Understanding the prison letters of a freedom fighter


Mohiuddin Ahmed with Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora. Photo: courtesy

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Mohiuddin Ahmed with Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora. Photo: courtesy

Imprisoned in various torture chambers by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, Mohiuddin Ahmed, MP, wrote numerous letters to his wife, describing the systemic cruelties of his oppressors. Taken together, these letters paint a granular picture of how traumatic and dehumanizing life was inside these wartime black holes.

I had the chance to read Mohiuddin Ahmed’s prison letters, carefully archived by his daughter. On one level, these letters simply relate the personal anxieties of a political prisoner, his desperation to see his young family again, and his dream of living in a liberated Sonar Bangla. On another level, the letters, written in both Bengali and English, also reveal archetypal mysteries of the human condition in prison.

I was particularly struck by a letter written on October 16, 1971. In addition to describing the daily brutalities inflicted on freedom fighters and political prisoners, Ahmed lamented that he was unable to see his young children. He wrote of how his captors threatened to kill his children and return their severed heads to him in prison unless he disclosed information about the resistance movement, its centers of operations and the whereabouts of its leaders.

To understand the pain of being locked within four walls for one’s political opinions is heartbreaking. The former Dhaka Central Prison is now turned into a museum and an urban park following a national design competition, in which my team from the Brac University Architecture Department and I were finalists. As contest participants, we had the chance to visit Dhaka Central Prison in Old Dhaka. In the juvenile section of this iconic prison, a mural is forever etched in my mind. A teenage prisoner engraved on the wall, “Ma, prison boro koshto (Mother, the prison is so painful).”

I have always wondered how people manage to stay alive in a cage. How to endure forced isolation? Is time endless inside a prison cell? In “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), one of the most compelling films about prison life, protagonist Andy Dufresne said, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing. And a good thing never dies. Does Hope Keep A Prisoner Alive? Hope for what? Freedom? A chance to meet up with family? Is prison a ghetto of the soul? Are political prisoners the quintessential figures of the modern era, characterized by all kinds of ideological conflicts, ethnic struggles and genocidal hostilities?

Mohiuddin Ahmed’s original district was Barishal, an area that remained safe from Pakistani army invasion until April 25, 1971. After a massive blitzkrieg in the last week of April, marauding Pakistani soldiers occupied the district. Ahmed left for India with other members of Mukti Bahini. They regrouped in a town on the Indian border called Hasnabad, just across the border from Khulna. During the first week of May, they embarked on a stealthy return trip to southern Bangladesh in two launches filled with weapons and ammunition. Besides Ahmed, the resistance leadership at the launch included Major Jalil and Nurul Islam Manju. Escorted by an Indian gunboat to the border, the two speedboats entered Bangladeshi territory. When they arrived near Paikgachha in Khulna on the Burigowalini River, the longboats were heavily attacked by Pakistani gunboats and eventually sank. The group dispersed in different directions.

Mohiuddin Ahmed, along with 19 other comrades, were captured by one Maulana Salam, a local collaborator of the Pakistani army and a leader of the Jamaat, who also served as local secretary of the infamous Peace Committee. In front of the captive members of Mukti Bahini, he pontified that it was the moral responsibility of all Bengali Muslims to support the political unity of the two wings of Pakistan, as the country was founded on the theological nationalism of pan-Islamism. Ahmed and others were declared “enemies of Islam” because they opposed the idea of ​​Pakistan and demanded autonomy for the Bengalis.

All the prisoners were taken to Khulna Circuit House and interrogated with different torture methods. They were then blindfolded, pushed into a truck and transported to Jashore cantonment. Ahmed was locked in the same room where Mashiur Rahman, member of parliament and secretary of the Awami League Jashore unit, had been beaten to death days earlier. His bloodstains were still fresh in the room.

A few days later, 17 prisoners, including Mohiuddin Ahmed, were transported by helicopter to Dhaka cantonment. During the following weeks, they all suffered extreme torture, including electric shocks, indiscriminate beatings, and were hung upside down from the ceiling. Shamshuddin Ahmed, a sub-division officer from Sirajganj, was tortured to death while the captives watched. Her body was left in front of their cells for psychological intimidation.

For the next eight months, Mohiuddin Ahmed’s life turned into hell. Not only did he endure inhuman cruelty, but he also heard incessant screams from imprisoned Bengali women being used as sex slaves. One day, a Bashir commander terrorized a group of prisoners by barking what summed up the Pakistani army’s central war project in 1971: “We will make this country a land of prostitutes, a land of slaves, a land of beggars “.

Ahmed was sent to Dhaka central prison in November. His unbalanced military trial began on December 6. Under a brief tribunal headed by a certain Colonel Alvi, Mohiuddin Ahmed was formally charged with treason, cooperating with India to disintegrate Pakistan and assisting Mukti Bahini. On December 9, he was sentenced to death.

Nelson Mandela survived 27 years in prison. Many times I have tried to imagine life in prison using it as a lens. The South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader and philanthropist has been held in a tiny two-by-two meter cell at Robben Island Prison, located in Table Bay, north Cape Town, for 18 years. His prison writings offer insight into how the human mind may or may not deal with captivity. He wrote: “… We drew our strength and sustenance from the knowledge that we were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim … Prison in itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is, above all, a test of his commitment. ” One of the most intriguing aspects of Mandela’s handling of the inhumanities of long incarceration was his ability to be a father. He often wrote letters to his daughters to comfort them and himself.

Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party and anti-fascist activist of the interwar period, is another political prisoner who has produced an extraordinary body of political literature in the prison. Gramsci wrote over 30 “prison notebooks” that covered philosophy, political theory, and the politics of history, among other topics. He also wrote about 500 letters from prison to friends, supporters and family members. One could map the evolution and turmoil of his mind through close examination of these letters and his prison notebooks.

Does writing help alleviate the unbearable claustrophobia of confinement? Mohiuddin Ahmed’s prison letters are modest in scope, but they highlight not only the state of mind of a freedom fighter, but also the dehumanizing effects of illogical warfare on people. He found refuge by writing letters to his wife, who tirelessly sought her husband’s release from prison, despite the constant physical threat she herself suffered. While writing to his wife, Mohiuddin Ahmed imagined the nature of freedom and justice for his beloved country.

I like to assert that as much as we celebrate the 1971 macro-stories, we must also vigorously preserve its micro-stories – personal accounts, oral histories, prison letters, memories and diaries – to nurture the spirit of war. daily liberation. calculations.

December 19 was set for the execution of Mohiuddin Ahmed. However, three days before his hanging Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh was freed. He was fortunate enough to breathe the fresh air of a liberated country and continued to serve his country as a member of parliament. As a popular politician his entire life, he remained committed to the welfare of his constituency with extraordinary loyalty and honesty.

Today, this loyalty and honesty seem increasingly rare. When a Minister of State threatens an actress over the phone with sexual violence, it is only natural that we find ourselves in search of a renewal of the humanity that fueled our victory 50 years ago this month. .

Dr Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian and professor. He teaches in Washington, DC, and is also executive director of the Center for Inclusive Architecture and Urbanism at Brac University.


Thelma J. Longworth