Courage and compassion of Rawshanara Begum

By Lt. Col. (Retd.) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir on 25 February 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)

Meghalaya is the abode of the cloud. Its population compromises of the Khasis, the Jaintias (of Austric origin) and the Garos (of Bodo origin). It was in Meghalaya, amongst the Khasi hills, marked by its ease of access, that the British set up their headquarters in the northeast region in Shillong.

I was in Shillong where I met Professor Bidhu Bhushan Dutta who, in 1971, was a lecturer of St. Anthony College of Shillong, and who was deeply involved in helping Bangladeshi refugees and freedom fighters during the Liberation War. It was Professor Dutta who facilitated my meeting with Chief Minister Dr. Mukul Sangma, noting that, as a freedom fighter in the bordering areas of Assam and Meghalaya in 1971, the latter would be glad to grant me an audience.

Through Chief Secretary Mr. W.M.S. Pariat, in the Government of Meghalaya, my meeting was scheduled on the same day. In our meeting, I laid out the reason and plans for my visit. In April 1971, thousands of refugees from Bangladesh poured into the village of Ampati, which is about four kilometers west of Mahendraganj bazaar and near the branch of the Dalu river.

The refugee camps were soon filled beyond capacity, and the new arrivals began moving further inland. The mass influx of refugees soon led to tensions between the incoming desperate populations and the local Garo tribes, who were concerned that the refugee camps would become a permanent settlement, and the refugees would not return to their original homes. Consequently, Garo land-owners began preventing refugees from setting up camp, leaving large numbers of people in a state of desperation.

It was during this desperate period, at a time when Indian government assistance had yet to reach Ampati, that a wealthy local woman intervened, providing not only food and clothing, but also offering her own land for refugees to live on. Every morning, she would walk to the camp with her five year old son clutching her fingers and her servants, who carried food and supplies for the refugees. The refugees could also go and visit this lady in her home in case of any emergency.

When there was an epidemic in the refugee camp, she personally nursed the sick and the dying. She made burial and cremation arrangements for those who passed away. Even when the Indian government relief finally came to the Ampati camp, she continued with her noble work, and even encouraged her young son to eat meals with the refugee children.

It was this remarkable story of a woman, whose courage and compassion in a time of inhumanity, that made me not only interested to meet her in person but also anxious to document her contributions to support a desperate people during a terrible war. The CM was sceptical about the possibility of tracking down a woman whose name I did not know, but I was insistent. At least, I believed that if she was no longer alive I could at least meet her son and thank him personally for the services his mother provided so selflessly for my people.

For a few moments, Dr. Sangma and I sat in silence. He then slowly stood up from his chair, and I thought the meeting was over. To my surprise, I saw he had tears in his eyes. CM Dr. Sangma put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Col. Sajjad, you do not have to go to Ampati anymore. You are talking to the son whom you have travelled so far to meet." Words failed me. I just stood and stared, not knowing what to say. I begged him to say more.

"My mother's name is Rawshanara Begum," he began. "She belonged to a Muslim family in the bordering village of Bongaon in Assam. My father Binoy Bhushan Modok and my mother were both students in Cotton College of Guwahati. Both came from wealthy families. My father was two years senior to my mother. They fell in love and after my father's graduation he married my mother and brought her to Ampati. It was a difficult time for my mother -- she was a Bengali Muslim who had to adjust to the Garo Christian community. But she was patient, and through time, she won over the heart of the community by providing social services and teaching at a local Garo school, where my father also taught. Slowly, she became very popular in Ampati."

Dr. Sangma further went on to say that the information I had managed to collect about the refugees from Bangladesh was correct. He still remembers the days of 1971. "My mother used to tell me that only through sharing experiences with the poor and the desperate, sharing meals with them, would I develop a sense of belonging with them. She was particularly concerned about the girls and women who lived through the horror of genocide and the traumas they endured. When I grew up, I wanted to become a doctor to help the poor. Looking back, I realise it was those experiences of my childhood that were responsible for the decisions I have made as an adult. Like my mother, I started treating poor patients free of charge. Slowly I got into politics and as a twenty-eight year old, I became a Member of the Parliament in the Ampatigiri Constituency. I was the minister of home and education at thirty-eight and became the CM at the age of forty-five. All her life, my mother wanted me to become a people's man and I work every day to be the kind of man she wanted me to be." He added that his mother used to say sometimes that nobody from Bangladesh remembered her. "She died three years ago. She would have been so happy to meet someone from Bangladesh who knew about Ampati and the difficult days there."

I was humbled by the story I heard, and the enduring legacy of a woman whose generosity of spirit could only be rivaled by her determination and her moral courage. It was the story of how even in the midst of despair, inhumanity and cruelty, noble acts of compassion made a difference in the lives of strangers. It was the tale of one individual who went against the sentiments of her time and her community and responded to her conscience, lending a helping hand to those in need. It was the story of one who offered not only comfort and dignity to a people without home and hope, but who till today guides the destiny of her son.

Rowshanara Begun made a moral choice to identify with the hungry, the sick, the homeless and the desperate; she chose to give dignity to people denied their self-worth and their humanity; she chose to respond to a higher calling of service and to her conscience, at a time when so many were silent. Her determination to protect and preserve the sanctity of life in the darkest hours of man's inhumanity to his fellow-beings is a reminder of the moral choices that we should have the courage to make in times of crisis, and the urgent task to uncover significant yet forgotten contributions of private citizens to our struggle for independence. Only then can we truly honour such selfless acts of compassion and remarkable courage.