Mostafa Kamal Majumder
Political violence in Bangladesh is an old phenomenon. I came face to face with a very destructive such violence on 23 May 1980 when a public meeting of Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmad came under a bomb attack in front of the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque. The largely attended meeting was organized at the end of a series of such meetings Khondaker Mushtaq did hold at different districts in a bid to regain his political clout soon after his release from jail after nearly serving a 5-year term for alleged corruption in the fund management Rabeya Bashir Kalyan Trust named after his parents. Two of us from The Bangladesh Times were assigned to cover this politically sensitive meeting. Our Chief Reporter Raquib Siddiqui, however, told me, ‘I am assigning two reporters but, remember, I will want the report from you.’ I said in reply, ‘Give me a helmet’ as there was every possibility of violence in the meeting. On the previous evening, a podium set up for the meeting was set ablaze.
I went to the public meeting venue before its formal start. The roof-top of a famous ticket counter (now non-existent) of Dhaka Stadium (now Bangabandhu National Stadium) was turned into a stage for the meeting with leaders of the Democratic League waiting for the arrival of their leader and mid-level leaders addressing the audience over the loudspeaker. A seating arrangement was made for journalists with folding chairs and folding tables covered with white cloths on the northwestern side of the ticket-counter-turned stage. I found a seat at the Northeast corner of the long table. Someone from among the journalist colleagues invited me to take a seat towards the west because people on the stage were not fully visible from my seat. I obliged.
After several minutes an announcement was made from the stage about the arrival of Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmad. We were baffled to see that the old man was approaching the stage through the middle of the gathering from the western side and a ladder was arranged for him to climb up to the rooftop. But as soon he reached the stage bombs started cracking in the meeting with deafening sounds. I did stand up on my chair like many other journalists when Khondker Moshtaq was walking towards the stage wading through the audience. As I turned my eyes towards the north of the stage a ghastly scene came before my eyes – more than a dozen people lying in a pool of blood. I felt sad that an old man clad in white pyjama and Punjabi who did occupy the seat that I vacated was among the ill-fated people. Further west people were busy carrying injured people to safety. I found senior journalist Mashir Hossain Hiru of Dainik Bangla running aimlessly towards the nearby shops possibly unaware of blood oozing out of his back turning his Punjabi all red. He fell and some members of the audience helped him out of the scene. I thought I might also be hurt unawares like Huru Bhai, checked my shirt and pant and found myself safe by the grace of Allah. I got down the chair and walked towards safe zones in the west of the meeting place. Soon venomous snakes were released at the venue of the meeting and people started running for safety.
As a precaution for my own safety, I put my notebook and pen into my pocket and was observing the situation from the lane that runs in between the Baitul Mukarram Market and the Dhaka General Post Office (GPO). Amid that chaos, I suddenly heard the voice of Khondaker Mushtaq speaking over the loudspeaker. Out of fear I felt it unwise for me to bring out my notebook. Instead, I decided to listen to the address and rely on my memory to report on it. I walked towards the rose garden (now non-existent) which was on the southwest side of the square and heard the man read out from a written speech. He demanded the dissolution of Parliament and a mid-term election. In between, he spoke on his three months and a half as the President of Bangladesh following the August 1975 military coup d’état and the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with most of the members of his family. He said he did not dissolve the 1973 parliament and had planned to hold fresh elections. He regretted that his successor Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem discarded that plan and dissolved Parliament.
After he finished his speech, I felt my first duty was to get information about the casualties of the bomb attack and rushed to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital emergency. Four people were dead immediately after the blast and several dozen others injured. The death figure ultimately rose to 9. Among the injured was Zahirul Huq, a senior reporter of Dainik Bangla, apart from Mashir Hossain Hiru Bhai. Splinters had pierced into the abdomen of Zahir Bhai who also received injuries in his leaps and teeth. He was standing behind me. I thought my safety was miraculous because the main explosion took place about fifteen feet in our front.
When I came back to The Bangladesh Times office early in the evening, Raquib Bhai and Ataus Samad Bhai asked me to do the story on the bomb blast incident in detail. As I finished the report my colleague who was also assigned along with me to cover the meeting came to the office at about 8 pm. In those days this was the normal time to report for the evening shift which used to close at midnight. Raquib Bhai asked him to do a story on Khondaker Moshtaq’s speech. The colleague said in reply, he ears got jammed by the bangs of blasts and he heard nothing. My bosses had no option but to ask me if I could attempt the second story. I did it soon afterwards and attracted accolade from Raquib Bhai and other colleagues for doing so.
Next morning on my way to the office, I visited the meeting venue to check if an object I saw was thrown at the stage of the meeting and repelled with a bare hand by one of the leaders of Democratic League, was a bomb. I could locate the spot where it fell. To my shock, I found it was the main killer hand grenade that did explode with the loudest bang at the base of a telephone pole. It created a small crater near the folding chair that I did choose to be my first seat in the public meeting. From what I saw during the meeting I can say without any hesitation that Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmad along with the entire leadership of his Democratic League would have been blown away if the bomb was not repelled from falling on the stage.
07 July 2020
Mostafa Kamal Majumder