This November, freedom fighters who fought alongside the Indian Army in the 1971 liberation war to create Bangladesh will travel by the iconic Jessore Road to meet the families of deceased Indian soldiers.
The gesture, unparalleled in the world, is being pushed by Sajjad Ali Zahir, a retired colonel of the Bangladesh Army. Interestingly, Zahir was instrumental in helping the Indian Army achieve significant success in its battle of Sialkot in the western sector in what was then West Pakistan.
“Sadly, once the war was over and Bangladesh, the new nation, was born, everyone forgot everyone. The families of Indian soldiers who died in Bangladesh mourned for years. And then, their tears dried up. Some even called me to say how their husbands went to Bangal (Bengal) and never returned,” Col (Retd) Zahir told us in a telephonic interview from Dhaka.
Zahir said the move has the backing of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Both, during a recent conversation, agreed that this unique push would be a great way for members of the retired soldiers' (families) to bond.
“Modi was keen that the Indian Army should replicate this process in Bangladesh and members of the dead Indian soldiers' families of the 1971 war must visit places like Dhaka, Comilla and Chittagong and meet up with families of veteran Bangladeshi freedom fighters,” said Zahir.
The veteran freedom fighters will carry plaques in English, Hindi and Tamil, Jamdani saris and other gifts for the Indian soldiers, most of them members of the 14 Punjab Battalion 45 Cavalry which, on 20 November 1971, moved into Garibpur, a strategically important town near India’s border with what was then East Pakistan, and successfully captured it.
An estimated 1,200 Indian soldiers died in the war that eventually ended after three corps of the Indian Army, under the command of Lt Gen Jasjit Singh Aurora, invaded East Pakistan, entered Dhaka and after the conclusion of the battle of Basantar, forced Pakistani forces — led by Lt Gen AAK Niazi — to surrender, on 16 December 1971. India suffered 3,500 battle-related deaths, 1,200 in Bangladesh.
The Jessore Road, connecting India with Bangaldesh, was the busiest, carrying truckloads of Indian soldiers, arms and tanks, and also carrying hundreds of thousands of impoverished refugees from war-struck East Pakistan.
Organisers from Dhaka are contemplating allowing some veteran freedom fighters to travel via Jessore Road as a token sign of love for the soldiers of the Indian Army; the rest of the freedom fighters would travel from Dhaka by air. The organisers have sent an invitation to veteran photographer Raghu Rai who had — in 1971 — traveled with the Indian Army and covered the war. Rai, who eventually produced the images in an iconic coffee table book, has not yet responded.
The move, expectedly, has earned praise from several quarters, mainly from the families of those who lost their lives during the war. “I had thought Bangladesh did not remember my husband who died in the war but I am touched, happy that those who fought with my husband will visit us,” says Satwant Kaur, 71, whose husband, Balbir Singh, a grenadier, died in the war.
A spokesperson of the Indian Army said dates for the visit of the freedom fighters had not been finalised but called it a noble gesture. Former Army chief Gen VK Singh, currently Minister of State for External Affairs, is aware of the plan and personally monitoring it.
“For over two years, we have painstakingly researched and obtained family details of all those who died. Most of them are in Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana and some are in Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh,” says Zahir.
In Kolkata, historian Syed Tanveer Nasreen said the journey will be a milestone because there are no such examples in war across the world. “Very few will travel through Jessore Road but the journey will indeed be iconic because the road has tremendous historical importance. The liberation war in East Pakistan and the subsequent influx of refugees changed the economy of Bengal forever,” says Nasreen. Approximately, 10 million refugees entered India during the war and 1.5 million stayed back after Pakistani forces surrendered.
Singer Moushumi Bhowmick, whose popular song on Jessore Road recorded huge numbers on the You Tube says she is excited that such an effort is being made by war veterans. Bhowmick says her Bengali song was inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s song that hit the charts in September 1971, when millions of East Pakistani refugees were marching up that road to Calcutta. Now, she says she could have sung another one if all the soldiers had marched down Jessore Road. “That would have been wonderful.”
But that, claims Zahir, will not be possible because all those who will travel to India are in their 80s and cannot handle the long road journey.
Bangladesh was born in blood, sweat and terror 45 years ago.