A soldier from a military family, proclaimed deserter, guerrilla fighter and war hero: Lt Col. (Retd) Sajjad Ali Zahir wore many hats during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
During the ensuing four decades, however, he has been fighting for recognition of Indian and guerrilla fighters, called Mukti Joddhas , collecting their stories and organising commemorative events in Dhaka.
On Friday, Lt. Col. Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir was felicitated at Teen Murti Bhavan here, along with several Indian and Bangladeshi veterans of the war, part of a push by New Delhi and Dhaka to honour all the war dead, not just those who were formally part of the war 45 years ago.
In November, Mr. Zahir took a group of Mukti Joddhas on Jessore Road, which connected India to the then East Pakistan, to meet families of Indians killed in the war.
“The war witnessed violence on civilians at a scale that had not been seen in South Asian battlefields before,” he told The Hindu. “No other country has done what we are now trying to do, by honouring both Indians and Bangladeshis who died for the same cause.”
“I was a soldier in the Pakistan Army’s 14th Para Brigade posted in Sialkot. But as news came of unspeakable atrocities being committed at home, I tried to escape,” Mr. Zahir recounted his personal ordeal after the Pakistan Army passed a death sentence against him for deserting his post. “I finally managed to escape into India and was brought by the Indian military to a secret camp in Sylhet district, where I became the trainer for the Mukti Bahini,” he says.
The war has left indelible memories for Mr. Zahir as the Indian military forces began mobilisation by the end of November 1970. He closely coordinated with Indians on the eastern front of the war and met Maj. Gen. Shahbeg Singh in Agartala, who was in charge of training the Mukti Bahini guerrillas.
“We began our guerrilla operation from September 1971 and quickly raised an artillery battery to cause maximum damage to the Pakistani forces as they had to be stopped from committing human rights violations,” he said. “At one point, we found a government office which had been turned into a sex-labour camp with kidnapped women locked up on the first floor.”
The India-Pakistan war ended with the surrender of the Pakistani forces in Dhaka on December 16, but Mr. Zahir is haunted by the memory of a girl who wrote her name, Ratna, in blood on the wall of a labour camp before dying.
“We were told in a village near Kurigram that a girl named Ratna had been kidnapped by the Pakistani forces. She was never found but we saw the name was written in blood on a wall, when we liberated a camp in that area, where the Pakistani Army held Bengali women hostage,” he recounted.
Today, Col. Zahir, who works on de-radicalisation programmes in Bangladesh, where fears of IS-style terror attacks have grown after the Dhaka café massacre earlier this year.
“Our country is secure as long as we can keep our ethos safe from the fundamentalist and anti-Bangladesh forces who want to adopt the Pakistan model,” Col. Zahir told The Hindu .