Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation through the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani army to the joint command of Bangladesh and Indian forces on December 16, 1971. The nine-month long Liberation War was marked by the monstrous massacre of unarmed Bengali civilians and heinous sexual violence committed against thousands of Bengali women. The jubilation of the victorious people of Bangladesh on December 16, therefore, was tinged with a sense of gloom as they faced the painful reality that the liberation of Bangladesh had been achieved at the cost of the lives of their loved ones. Describing the situation of Dhaka city after the surrender of the Pakistani army, Jahanara Imam wrote in her seminal book Ekattorer Dinguli that the people of the city were smiling and crying simultaneously.
But even after such a devastating war involving a great deal of bloodshed, some of our countrymen started trying to attain advantages by vile and devious means from the very first day of independence. After the surrender, the Pakistani troops were confined to the cantonment under the surveillance of the Indian army. Bengali collaborators such as members of Al-Badr, Al-Shams and Razakar units discarded their weapons and fled. By collecting the weapons abandoned by the Pakistani army and their collaborators, some opportunist Bengalis started masquerading as freedom fighters from December 16. During the war, these people resided in Dhaka comfortably and kept no connection with the Mukti Bahini. But from December 16, they started posing as Muktijoddha. These evildoers came to be known as “Sixteenth Division” because they were seen in Bangladesh from December 16, 1971.
We do not get much information in our books and films about these extremely mendacious people who tarnished the reputation of real freedom fighters by looting and hijacking personal and official possessions from December 17, 1971. By pretending to be freedom fighters, many of them also attempted to hide their crimes committed as collaborators of the Pakistani army. Nazim Mahmood, a public relations officer in Rajshahi University, was in Dhaka city on December 16, 1971. He wrote succinctly about a fake freedom fighter he had seen that morning: “a young man from our building who used to disparage the Liberation War so explicitly just two days ago came out of the house. Taking a rifle in his shoulder, this young man screamed—Joy Bangla. Then, he joined the jubilant crowd rejoicing the victory. In this way, the sixteenth division was formed furtively that day without anyone’s knowledge.”
A Qayyum Khan was commissioned in the Bangladesh Army during the Liberation War and he fought in Sector Seven as a company commander. At the end of December 1971, he came to Dhaka from his sector. During his stay in Dhaka, he visited the house of Habibul Alam, a valiant guerrilla of Sector Two. There, Qayyum Khan heard the term Sixteenth Division for the first time. Someone in that house told him that almost every neighbourhood in Dhaka had sixteenth division elements and these people were trying to take control of their locality. They were giving the Mukti Bahini a bad name. Habibul Alam also informed Qayyum that most of the armed young men in Dhaka were from the “sixteenth division”; only a few were genuine freedom fighters.
Then, Major Moinul Hossain Chowdhury entered Dhaka city with 800 soldiers of the 2nd Bengal Regiment in the evening of December 16. Next morning, he observed that crowds of people poured into the street. Many of them were armed and they roamed the city by car and on foot. Their physical appearances did not suggest that they were drenched by rain or burnt by the sun in the past nine months. Their demeanour showed no sign that they had taken part in the war. On December 22, then Lieutenant Nasir Uddin entered Dhaka city with a unit of the 11th Bengal Regiment. He also became surprised having seen the gathering of so many armed freedom fighters in the city. Certain questions struck him at that moment: “Where did so many freedom fighters come from? Where had they been during the war? If such a large group of freedom fighters existed in the country, why didn’t the fight against the Pakistani army become far more intense in the past nine months?”
A few days later William A S Ouderland, the only foreigner who had received a gallantry award for his contribution to our Liberation War, called the guerrillas and informed them that a United Nations jeep had been hijacked by some armed youth appearing as freedom fighters. He also said that UN officials were given a very bad impression of freedom fighters because of this incident. The guerrillas started looking for the jeep without delay and soon found it. Having seen the guerrillas, the miscreants quickly ran away. The guerrillas returned the jeep to the UN officials and Ouderland happily told the foreigners that the car was hijacked by criminals who were masquerading as freedom fighters. From December 17, Zahirul Islam and his fellow guerrillas were working 18-20 hours every day to maintain law and order and defuse anti-personnel mines from different areas of Dhaka. But in those days, having posed as freedom fighters, some Bengali youth started to commit crimes.
When the Bangladesh government instructed the freedom fighters to submit their weapons, many felt ambivalent about following the instruction, fearing that without the possession of their firearms, they would be vulnerable to attacks from pro-Pakistani elements, fake freedom fighters and other hostile groups. Khan Ataur Rahman’s 1973 feature Abar Tora Manush Haw depicts such worries in the newly-liberated country. In a sequence, a radio broadcast is heard urging the freedom fighters to submit their weapons. This provokes a very angry reaction from a freedom fighter. He starts yelling, saying that how could they submit arms when the enemies still exist in society? He keeps saying that the son of a collaborator has become a sixteenth division member and he is now eager to take revenge on the freedom fighter who had conducted operations in their house during the war. Another sequence shows two young freedom fighters wearing inexpensive clothes purchasing a packet of cheap cigarettes after liberation. Suddenly, another young man in a posh outfit appears. He is also wearing pricey shoes and sunglasses, and a sub-machine gun is slung over his shoulder. In front of two unarmed freedom fighters, he buys a carton of costly cigarettes. Then, he departs in a luxurious car. Two freedom fighters stare at the moving car without saying a word.
This scene was indicative of the situation of a post-independence society in which many genuine freedom fighters were ignored and marginalised, whereas some immoral and wealthy individuals started to gain power and privilege by disguising themselves as freedom fighters. Quazi Nooruzzaman, Commander of Sector Seven during the Liberation War, pointed out that approximately 125,000 people actively took part in the War of Independence. However, it was heard that 12 to 20 lakh freedom fighter certificates had been distributed. So, out of 12 recipients of freedom fighter certificates, 11 were fake. Moinul Hossain Chowdhury wrote: “without any verification, freedom fighter certificates were given to people who had made no direct or indirect contribution to the Liberation War.” Due to such undesirable circumstances, anti-liberation elements gained a solid footing in a country liberated by the sacrifices and struggle of many freedom fighters.
Many people who collaborated with the Pakistani authorities in 1971 were allowed to continue their employment after liberation. But freedom fighters from an underprivileged background and with no connections with influential people experienced neglect. Freedom fighters living in rural areas were sometimes framed by the influential people who served the Pakistanis in 1971. Lack of effort of the administration to identify fake freedom fighters and the placement of pro-Pakistani individuals in various important positions justifiably created a feeling of anger and unhappiness among the Muktijoddha in the newly-liberated country. Numerous problems that troubled our society in the following decades had their roots in the failure to prevent the pseudo-freedom fighters and pro-Pakistani elements from gaining influence in post-liberation Bangladesh.
Dr Naadir Junaid is professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.