Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lieutenant Colonel Quazi Nooruzzaman : Citizen Soldier, Sector Commander

Colonel Quazi Nooruzzaman Colonel Quazi Nooruzzaman in many ways is what one may consider the true embodiment of the spirit of our liberation war. For the past forty years he lived his life in a manner where his actions and deeds upheld the spirit of the liberation war in every sense of the term. In March 1971 , Colonel Zaman was a retired army officer of the Pakistan Army leading the life of a private citizen in Dhaka. For Colonel Zaman the choice was clear once the Pakistan army cracked down on unarmed civilians. He was a trained soldier and his country required him to fight in the trenches in its hour of need and that's what he was going to do - be it as a commander or a private.    For his part in the liberation war, Colonel Zaman was awarded the gallantry award Bir Uttam but he has steadfastly refused this award. He neither attended any ceremony to accept this award nor has he ever used this award as a part of his credentials. His reasons for not accepting the award are simple. First, gallantry awards are for professional soldiers and not for soldiers of a liberation army who fight for their independence. Normally, a professional army fights the enemy and protects its civilian population. In our liberation war, the entire population (barring collaborators) fought against the enemy. The reward for the struggle was independence itself and gallantry awards diminish the significance of this struggle.    Second, during the liberation war, there were innumerable instances of utmost courage and dedication by ordinary people who fought against the professional Pakistani army with very little in terms weaponry and equipment. These sons of the soil willingly and selflessly gave their lives for their people and country. They did not receive any gallantry award for their courage or sacrifice. Consider the case of the early volunteers of the Mukti Bahini. By the end of April 1971 , organized resistance by Bengalee soldiers against the crackdown had ended and the Mukti Bahini was pushed across the borders. At that time it was important to keep up the struggle and raise the morale of the population. During April to June 1971 , hundreds of Mukti Bahini volunteers, mostly peasants and village people, were trained for one to two weeks and organized in small groups and armed with only grenades and one pistol per group were sent to fight the Pakistan army. Like sacrificial lambs, they were all killed. Most of their names are not even in the records of the liberation war and the tales of their sacrifice is now lost. These were the bravest sons of this soil and if they did not receive any gallantry award, Colonel Zaman felt he could not accept any gallantry award for his role in the liberation war.    He suffered indignation of being a Bengalee in the Pakistan army. Often he would find himself in situations where he was subjected to racial epithets, including personal insults. Colonel Zaman never accepted such insults lying down even if that meant getting on the wrong side of the President of Pakistan, General Ayub Khan. He was a man of strong conviction and quiet dignity. He was not known to raise his voice or get involved in arguments. If he disagreed with a point of view he would clearly say so and would articulate his position lucidly.    In the past forty years, he has written extensively on the problems of Bangladesh. He is the author of several books and wrote regularly in newspapers. In all his writings, we see the essence of the spirit of the liberation war which was the dignity of a citizen in an independent country. He wanted nothing more or anything less for himself other than what was due to him as an ordinary citizen. He felt strongly that there can no disagreements on the spirit of the liberation war, which he saw as the struggle for the protection of individual rights and dignity of ordinary citizens so that they achieve economic and social emancipation. He always stood against privilege and nepotism.    Immediately after our victory on 16 December 1971 , Colonel Zaman returned back to his old civilian life. He did not accept any inducement of high office in return for his political support. When freedom fighters persuaded him to take over the helms of the Muktijoudha Sangsad, he only agreed to do so if he was elected as Chairman and not in any other way. It is now a matter of historical record that the Muktijoudha Sangsad has had only one open and fair election in its forty years of existence and it was the one when Colonel Zaman was elected as Chairman.    In 1981 , when the Sattar Government under the directives of General Ershad was persecuting freedom fighters in the army and was going through the mockery of a trial by holding a Court Martial in camera in Chittagong Jail, Colonel Zaman's was the lone voice that protested against this charade. He continued his protests for days and months and even went on a hunger strike. Neither intimidation nor inducement could silence him. Ershad arrested him under martial law regulations and kept him in jail for several months. Immediately, after his release, Colonel Zaman published an article on the evils of martial law when the country was under Ershad's martial law.    Colonel Zaman was the founding convener of the Ekkatorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee. He continued to play an important role in this committee and when he felt that Committee was straying from its original intent he stepped aside.    Colonel Zaman joined the liberation war immediately after the crackdown of March 25 , 1971. He understood the severity of the situation and decided to join the liberation struggle straightaway even before making any arrangements for the safety of his family. He left it to his friends and relatives to look after his family. Eventually, the entire family crossed over to India. When his 15- year old son, Nadeem, expressed his desire to fight, Colonel Zaman assigned him the duties of a rifleman in Captain Jahangir's sub- sector. He wasn't given any special consideration. His wife, Dr. Sultana Zaman on her own arranged equipment and supplies for a field hospital from the Government of West Bengal. She found a Bengalee surgeon, Dr. Moazzem, who agreed to work with her in the field hospital. She set up the field hospital in Mohidipur sub sector of Sector 7 where her daughters Naila and Lubna along with other medical students worked tirelessly to bring comfort to the wounded and sick freedom fighters.    I first met Colonel Zaman sometime in May 1971 at the Raiganj Mukti Bahini Camp in West Dinajpur. He was heading the Selection Team that was interviewing prospective officer candidates for the liberation army. Only two candidates were selected from that entire region. One was Kaiser Haq and the other was I. Little did we know that both of us would be assigned to Sector 7 after the completion of our training where Colonel Zaman was the Sector Commander.    As a Sector Commander, Colonel Zaman was methodical and he devoted his attention to those areas where he felt he would have the most impact. He personally spoke to as many freedom fighters as he could especially when they were being infiltrated into the hinterland. Whenever, freedom fighters from the interior came back to base camp to pick up supplies or ammunition, Colonel Zaman tried to talk to as many of them as he could. He listened to their problems with empathy, discussed operational issues and always impressed upon them not be overwhelmed with problems. He was firm and assertive but never disrespectful to anyone. His approach was to encourage innovation and improvisation to make up for what we lacked in weaponry and ammunition. Colonel Zaman did not have any time for those freedom fighters that were reluctant to fight; he left them alone and focused his attention on matters where his energies would be better utilized.    Colonel Zaman worked closely with his Sub-sector Commanders in almost every operation. When the Indian Army agreed to support his sector operations with artillery but would not be able to provide any forward observation officer, being an artillery officer Colonel Zaman decided to take that task upon himself. This meant that even as a Sector Commander he had to be with his frontline troops for all major operations to direct the artillery bombardment. As far as I know, he is the only Sector Commander who had done this. His leadership style was pragmatic and he did what was needed to be done without any fuss. He was confident of his abilities and the abilities of his men but he wasn't foolhardy; he took calculated risks but never gambled.    He instilled in his men a code of conduct consistent with the Geneva Convention. After victory when many freedom fighters sought retribution against collaborators, Colonel Zaman insisted that no one should take the law in their own hands. Instead, he ordered the arrest of collaborators so that all those who were guilty of crimes against humanity could be brought under the due process of law.    Colonel Zaman passed away on May 6 , 2011 after prolonged illness caused by old age complications. He did not seek and nor did he receive any assistance from the government in dealing with his medical condition. When family members tried to convince him to go abroad for medical treatment he steadfastly refused. His reason was - how many citizens of Bangladesh can go abroad for medical treatment? Even in his final days, Colonel Zaman remained what he has always aspired to be - a citizen of Bangladesh living with dignity!