Rifle shots piercing a late afternoon. Clear blue skies, with little sign of any allied aircraft dropping any more leaflets asking the Pakistani military command to surrender without conditions. Suddenly the cheerful and loud sounds of Joi
Bangla all around. People rushing through the streets and alleys screaming in happy abandon news of the capitulation of the soldiers who had oppressed the nation for nine tortuous months.
What had begun as our annus horribilis was drawing to an end as our annus mirabilis. The country, as we realized to our happy surprise on the afternoon of 16 December 1971, was now free, a sovereign entity among nations. The radio station at Shahbagh crackled to life, with a rendition of aaj srishti shukher ullashe. Creation had acquired a newer meaning in this land. It was a land that was coming back home, to us, to its people.
Abdul Jabbar's melody-draped voice said it all on that afternoon of renewal. Hajar bochhor pore / abar eshechhi phire / Banglar buuke achhi dnarhiye was the song which wafted across the country in the initial minutes of liberation. We were free at last. Niazi and his men had bitten the dust. Having killed and raped and pillaged, the 'brave fighting force' of Pakistan had fallen silent. Niazi had walked, flanked by Jagjit Singh Aurora and our very own ATM Haider, to the nondescript table at the Race Course where lay the document he would soon affix his signature to. In minutes, it was all over. 93,000 soldiers, along with civilians brought over from Rawalpindi to ensure that Bengalis remained in subjugation, were now themselves in a state of necessary subjugation. 'East Pakistan' was detritus in the bin of history.
On that afternoon of triumph, we had little idea of the tragedy which had come to scores of Bengali intellectuals earlier marched off to their deaths by the local collaborators of the occupation army. On the morning after the afternoon of Pakistani capitulation, the corpses of two Pakistani soldiers lay yards away from President's House (which would soon be transformed into Ganobhaban). At the gates of President's House --- home to Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan on their visits to East Pakistan, home to Queen Elizabeth II on her 1961 visit, the spot where the junta and its co-conspirators had engaged in deceitful negotiations with the Awami League in the weeks before Operation Searchlight --- Bengalis cheered the Indian troops guarding the place. A properly emotional Bengali hugged a Sikh officer, grateful to him and his nation for saving his country from all those treacherous Punjabis. He was stupefied, and then happy, to be told by the Sikh that not all Punjabis were bad. 'See, I am also a Punjabi!' The Bengali hugged the Sikh again.
At the gates of Governor's House, in a bunker of which the collaborationist governor A.M. Malek, his hands trembling, had a couple of days earlier scribbled his resignation on the inside of a cigarette packet, cheering Bengalis wanted to be let in. The place was in a shambles, explained a Bengali soldier standing sentinel. It is now our house, he told the crowd. Let it be restored, after all the bombing that has gone on, and then we will all see it. The crowd moved on, powered by slogans of Joi Bangla. On the streets, posters bearing images of the incarcerated Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in sunglasses and Indira Gandhi were being lapped up by people. It was a moment in history, a moment when history was being made, and everyone wished to be part of it. And history was being made at Mohsin Hall of Dhaka University, where the young fell to collecting splinters from Indian bombs, happy that they could show them to their families back home. Before Hotel Intercontinental, earlier decreed a neutral zone under UN supervision and where Malek, his ministers and scores of Pakistani officials and their families had found refuge, crowds rent the air with Joi Bangla slogans. It was the same place where, in March, Bengalis had displayed shoes at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto every time he emerged from and went back to it during the eventually abortive political negotiations.
All across Dhaka, Razakars were busy trying to escape the wrath of the masses. Some tried to find refuge with relatives but were immediately shown the door. Near the graves of the martyrs Faruk and Iqbal at Mouchak in Malibagh, a man in white suit and black tie, with dark glasses to boot, was on a rickshaw. Suddenly, a group of young men forced the rickshaw to a stop, pulled the man down and gave him a good beating. As it turned out, he was a Razakar who had apparently been a little too collaborative with the Pakistan army, crime that people remembered. Away in Gulistan, men of the Mukti Bahini did not lose time pouncing on an academic guilty of disseminating lies abroad on behalf of the junta, leaving him for dead. A collaborator politician, caught by the freedom fighters, had justice meted out to him. All across town, in old as well as new Dhaka, freedom fighters --- bearded and long-haired, with guns slung on their shoulders --- were returning home. Spontaneity of love was in the air as they were endlessly hugged and kissed by a grateful citizenry.
No newspapers appeared on 16 and 17 December. On 18 December, a few made an appearance, with all the news of the Pakistani surrender and bearing images of Bangabandhu. A terse announcement conveyed a significant decision made by the provisional Bangladesh government: four political parties --- the Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League, Nezam-e-Islam, Pakistan Democratic Party --- had been proscribed in light of their collaboration with the occupation army.
Thus it was on 16 December 1971. Away in New York, Bhutto stormed out of the UN Security Council after ripping a copy of a proposed UN ceasefire resolution to shreds. In Rawalpindi, an inebriated Yahya Khan would not comprehend, until the following day, that half of his country was gone. In the evening, Pakistani television showed footage of the army surrender in Dhaka before the military clamped down on it. It did not help, for Pakistanis in Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and elsewhere had already been stung by the images and had begun demanding that the heads of the junta roll.
On 22 December, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be moved out of solitary confinement in Mianwali and into house arrest outside Rawalpindi. On the same day, the Mujibnagar government would come home to Dhaka, the free capital of a free country.
In our devastated land, we went about the beautiful task of weaving the many-splendoured dreams of building a secular society, of constructing an edifice of unfettered democracy, of ensuring rule of law and political accountability. We were finally people inhabiting our very own People's Republic of Bangladesh. We looked to the future.
It was thrilling to be alive. It was wonderful being witness to history.