witnesses would undoubtedly have been subjected to a more knowledgeable and therefore more effective cross-examination while the presentation of the case against the Police would have been more effective because better informed. I have, however, gratefully to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Hamoodur Rahman and his scrupulous fairness in presenting the case of his clients, and the help afforded by Mr. Abdul Ghani in the face of great difficulties and serious handicaps.
After the enquiry was concluded, Justice Ellis, though 'familiar' with the topography of the scene, visited the scene of the incident to "refresh" his memory as to the position of the buildings and landmarks to see for himself the bullet marks on the Medical College hostels.
But the irony of this report is also considerable. An English jurist, conducting an enquiry on an event which became the source of subsequent events and ultimately history.
More ironical is that the judgement of the Ellis committee though based on the foundations of legality and evidence of official witnesses failed to outrun the trend of history. Historical process and political aspirations finally overwhelmed all the conclusions and while the rather dismissive attitude towards the agitators is obvious, they claimed the front seat and took over the reins of command while those who ordered the firing are "lost" and remembered only in derision.
The power of history appears more sustainable than the logic of legality.