History

Risky Journeys to East Pakistan to Film the Mukti Bahini Fighting the Pakistani Army in 1971

Civilians bore the brunt of the Army’s brutality and refugees came into India in the thousands.

The year 1971 was marked with several ‘big victories’ – in politics, cricket and in war – all of which had long term implications for India. The national mood was buoyant, even if the country continued to struggle with endemic problems.

Fifty years later, we look back at those times and evoke some of that mood. In a series of articles, leading writers recall and analyse key events and processes that left their mark on a young, struggling but hopeful nation. 

On April 4, 1971, I was pointing my camera at the East Pakistan border from Agartala. My companion was recordist S.D. Patil. Our two-men sight and sound unit was on the job.

Rows of refugees, a trail of young and old terror-stricken people were pouring into India with horror tales from the other side of the border! The most distressing sight was of the suffering women and infants. All around pathetic cries and the beating of chests were heard. In fact, they were being chased out by the West Pakistani firing squads.

We could hear the sound of guns booming and bullets crackling from the distance, and right in front of us, a run for their lives for hundreds of helpless people. I was running my camera to record history’s large scale forcible eviction of the people from their own homeland by brutish armed forces.

At the Indian check-post, the border police did not allow us to cross. We somehow managed to push inside East Pakistan on April 5, from a different route.

We reached Qusba railway station. The signal cabin was destroyed by blasting. The station platform was guarded by local civilian volunteers. Here we encountered guerrillas of ‘Mukti Bahini’ (Freedom Army). Some of them were Bengali soldiers, deserted from Pakistan armed forces and had joined the civilian forces to fight against the West Pakistani soldiers. In Qusba, Mukti Bahini had taken command of the entire town. Here we saw many destroyed houses and walls with bullet marks. The moment the local crowd saw us with a camera and a recorder, they started shouting in chorus:

Bangladesh swadhin karo,
Yahyar mukhe juta maro,
Cantonment dakhil karo,
Bangladesh swadhin karo.”

[Translation: Make Bangladesh independent, kick Yahya (Khan) with a shoe, occupy the Cantonment, make Bangladesh independent.]

Also read: The Pakistan Army’s Operations in East Pakistan Were Brutal and Ruthless

With the help of few volunteers, we went to Comilla town. Here again, we saw a long row of refugees migrating towards the Indian border. In the interiors, some of them were seen running away from the firing range. It was a horrible sight. At one place Patil and I had to run away when we heard the sound of bullets cracking from a close distance. By evening we returned to the camp with 1,000 feet of exposed film coverage.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founding leader of Bangladesh with Lt Gen Aurora. Photo: Prem Vaidya

On April 6, with little boldness, we marched deeper towards Sylhet district. Here the refugees were going towards the state of Meghalaya in India. Along with local Bengali refugees, we saw four Pathans, whom we interviewed regarding their escape to India. “It’s hell out there, Allah will never forgive them,” they said.

Still, we moved deeper inside and met a commander of Mukti Bahini, Major Khalid Musharaf. He had deserted the Pakistan Army and was now training Bengali civilians to fight back. Here we could see civil war in full action. Major Musharaf narrated recent events in this area in front of our camera:

“We were all in a joyful mood a few months back when election results were declared and the Awami League of Sheikh Mujib swept the polls. At least, we expected a democratic government as you have in India. But what did we get?  The brutal assault on our people and they ordered us to shoot our own people! It was most unbearable. I left the army and joined Mukti Bahini. Now at least, I can save my people and train them to fight back if attacked.”

As reported in newspapers, the rebels rising and training a guerrilla force were now estimated to be close to 100,000 men. Major Musharaf warned us not to go further. “We expect some attack,” he said.

We heeded his advice.

Right in Agartala, in our camp, we were informed on April 6, that 16 West Pakistani soldiers had surrendered to the Indian Border Security Force. We rushed to cover it and found three officers:  Lt. Col. Khizar Hayad Khan, Major Sadeq Nawaz, Lt. Amjad Sayeed and thirteen soldiers. In an interview, Lt. Col. Khan admitted to surrendering to the Indian Security Forces, for their own safety from Mukti Bahini freedom-fighters.

 

Also read: For Indian Diplomats in Pakistan, the Run up To the 1971 War Was a Very Tense Time

Now in some of the border villages and towns, we could see flags of Bangladesh fluttering over housetops and on government buildings. It was a sure indication of safety for our work and safe return.

On April 7, we made a second attempt to go to Comilla. By now, the migrating population was increasing and behind them, we could see Pakistan atrocities in the form of black smoke belching at a distance from burnt villages. By now, I had consumed all my film stock on ‘Bangladesh in Turmoil’.

We returned to Bombay on April 10, 1971.

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On August 14, the Pakistani army raided an Indian border village under the Sidhai Police Station of Tripura and killed 11 people and injured several others.

For me, there was now a long gap of five months since I had last visited the country. At the end of August 1971, I was asked to go to eastern India to get ‘action coverage’ for a special newsreel in both 16 mm and 35 mm! This time, my companion was recordist, Ramakant Chendwankar. Upon reaching Calcutta, we coordinated our coverage with my colleague H.S. Advani, Calcutta based Newsreel Cameraman. He was very helpful.

We were to meet A. Latif, Public Relations Officer (PRO) inside Bangladesh for coverage on the activities of Mukti Bahini. We were warned, the help will be given at our own risk! Hereafter, we were operating on a razor’s edge.

On September 12, in Tripura state, while covering incoming refugees from East Pakistan, we pushed ourselves inside the border. We could go about as long as we could see flags of Bangladesh fluttering around. We encountered two Mukti Bahini freedom fighters who took us to Chandkala town. Here we were surrounded by volunteers of Mujib Battery. We were given full freedom to film all their activities. Camping in the jungle, camp cooking, guerrilla training with looted arms, etc. Some were constantly tuning their transistors to the BBC and All India Radio (AIR) and in turn, cconveying the latest news to their fellowmen.

Also read: With the Creation of Bangladesh, a Longstanding Dream of the RSS Was Achieved

We filmed the entire sequence and interviewed Capt. Pasha. The area we were filming, was under the control of Capt. Gaffar and Capt. Pasha. They took us to the Salda-Nadi sub-sector in Shyampur which was under the control of the Mukti Bahini. We had a night halt at their camp.

Early next morning, we got up under a faint, sweet and soothing Ravindra Sangeet song emanating some distance away from a transistor. Someone had probably tuned into AIR Calcutta station. Coming out of the camp for fresh air, we found Mukti Bahini fighters digging long trenches and singing Gurudev Tagore’s famous song ‘Ekla Chalo Re‘. Some were cleaning their weapons and some were on the move for their assigned task.

The above extract is from Prem Vaidya’s Memorable Assignments on Moving Images published by the National Film Archive of India. It has been lightly edited for style.

Prem Vaidya worked as a cameraman, director and producer at the Films Division of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, from 1954 to 1984. An award-winning documentary producer, Vaidya covered the events inside East Pakistan in 1971. His footage was shown in cinemas around the world and he made Birth of a Nation: Bangladesh.