25 - 31 March 1971: Dramatic escape by Tajuddin Ahmad and Barrister Amir-ul Islam
Last updated: 18 August 2020 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho
The events of March left gaping holes in the Awami League leadership. The directing hand of its revitaliser Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was arrested and his fate not known, was now missing. Out of this turbulent time a provisional government in exile was formed.
Narrow escape by Tajuddin Ahmad, Kamal Hossain and Amir-ul Islam
Tajuddin Ahmad, the 45-year-old General Secretary of Awami League, had visited Sheikh Mujib's home at Dhanmondi in the evening of 25 March 1971. However, failing to convince Sheikh Mujib to go underground as planned, Tajuddin returned home swiftly.
Tajuddin stood aghast in Bangabandhu's residence, hours before the crackdown, when his beloved leader told him that he would not be participating in the struggle and that Tajuddin should relax at home and get some sleep. Bangabandhu, being the emotionally charged leader he was, perhaps felt that if he surrendered it would help mitigate the Pakistani regime's brutality towards his people. The masses would revolt and demand the release of their beloved leader as they had done during the Agartala case.
With no instruction given to him or the upper echelon of Awami League leaders, Tajuddin returned home visibly flustered. After pacing up and down the corridor in disbelief at the nation's predicament, he began to collect his thoughts; this was no Agartala. The Pakistani regime's decades of mounting social, cultural, and racial oppression coupled with economic extortion reminiscent of British colonial rule had risen to a fever pitch.
The regime's refusal to hand over power to a democratically elected Awami League was the final straw. The breakdown in relations had reached the point of no return. An independent Bangladesh was the only solution the people would be satisfied with. Having made up his mind Tajuddin grabbed his rifle and embarked upon his singularly heroic quest. He would muster every ounce of his seasoned political skills to navigate through the treacherous terrain ahead.
Anxious and wary of the imminent crackdown by Pakistani military, Tajuddin Ahmad filled a side bag with his clothes, a rifle and a pistol and was picked up from his house after 9 pm by Amir-ul Islam, a 35-year-old eminent lawyer and Awami League member, and Dr. Kamal Hossain, the 33-year-old Awami League's constitutional advisor. Clad only in Punjabi and lungi, Tajuddin Ahmad jumped into the black car hoping to escape the military onslaught. As the three young protagonist set off they were stopped by Muzaffar Ahmed, a MP from Comilla, who warned them not to take the New Market road as the Pakistani army was approaching from that side. Thus they went a different direction.
Minutes later the Pakistani army surrounded Tajuddin Ahmad's home. However, his wife, Zohra Khatun 'Lily' was able to trick the soldiers by speaking Urdu and pretending to be a tenant of Tajuddin Ahmad. Few days later, Zohra was delivered a chit which Tajuddin Ahmad had written for her in the event of an emergency.
Due to leaving you so quickly I couldn't bid farewell to you all. I'm leaving, you join yourselves with the 75 million people, I don't know when we will meet again... AFTER LIBERATION.
Tajuddin Ahmad's farewell chit to wife, signed 'Dolon Champa' (a pseudonym so his wife can identify that it was genuinely him)
Meanwhile, Dr. Kamal Hossain was dropped off at one of his relative in Dhaka, whilst the other two escapees attempted to seek shelter in neighbouring India.
Hide for two days in Dhaka
For the time being Tajuddin and Amir took shelter in a house at Lalmatia area of Dhaka, north of Dhanmondi. At midnight Amir contacted Dr. Asabul Huq Joardar MPA - the "only person" he could contact with - and passed him the information that they were under siege in Dhaka and asked him to implement their plan 'B'. Amir did not even disclose his identity over the phone but Dr. Asabul understood everything he said.
Dr. Asabul, who studied medicine in Kolkata, was elected last December along with other members of the Awami League to the National Assembly of Pakistan. During the Liberation War he would lead the Bengali freedom fighters against Pak military and their collaborators in the Chuadanga area.
Tajuddin Ahmad and Barrister Amir-ul Islam's six days toil
On 27 March 1971 Tajuddin Ahmad and Amir-ul Islam left Dhaka. After crossing various ponds and the Dhaleshwari River, they reached Dohar thana, south west of Dhaka. They crossed the mighty Padma River from there and went to a village named Aurangabad. It was in Aurangabad that they heard Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's independence declaration on the radio which was aired from Chittagong.
The next day the two men crossed the river and reached Faridpur town (Kushtia District). But there were no men in town. They had all fled to distant places as they were scared of sudden Pak military attack. From Faridpur Tajuddin and Amir went to Magura town (Khulna Divison) on foot. They had been fleeing for days, by car, boat, walking, and even by horse. They travelled relentlessly, not knowing whether their family and friends were alive or dead. Once there, they were searched by the Bengali guards - ironically, members of their own Awami League party - who had failed to initially recognise the exhausted, unshaven, and haggardly pair.
The next morning they got a jeep from Narail and set off from Magura 'incognito' and went to Jhenaidah in Khulna Division.
29 March 1971: Meet SDPO Mahbub Uddin Ahmed at Jhenidah who organises their escape to Indian border using his Toyota jeep
Jhenidah was a small sub-divisional township in northwestern Bangladesh and was located half-way between Jessore Cantonment and Kushtia District headquarters. J. K. M. A. Aziz was the MNA (Member of National Assembly) of Jhenidah, while Mahbub Uddin Ahmed - popularly known as S. P. Mahbub - was the Sub-Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) of Jhenaidah who led the '11 Ansars'.
Here, the freedom fighters included local students, peasants, fishermen, officer, police, Ansars and Bengali members of EPR.
Political leadership sought help from the southwestern region where Major Abu Osman Chowdhury was based for the first few months of the war. He came to Kushtia and stayed here and commanded the Kushtia-Jessore sector (Sector 8). Mahbub and others fought under his leadership.
In Jhenaidah people were in fighting spirit. They were chanting slogans such as 'Cholo cholo Jessore cholo, cantonment dhokol koro' (Lets go to Jessore, and seize the military cantonment).
Seeing this kind of enthusiasm among people, my heart felt strong and fulfilled. My chest swelled with pride.
Amir-ul Islam recalls the spirit of the war
At mid-day on 29 March 1971 Mahbub met Tajuddin Ahmed and Barrister Amir-ul Islam for the first time at the home of J. K. M. A. Aziz.
Mr. Aziz called me to his residence at about mid-day when he introduced me to two gentlemen. They had come all the way from Dhaka starting after midnight on 25 March (1971). On that fateful night Mr. Tajuddin had observed with his own eyes the burning of Dhaka under the cannons of Pakistani forces in the name of Operation Search Light, from the rooftop of a humble house in Mohammadpur where he was hiding on his way to an unknown destination, being told by Bangabandhu to leave him alone and wage war against the Pakistani junta.
The Pakistan army had used mortars, cannons, tanks and whatever other fire-power they had on the police lines, on the paramilitary headquarter at Pilkhana (the then EPR headquarter), Dhaka University students halls, teachers quarters, and any place they thought could organise resistance. So they didn't spare the bustees in Tejgaon nor the people of old Dhaka. Mr. Tajuddin was a witness to this holocaust and he was determined to destroy the invaders.
S. P. Mahbub's concern on the grave impact of Dhaka massacre on Tajuddin Ahmad
One of the first thing Tajuddin asked Mahbub was the situation in the area and whether the route to India was safe. Mahbub reassured him that they had taken control of the entire area from Goalanda to Meherpur and from the north of Jessore Cantonment to the outskirts of Kushtia town, and that the road all the way up to the border was under their control and totally free. He also told him that under the military leadership of Major Abu Osman Chowdhury they were contemplating an attack on the Pakistani forces in Kushtia district headquarters and were confident that the people of Kushtia would support them.
Mahbub told him about various other Bengali leaders who were waging war against the Pakistanis and their collaborators at the grassroots level. Men like Dr. Asabul Huq Joardar and Barrister Badal Rashid in Chuadanga, Shohiuddin at Meherpur, Raja Miah at Kushtia, and Rawshan Ali at Jessore. Nurul Kader Khan, the DC of Pabna, had also established contact with them.
Such endeavours lifted the spirit of Tajuddin, traumatised by the massacre in Dhaka.
Having seen all the calamities, destruction, burning, death, injury, and helpless flight of millions towards unknown destiny, leaving all their possessions behind, I could visualise that our story and act of valiance enhanced his spirits and courage.
S. P. Mahbub
Tajuddin asked Mahbub to arrange for their safe disposal to the Indian border. When Mahbub enquired about the whereabouts of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Tajuddin simply replied "He is with us and leading our struggle". He said nothing else on the issue.
Tajuddin urged Mahbub to continue finding ways to take them across the border incognito. Expressing his eagerness and promising to do this "without any problem", Mahbub made the necessary preparations.
He put the two men at the back seat of his soft top Toyota jeep and drew the curtains so that nobody could see them. They made their way to Chuadanga, a town in Khulna division and about 15 miles from the Indian border of West Bengal.
The road to India was quite unmanageable as we had felled trees and cut trenches and blown up bridges to stop the advance of the Pakistani Army. We had to take many detours through the paddy fields and uneven ground and even through small streams.
Navigating through war zone
Taufiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury leads them from Chuadanga
By now Meherpur District, next to India's border, had come under the Bengali military's control. The Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) of Meherpur was Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury (later the Energy Board Advisor to PM of Bangladesh). He shifted from Meherpur and came to Chuadanga. The regional EPR force also joined them in Chuadanga.
Political leaders in this southwestern region resisted the Pak onslaught by all means. They set up an administrative unit with Dr. Asabul Huq Joardar as chief advisor and Major Abu Osman Chowdhury as commander of Mukti Bahini southwestern command.
Chuadanga - this East Pakistani town, about 15 miles from the Indian border, has been designated the provincial capital of independent Bengal.
The designation was made by Dr. Asabul Huq Joardar, who is regarded as leader of the resistance forces in this area of the country. He calls himself their chief adviser.
Unlike the case in other towns in the area, which are in the hands of disorganized groups of Sheik Mujib's supporters, there appears to be some order in this town of about 35,000 people.
Many have left, but the town has yet to see any fighting. However, Pakistani Air Force planes are reported to have dropped bombs and strafed the area Saturday.
Several stores were open today in the market of this town, to which several reporters and cameramen were taken by jeep after having walked two miles across the border.
Dr. (Asabul) Huq Joardar, a stocky man wearing two pistols on belt over civilian clothes, said that fighting would continue until the new nation is consolidated. He said the conditions under which Sheik Mujib negotiated with President Yahya last month no longer existed.
Sheik Mujib, he declared, wanted more self‐rule for the East Pakistanis without bloodshed but, "We have found that it is not possible".
The New York Times on 6 April 1971
Like any other district, the people of Kushtia, my home district, were fully charged with the spirit of liberation and were fully motivated and prepared for an armed struggle. I assured Tajuddin bhai that once we reach Kushtia we would be able to have a strong platform to launch our armed struggle. Being closer to the Indian border it would be easier, I said, to disseminate the cause for liberation to the entire world, having the access to its press and broadcast media.
...Shangram Parishad led by Awami League leaders was already in command, leading the struggle for freedom. Local administration, including the police, EPR and Ansar, under the political leadership formed by the local command, asked us to get arms and ammunitions from India, and form a government to conduct our struggle for freedom and to win the war against the Pakistan military. The Jessore cantonment was under siege by thousands of people, surrounding the area with whatever arms they had in their command. At Chuadanga, we received news that three Baloch regiments were totally destroyed when they were fleeing from Kushtia to a place called Garhaganj, falling into a booby trap set out on the bridge.
Mahbub's journey had a short interlude mid-way at Chuadanga circuit house, the headquarter for the southwestern command of Mukti Bahini. When they reached the front of the circuit house, Mahbub got down from the jeep and called Taufiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury and Major Abu Osman Chowdhury to come out and meet the two gentlemen who were inside his jeep. They four men exchanged views for some time, and Major Abu Osman Chowdhury and Taufiq explained the situation in the country and outlined their future plans, including the plan to attack Kushtia. Major Osman specially urged them to get support and help from India particularly with supply of arms and ammunitions to combat the Pakistan army. Tajuddin was very excited and assured them that he would do everything possible to help them get Indian support.
His (Major Abu Osman's) wife, Mrs Chowdhury, took care of the EPR's catering. This is another big example of how our women took part in our war.
In such circumstances, everyone was constantly advising us to go and get in touch with Delhi [i.e. Indian government] and fetch tank from there so we can take over Jessore cantonment. People thought it was simple math! But we knew in our mind that it wasn't as simple as that. To suddenly get something. Nevertheless, we still said 'Fine, we have to go there somehow. We have to get in touch with Delhi'.
The broken journey resumed within half an hour and this time Taufiq led the way towards the border.
We negotiated through kutcha roads and paddy fields dried by the heat of summer, and at least once we had to cross one canal. The canal had no bridge and we had no time to turn back to find an alternative way. Taufiq called out local people, who knew him as the local SDO and many people from the village came running to help. They put planks across the stream, and then using ropes to tie up loose ends, finally shifted the load by the sheer muscle of the many young men who extended their helping hand.
Our vehicles were lifted finally accompanied by chanting of slogans like 'Joy Bangla', 'Tikka na Hukka, Hukka Hukka', 'Ekta Duita Khan Dharo, Shakal Bikal Nasta Karo', and similar slogans which every Bengali, fighting with arms or without, had on their lips. It was this courage and conviction of ordinary people that created our indomitable strength as a nation to wage a relentless war against the Pakistan army. I am sure it was this courage and fortitude that encouraged leaders like Mr. Tajuddin to fight out a long and arduous nine months of armed liberation struggle.
It was a people's war, says S. P. Mahbub
30 March 1971: Tajuddin Ahmad conceives idea for provisional government
They reached a place called Changrakhali lying between the borders, and stopped under a big banyan tree surrounded by many smaller trees, bushes, shrubs, and jungle. It was twilight time, getting darker by the advent of coming night. They stopped on a small culvert (a tunnel carrying a stream or open drain) in no man's land.
The area was peaceful as no human habitation or movement of people could be found in the vicinity. Rather, the place was resounding with the sounds of nocturnal birds, snakes, and beasts, and was vibrating with the noise of the wind. It was a solitude which was deeply engrossing for the leaders who had only one thought in their mind, how to get the war going and how to organise the world in favour of the liberation war.
S. P. Mahbub on their Changrakhali stop-over
In the middle of a jungle, waiting beside the culvert, a pensive Tajuddin Ahmad despaired at the demise of Pakistan which he had passionately believed in.
We waited on a no man's land. There were tall deodar and pipul trees all around. There was a small, almost dried out canal and a small culvert - on one side was Tajuddin Ahmad and on the other side was myself. We almost lied down but it was very hot so we couldn't even lie comfortably. But being exhausted I was feeling drowsy, but Tajuddin sir looked pensive as if he was thinking far. I asked him 'What are you thinking? You look sad'. He smiled and said, "I was thinking something". I was then very excited and exultant a new history was being created and we were part of it and playing major roles, so I was very excited. But he said, "I was thinking I've been defeated". 'How come defeat? We're heading for a win' I said. He replied, "No, during the creation of Pakistan my Hindu classmates used to tell me that your Pakistan won't survive. By raising different points I would then point out why Pakistan would survive and what were the reasons for it to survive. Now, I'm losing in that debate which I used to have with my Hindu classmates..."
Tajuddin Ahmad loses Pakistan bet with Hindu classmates
It was also during this time that, according to Tajuddin Ahmad's eldest daughter Sharmin Ahmad (a prominent human rights activist), Tajuddin Ahmad came up with the idea of a provisional Bengali government.
Bangladesh was going through the darkest period of its 24-years existence as the eastern wing of Pakistan. Politically, on the one hand, there was the spectacle of a captive Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On the other, there was no clear sign of anyone else in the Awami League hierarchy, at least up to that point, taking control and reassuring the country that everything was on course, or soon would be. The call of duty was one that Tajuddin Ahmad heard loud and clear. In order for the Muktijuddho (Liberation War) to be channeled in a constructive and right direction, Tajuddin Ahmad deemed it necessary to form an independent Bangla government and notified Amir-ul Islam of this decision.
One important fact should be mentioned that the First Bangladesh Government was conceived by Tajuddin Ahmad on 30 March 1971. This historic idea to form a national government under whose banner people from all walks of life, who want to fight for independence can be united changed the course of history. This idea dawned on h im on 30 March 1971 while he took a refuge under a culvert, in Kushtia, near the border. Barrister Amir-ul Islam was his companion in their escape to an unknown destiny.
Sharmin Ahmad, eldest daughter of Tajuddin Ahmad
State honour demanded from Indians and dutifully received
Tajuddin Ahmad and Amir-ul Islam told Tawfiq-e-Elahi and S. P. Mahbub that we would go to the Bangladesh-India border but not cross it. After reaching near the border, they stayed at a bushy area and told their "two emissaries" (i.e. Tawfiq and Mahbub) to go to Changrakhali BOP (border outpost or border observation post) and inform the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) that two high ranked leader of Government of Bangladesh would like to meet India's Prime Minister Shrimati Indira Gandhi in Delhi if their one and only condition is met: they would set feet on their land but they should be received with state honour.
We decided not to cross the border until we were sure that the Indian authority would receive us with honour and dignity. We repeated the message several times to our emissaries to be delivered ad verbatim. The message was as follows: "Two senior members of the government of independent Bangladesh would like to meet the Prime Minister of India, Shrimati Indira Gandhi. They will cross the border only if received with state protocol."
Bengali request Guard of Honour
Tawfiq-e-Elahi and S. P. Mahbub had left Tajuddin and Amir in a no man's land in the midst of a jungle. Reclining on a hot culvert under a shed, the two men contemplated the magnitude of the events that were occurring.
The sun was setting in the horizon. It was in that evening setting I told Tajuddin saheb "See, the sun is setting. The sky is waiting for a new sun to rise." We'd both sat there waiting for the new horizon.
Amir-ul Islam to Tajuddin Ahmad
Meanwhile, Tawfiq and Mahbub made towards the Indian outpost to meet their contacts. Halfway through, they encountered Captain Mahapatra of Indian BSF who was sent out by his commanding officer to escort the VIPs. Apparently, an SOS call that was sent by Tawfiq from Meherpur to his Indian counterpart on the other side had been taken seriously and his call had in fact alerted the Indian border post. The Indian government had also alerted the entire border to receive all important political leaders of Bangladesh of the time, who might be seeking shelter, refuge, or assistance.
They (i.e. Indian government) were fully aware of the fighting that erupted between the Bengalis and the Pakistanis since the night of 25 March (1971).
S. P. Mahbub
Tajuddin and Amir waited for more than two hours. Later that evening, soon after dusk, when it was getting dark, they suddenly heard the sound of few heavy boot pounding. Then an Indian BSF Captain came with his platoon, armed with rifles. The Indian officers were all properly dressed. It was Captain Mahapatra and his team. They escorted the four Bengali men and reached the Indian BSF border post at around 7.30 in the evening. There we were received by the Commanding Officer of the sector and, after brief introduction, Tajuddin Ahmad and Amir-ul Islam were given a makeshift guard of honour salute by the members of the BSF of India on behalf of Indian government - a protocol reserved for leaders of a sovereign country only.
A nine-member platoon gave us a guard of honour salute, cordially inviting us to their BOP.
Guard of honour salute received as requested
To us it was a moment of great pride and elation, a sense of unparalleled excitement. We felt that we were really the representatives of an independent state.
S. P. Mahbub
Golok Bihari Majumder, Eastern Commander Chief, sends message to All India Head of BSF, K. F. Rustamji
After arriving at Changrakhali BOP, Tajuddin, Amir, Tawfiq and Mahbub were received cordially by the officer-in-charge. After the short formalities, they were given some refreshments. The officer-in-charge told them that their message had already been received at the BSF headquarters in Calcutta and the Chief of the Eastern Command of BSF, Golok Bihari Majumder, would arrive soon. Golok arrived after about an hour and welcomed the two men to India. He informed Tajuddin and Amir that he had sent their message to Delhi and assured them that there was huge support for their cause among the people of West Bengal. Amir-ul Islam immediately replied that we were very grateful for their support in West Bengal but wanted to know how the Indian were going to respond to the situation in Bangladesh. Golok told him that there was only one person who could give the Indian response: Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India.
Golok told them that he could arrange a meeting with her.
He (Golok Majumder) was not only genuinely warm at heart, but also a true friend with commitment for our cause, as he reassured us that our cause was legally and morally justified and destined to succeed. He had a complete understanding of the situation in Bangladesh.
...He was not only prudent but also very perceptive. Golok Majumder rightly guessed that we would be hungry, so he brought some luchi, vegetables and sweets from Calcutta for us which were a welcome snack for us, having been without food for the entire journey since Magura. Besides the warm and friendly reception, the response was genuinely based on principles of justice and rights of the people to decide their own destiny, including their right to form their own government.
Golok Bihari Majumder was a very active and passionate supporter of the Bangladeshi cause
During our war of Independence, Majumder was the main source for information, coordinator in management of the affairs at the ground level operation by our freedom fighters.
Hearing the sad news of his demise on 6 July 2015, I spoke to his two daughters, Jayanti and Basanti, to convey our condolences. Both the sisters shared their father's love and commitment for Bangladesh and the Liberation War in which their father played an important role as the chief of the Eastern Command of Border Security force of India.
Amir-ul Islam pays tribute to Golok Bihari Majumder who passed away in 2015
Golok transmitted their message to the capital Delhi where K. F. Rustamji, the first DG (Director General) and founding father of the Indian Border Security Force, received it. Rustamji had a good connection with Indira Gandhi and had direct access to her via phone. He did not have to go through any agency. So Rustamji called her directly and relayed the message to her that two representatives of Bangladesh Government wanted to see her and that they wanted to be received with state honour.
It was then that Shrimati Indira Gandhi told him (Rustamji) that "You must remember, the Bengalis may not be as tall as you are, but they are very tall in their mind and thinking. And they are very proud people. So you must treat them in the same manner. So I command you to go and receive them on my behalf and give them the state honour."
Indian PM Indira Gandhi commands her military to give state honour to Bangladesh's Tajuddin Ahmad and Amir-ul Islam
S. P. Mahbub requests ammunition from Tajuddin Ahmad and gets firearms "not accounted for"
S. P. Mahbub's main concern now was to received arms and ammunitions so they could attack the Pakistan army in Kushtia. So he reminded Tajuddin Ahmad to see if BSF could give them some firearms. As promised, Tajuddin raised the issue to the commandant.
Tajuddin told Mahbub that they were not permitted yet to give arms to the Mukti Bahini. But there were ammunitions which were not accounted for, so he could have them if desired.
We have no clearance from central government to give arms and ammunitions to Mukti Bahini, so I shall have to send signal to the central government before giving you anything. However, I have some old arms of Czechoslovakian origin and some hand grenades, which I can part with, if you so desire.
Tajuddin Ahmad tells S. P. Mahbub to take unaccounted for firearms
Mahbub and Tawfiq were given two LMGs and three dozen hand grenades. They headed back to Bangladesh to continue the fight.
We were hungry for arms and anything coming by was welcome. So, they delivered two LMGs and three dozen hand grenades. To my knowledge this was the first consignment of arms and ammunition we received from the Indians in our war efforts. Having received the arms in good grace, it was time to bid farewell.
After exchange of good wishes we left Mr. Tajuddin in the care of the BSF, and they were whisked off to Calcutta the same night, and their long journey leading to the war of liberation and its conclusion started.
First consignment of arms and ammunitions from Indians to Bengalis