The writer visits Dhaka University, the epicentre of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle that erupted in March 1971.

‘They were in front of Curzon Hall. The wet ribbon had followed them all the way, and now it poured into a gutter which was also red, and on the side of the gutter was a pair of hands, the fingers clasped together in prayer or begging, and next to the hands was a face.’ — Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age).

It could have been the mellow gaze of the waning sun. Or, the seemingly illimitable open spaces that my eyes craved for, especially after a fortnight of peripatetic adventures in Dhaka’s vehicle-coagulated roads. But, upon being ferried to Curzon Hall in Dhaka University (DU) on a cycle-rickshaw, I was ready for a brush with Bangladesh’s history.

Tahmima Anam’s riveting historical fiction, A Golden Age, had introduced me to Dhaka University’s role in the country’s freedom struggle. Having arrived at Bangladesh to cover the Asia Cup cricket tournament, a visit to the University — to savour the sights and sounds I had so far experienced only in print — was a must.

And, I couldn’t have found myself there at a more appropriate time; March will forever be an emotional month for Bangladeshis. It’s after all the month in which the Bangladeshi flag was first hoisted; in which the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (whose birth anniversary falls on March 17), made his epochal speech; in which the tragic Operation Searchlight happened.

I could make the trip only on the last evening of my stay in Dhaka. Before I reached Curzon Hall, I spent an hour in Jagannath Hall, which was a dormitory for Hindu students in DU. The grounds of Jagannath Hall were dotted with games of cricket, while carefree laughter filled the air at Curzon Hall.

But, under this gaiety lay a gruesome past: Operation Searchlight, on March 25, 1971. “That was the night when the genocide was launched. For nine months, we lived in a state of terror. Many friends and relatives were picked up by the Pakistan army. They never returned,” said Syed Badrul Ahsan, Executive Editor of Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, The Daily Star.

“That the Pakistan Army’s first target was DU is proof that students have always been at the forefront of our political struggle. The Pakistanis were right in thinking that every political movement began at the University. They killed hundreds of students at Jagannath Hall, and professors such as G.C. Dey and Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta.

The mass grave is now a garden. There is also a ‘Genocide Plaque’ built in memory of the victims. “After the killing, the army made the other Hindu students dig a mass grave and dump the bodies in. Then they, too, were killed,” said Ahsan. According to some estimates, nearly 3000 people were killed in Dhaka that night.

This horrific episode further catalysed the already-heightened nationalistic fervour and set the tone for the Liberation War. What’s intriguing, however, is that the DU — often called the ‘Oxford of the East’ — invariably was the epicentre of every important political activity, including the Liberation struggle.

“People from other countries are surprised at how political the university is, but without the DU, we would still be part of Pakistan,” said Ahsan. Haroon Habib, The Hindu’s Bangladesh correspondent, agreed. “It’s a unique phenomenon. Right from the Language Movement in 1952, the students provided leadership to the nation,” said Habib, who was a student guerrilla commander in the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). Habib now heads the Sector Commanders’ Forum, a platform for 1971 War veterans.

Peel back the years and the earliest signs of friction between East and West Pakistan appear. In March 1948, Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressed a students’ convocation at Curzon Hall, where he said that Urdu would be the State language of Pakistan. The students protested.

“For the first time in his life, I think, Jinnah met with resistance,” said Ahsan. “The word ‘no’ was repeated three times from the back of the hall and Jinnah was left stunned.” After Jinnah’s death, his successors carried on the ‘Only Urdu’ propaganda. The government imposed a curfew; DU students gathered at the University on February 21, 1952, and broke it, only to be shot at. “For the first time in the history of Pakistan, students were shot. According to conservative figures, at least 10 or 12 people died.”

But, in 1956, pressure from the students and Bengali politicians, forced the Pakistan Constituent Assembly to adopt Bengali as one of the two State languages. This was a significant step in the assertion of Bengali identity, and it was the precursor to future Nationalist movements.

The period also coincided with Sheikh Mujib’s rise as a politician. He launched the six-point plan in 1966, demanding regional autonomy. He thought Pakistan ought to be a confederation because East Pakistanis, despite being the majority, were given step-motherly treatment. Mujib was then implicated in the Agartala Conspiracy Case, where the government accused him of planning an armed struggle against West Pakistan. The Pakistan establishment, under General Ayub Khan, had earlier termed the six-point plan a conspiracy to break up the country.

“Mujib’s name wasn’t initially there in the list of 34 accused, but two weeks later, in January 1968, the government announced that he was accused No.1. The trial began in June 1968 before a special military tribunal, but from day one people felt it was a foisted case,” said Ahsan.

Once again, DU students piloted the protest to rally around Mujib, a DU alumnus himself. People from different walks of life — businessmen, lawyers, and journalists — joined them. Different students groups such as the Chhatra League (the students’ wing of Mujib’s Awami League) and Chhatra Union formed the Shorbodolio Chhatra Shangram Parishad (All-Party Student Action Committee) in 1969. They initiated an 11-point charter to go with Mujib’s six-point movement. “Even when the Awami League was restrained in declaring Bangladesh’s independence, the Chhatro League forcefully registered its intent. Student leaders chanted slogans such as ‘Tumaar Aamar Theekana, Padma, Meghna, Jamuna’ (our address is the rivers of Bangladesh) that stirred people’s consciousness,” said Habib, who covered the war for the two mouthpieces of the exiled government, Swadhin Bangla Beter Kendra and Joy Bangla.

Soon, the Pakistan government withdrew the case, and released all the 35 accused, including Mujib, unconditionally. On February 23, 1969, Mujib was given a rousing reception at the Ramna Race Course maidan. “Tofail Ahmed, a firebrand student leader and presently Bangladesh’s Commerce Minister, addressed the gathering. He conferred upon Mujib the title ‘Bangabandhu’ (Friend of Bengal) in that rally,” said Ahsan.

Meanwhile, General Yahya Khan, who replaced Ayub, held elections in December 1970. “Mujib’s Awami League won 167 of the 169 seats in East Pakistan, while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP won 88 seats in West Pakistan. Ironically, the Awami League didn’t win a single seat in West Pakistan and the PPP didn’t win a single seat in the East.” That was when Bhutto reportedly made his infamous ‘Udhar Tum, Idhar Hum’(you there and I here) remark.

Despite securing a majority, Mujib wasn’t invited to form the government. On March 1, 1971, Yahya suspended the National Assembly. The next day, the Bangladesh flag was hoisted for the first time at the DU. Habib noted that Shib Narayan Das was instrumental in designing the flag. “A.S.M. Abdur Rab, vice-president of Dhaka University Central Students’ Union, Shahjahan Siraj, Abdur Quddus Makhon, and Nur E Alam Siddiq were among those involved in the flag-hoisting.”

The students became increasingly restive, and wanted Mujib to declare independence. On March 7, Mujib delivered a historic speech at a packed Race Course Maidan that reverberated with chants of ‘Joy Bangla’. “Mujib gave the clarion call then: ‘Ibhare Shangram, Mukti Shangram, Ibhare Shangram Shadinotar Shangram’ (the struggle this time is for emancipation, for independence),” remembered Ahsan.

After Mujib was arrested during Operation Searchlight, he declared independence on March 26 through Awami League leader M.A. Hannan, said Ahsan. Most of the guerrilla fighters in the Mukti Bahini, according to Habib, were students. “I led a commission in Greater Mymensingh. Some of us underwent arms training in Shillong, Meghalaya,” he recalled.

Both Ahsan and Habib rued the current degeneration of student-politics. “It’s more a story of violence than anything else. That sense of ideology, of mission, is missing,” said Ahsan. But, according to him, the recent Shahbagh protests — where several students rose against attempts to subvert justice in the war-crime trials — was a “spontaneous movement”. Habib’s report in The Hindu painted a more optimistic picture: “The younger generation of Bangladeshis has made history by not keeping silent when fundamentalist and communalist forces who had opposed the nation’s independence from Pakistan openly challenged the state.”