Ten martyred cleaners of Mirin Jilla

By Lt. Col. (Retd.) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir on 26 March 2012

The writer is a Bir Protik, retired military officer, freedom fighter, recipient of Swadhinata Padak and researcher on the Liberation War

Article courtesy: The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

Dhaka City Corporation's Sweepers' Colony is situated near the Bangladesh Maidan, in Old Dhaka. Mirin Jilla Government Primary School, which was established in 1965 and is now located at 25 Agha Sadek Road stands at the entrance to this colony. Beside this school one can see a monument dedicated to the martyrs of 1971 on which is written:

Here is the list of ten martyrs who were brutally killed by the ruthless Pakistani occupation forces on 22 November 1971.

  1. Sri Mahabir Samund
  2. Sri Anbarlal
  3. Sri Nandulal Sardar
  4. Sri Ishwarlal
  5. Sri Ghashita
  6. Sri Khalbal
  7. Sri Shankar Hela
  8. Sri Lallu
  9. Sri Nandalal
  10. Sri Ramcharan

Harijan Association: Mirin Jilla, Dhaka-1, Established in 1972.

During the Pakistan time, members of this community were called Bhangi. Many called them Dhangor. In post-independence Bangladesh they are known as sweepers. They are also known as Harijan. As many as two thousand and five hundred members of this community lived in this colony during the liberation war. At present there are five thousand members here. The ruthless Pakistan Army did not spare the lives of these innocent and simple-hearted people in 1971.

In the middle of the fateful night of 25 March, 1971, the air in Old Dhaka was filled with the violent sound of firing and screaming from its inhabitants. The inhabitants of this colony spent a sleepless night inside their houses. At seven in the morning of 26 March, a jeep and a truck load of Pakistani soldiers led by a captain took position in front of this colony. They began to scream in Urdu saying, 'Terrorists come out'.

The elders in the colony approached the captain pleading for their lives. They said they were only poor sweepers living without making any trouble. Their only job was to keep the city clean and no outsiders resided there. The Army could search every house in case they were doubtful. The door of every house was kept open for the soldiers to see the inside of the houses. For a while it seemed the captain was pleased with this and left the place warning them of dire consequences if any terrorist was ever spotted or found there.

There was curfew in Dhaka City on 26 March, 1971. Curfew was lifted for a short time on 27 March when the inhabitants of this colony went out to the adjacent areas in search of food. The elders of the colony alerted everyone to take precaution at all times.

On 28 March, a contingent of ten armed Pakistani soldiers reached near the colony. There was no officer with them this time but it was a Subedar from the Army who was in charge. With them was the Health Officer, Mr. Idris of Dhaka Municipality. He looked disturbed and shaken and was standing at a little distance. The Subedar began calling out the leaders of the sweepers in Urdu using abusive words. Rajram Sardar from the colony responded. Mr. Idris informed Rajram that the Army ordered twelve hard working and able bodied senior sweepers to step into the army truck to get some work done.

The members of this colony by then had come to know about the military atrocities in the city since the night of 25 March. The women and children began crying fearing the worst when they came to know their men were being taken away. The Pakistani Subedar assured them nothing would happen to these men. They were just being taken to clean different areas of the city and they would be returned once the job was done. They were reminded that in case they refused to cooperate, the inhabitants of the colony would have to pay a heavy price. To avoid blood bath the elders immediately decided to cooperate and go with the soldiers. Meanwhile, the women were comforted by the elders and at 7:30 in the morning the Army truck left with the twelve sweepers.

The sweepers returned to the colony at dusk. They were all physically and emotionally exhausted. They were speechless when they returned to their respective houses. Later it was known that they were taken to Palashi, the slum near the S.M. Hall rail gate, Jagannath Hall, TSC, English Road and Bangshal areas. Behind their truck were more trucks carrying dead bodies of young men, mostly students. The cleaners were made to pick up the dead bodies and to clean and wash the areas immediately. The trucks carrying the dead bodies were taken by the soldiers to Dholpur and Dhaka Cantonment area. A few of the cleaners were also taken with them. In those days Dholpur was a low lying area and was the dumping ground for wastes for the Dhaka Municipality. The cleaners were ordered to dump the dead bodies there. It was painful for the cleaners to see the dead being thus maltreated at the hands of the Pakistani soldiers.

The Pakistani soldiers visited this colony from 29 March, 1971 to November 1971, nine to ten times. Every time they used abusive words and enquired if any freedom fighter was hiding inside. Every time they were accompanied by local Bengalis whose face would be covered with cloth. They were all members of the much hated cohorts of the Pakistan Army, the Razakars, Al Badrs and Al Shams. These people would say that the inhabitants of the colony were followers of Sheikh Mujib and they were giving support to the freedom fighters. The colony members were warned they would all be burnt alive if it was proven to be true.

It should be mentioned here that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib had visited this colony in person to seek votes in favor of Awami league from its inhabitants prior to the election of 1970. He had also addressed a gathering in front of the colony. The elders and other inhabitants had decided to vote for Sheikh Mujub and had acted accordingly. The Pakistan Army had information about this. Freedom fighters had also at times taken shelter in the colony before and after operations. Often, the cleaners would transport arms and ammunitions for the freedom fighters in their carts. As these carts would have a bad odor, the Pakistani soldiers would not search these readily. But the Pakistani forces were aware of the sympathy and compassion the inhabitants of this colony shared for the freedom fighters. For this the Pakistanis had later unleashed barbaric treatment towards the members of this colony.

Cleaner Shitalal's young son Mohonlal went missing from the colony since the end of March. The inhabitants knew Mohonlal had joined the Liberation War as a freedom fighter. The inhabitants disliked the atrocities committed by the Pakistanis on the innocent people and supported the cause of the Liberation War. Their contribution to our struggle during that time needs to be recognized.

Sunday, 21 November 1971 was a weekend. At around 12:00 noon, Ramcharan, a hard working cleaner of the colony was picked up by a group of Pakistani soldiers from the colony. His family was told he would be returned to them before dusk. Since he failed to return by night, his wife Ranidas sought help from the elders. They could do nothing about it. They began to realize the coming doom on the inhabitants of the colony.

The inhabitants of this colony will never forget the incidents of the night of 21 November, 1971. A little before 12:00 midnight the Pakistani Army surrounded the entire colony. The soldiers were accompanied by Al Badar and Razakars whose faces were again covered in cloth. They declared aloud,” We are about to search every house, if any one tries to come out of their house we will shoot him. There are Muktis in this colony”. After 12:00 the Army and their cohorts entered the colony and began knocking at every door. It was a deadly sight then in that area.

They first entered Ghashita's house. They dragged him out of his house. His wife Tejiarani held on to her husband crying she would not let him go. At this point a soldier hit her on the head with a rifle butt. Tejiarani, being an able bodied brave woman fell but quickly got to her feet saying she should also be taken if her husband was to be taken. A Razakar responded saying that her husband was being taken for work and would be returned once the work was done. Meanwhile, Ghashita's hands were tied. Tejiarani tried hard to untie her husband's hands. She was hit on the head again with the rifle and she fell unconscious. Her husband was dragged out of the house.

Anbarlal was the most educated youth in the colony. He had completed his BA degree from Nazrul Islam College. Yet, he had joined the Municipality as a sweeper. Anbarlal was meritorious and a valuable member of the colony. During leisure hours he taught the children of the colony. He was proficient in English and was the only educated member of the colony. When the Pakistani soldiers had surrounded the colony he told his wife Bonodevi he was going out to see the situation. They could hear screams and shots from Ghashita's house and she tried to restrain Anbarlal from going out. But Anbarlal insisted saying he was the general secretary of the cleaners association and it was necessary for him to go and help his colony members. As Anbarlal came out of his house he was surrounded by soldiers who immediately tied him up. It was obvious that Al Badar and Razakars were directing the soldiers to identify the inhabitants. Anbarlal walked in silence while the soldiers continued to kick him. His wife Bonodevi continued to plead for her husband's life. Anbarlal, as was being dragged out, continued to say to the inhabitants of the colony that he might never return, that he be forgiven for any wrong he might have done to them and that he and the others were innocent.

The soldiers by then had entered Khalbal's house. They hit him hard with a rifle butt. Khalbal fell on the floor and his hands were quickly tied. His wife Lakkhirani cried aloud. She was silenced by the soldiers saying they would shoot her if she raised a hue and cry.

A team of soldiers were trying to enter Mahabeer Samund's house. His wife Shantarani placed herself at the door barring the soldiers from entering the house. Their eight years old son cried aloud in fear. A soldier hit him with his fist. They ransacked the house and took Mahabeer Samund with them. Mahabeer acted like a hero at that point. He asked his wife to be brave and instructed her to take care of their son in his absence. He also repeated he was innocent.

The other six cleaners were also dragged out of their houses in a similar manner. When Nandulal Sardar was being taken away, his wife Budia Das was hit by the soldiers. Similar incidents were repeated with Ishwarlal's wife Ramoni Das, Lallu's wife Piari Das, Nandalal's wife Munni Das. Once the soldiers with the Razakars left the scene the inhabitants came out desperately searching for their near and dear ones in the lanes around the colony. Next day they contacted the cleaners working inside Dhaka Cantonment and also tried to find their whereabouts from the Dhaka Municipality. They failed to get any information of their near and dear ones.

The members of these unfortunate families came to know after 16 December 1971 that unidentified bodies were lying in Rayer Bazar. All of them rushed to the spot. They could not identify anyone since by then the bodies were decomposed and were beyond recognition. Khalbal's wife Lakkhirani had seen two gold teeth in one of the decomposed face. She believed that to be her husband's body. Her husband had two gold teeth. The head was broken in places, the result of repeated shots being fired on.

The residents of Mirin Jilla still wonder why so many of their family and friends were ruthlessly killed by Pakistan army. Shattered families and living widows of Mirin Jilla still mourn the death of their near and dear ones who were the innocent victims of atrocity. Animals in human form were on the prowl and snatched them away who never returned.