By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi– Fifty years on, crossing the mighty Padma river in a small rowboat with a nor’wester brewing still gives Manash Ghosh nightmares.
Then a “cub reporter” with The Statesman, Ghosh was embedded with the Indian Army during the 1971 operations that led to the creation of Bangladesh, and rose to become the newspaper’s Bureau Chief in Dhaka and its resident editor in New Delhi, before launching its Bengali edition, which he helmed for 11 years.
“Crossing the mighty Padma river in a small row boat in the face of an impending nor’wester gives me nightmares even now in my sleep. Also my close brush with death, again in a rowboat on the Padma, to cover a daring raid on the Sarda Police Academy by the ‘muktijodhdhas’ (Mukti Bahini) on Pakistan Day (on March 23, three days before the start of the war) still gives me shivers,” Ghosh told IANS in an interview of his inspirational “Bangladesh War – Report From Ground Zero” (Niyogi Books).
“I thank God Almighty and providence for saving me from sure death on that day too,” he added.
Every time he gets the news of death of any former commander of the Mukti Bahini with whose help he had covered the Bangladesh liberation war “it at once relives my memories of those historic tumultuous days which have remained deeply etched on my memory”, he said.
For instance, when Abu Osman Chowdhury formerly of the paramilitary East Pakistan Rifles and a sector commander of the Mukti Bahini, died of Covid last May in Dhaka, “the news harkened back for me the early days of the Liberation War. After all he was the first officer of the East Pakistan Rifles to have set up a command structure called the South Western Command comprising four districts – Kushtia, Jessore, Khulna and Faridpur – where the muktijodhdhas had taken on the Pakistani military and fought valiantly”, Ghosh elaborated .
They had kept parts of those districts liberated until the first week of May 1971. Chowdhury had set up his command headquarters in Chuadanga, a sub-divisional town of Kushtia district, which Ghosh had started visiting from the first week of April.
“It was in Chuadanga that I first came to know of Tajuddin Ahmed, appointed Prime Minister by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, (after his unilateral declaration of Independence on March 7, 1971) crossing into India through the Nadia border on his way to Delhi to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi.
“It was at his command post that I first met the intrepid Deputy Commissioner of Pabna Nurul Kader Khan, a strapping Civil Service of Pakistan officer, an Oxonian who had responded to Mujib’s call to join the Liberation War and had come there to collect supplies of arms and ammunition that a BSF officer (in mufti) had delivered to Osman. That was the first time I had seen the Indian defence establishment extending help to the Liberation War effort,” Ghosh reminisced.
“It also reminds me of the heroics that I was witness to of the ill-equipped, ill-clad, ill-fed muktijodhdhas and their irrepressible resolve to free their land from the exploitative clutches of the West Pakistani marauders,” he added.
He recalled with “great pride and honour” that he had the privilege to report on the sacrifices of young ‘valianrmuktijudhdhas’ (cadres) like Nurul Kader Khan, Rafiqul Islam Bakul and Shirin Bano Mitil, “whose tales of valour I could recount in The Statesman for the world to know that Bangladesh’s Liberation War was not just flash in the pan like the Biafran revolt”.
He also derives “great professional satisfaction” when he thinks of his “daring foray” into Satkhira and from there to Jessore town for spot reporting on the muktijudhdho.
“I was the first foreign correspondent who achieved that feat and my reports from Jessore received not only national but also international attention. They appeared on the front page of The Statesman and they were picked up by international media and got reprinted in the leading dailies of the world.
“My Jessore reports for the first time let the world know the scale of genocide that the Pakistani military had committed even in district towns, besides the provincial capital Dhaka to suppress the Bengali revolt in East Pakistan,” Ghosh explained.
“I remained steadfast in my commitment to stand by the defenceless and hapless Bengalis of East Pakistan and undertook daring trips deep inside East Pakistan to report on what was actually happening on the ground especially in terms of genocide perpetrated by the Pakistani military and the courageous fight back that the Bengalis were putting up.”
Question: You’ve been a close observer of India-Bangladesh relations since the country came into being. What were they in the beginning and how do you see them now?
“Indo-Bangla relations have been through a series of ups and downs ever since the Liberation War started. There had been influential people inside the Bangladesh government-in-exile and the leadership of the Awami League who tried hard to undermine and subvert the Liberation War effort of Indian and Bangladeshi leadership, just like in the present times,” Ghosh pointed out.
Had it not been for the “watchful eyes” of Indian RAW agents, Khondokar Mushtaq, Foreign Minister of the government-in-exile, would have succeeded in striking a deal with General Yahya Khan to keep Pakistan intact, he maintained, adding: “Even now, there are some Khondokar Mushtaqs in Sheikh Hasina’s government who are playing the role of spoilers in Indo-Bangladesh relations.
“They camouflage their thoughts and deeds so well that it is not possible to gauge the damage they have been doing to our bilateral relations.”
How did he remain steadfast with The Statesman throughout his career?
“Since my family had close ties with The Statesman, as my father, uncle and elder brother had worked for the paper in responsible positions, I never thought of leaving the paper despite getting a measly salary. As a journalist, I had grown with the paper. Despite getting lucrative offers I stayed with this century-old great institution out of a sense of loyalty and also because I had seen The Statesman’s golden days,” Ghosh concluded. (IANS)