1971 Bangladesh: ‘None of them returned’
Rajiv Shaha was a toddler when his father and grandfather were abducted and ‘disappeared’ during Bangladesh’s liberation war.
On the evening of May 7, 1971, 75-year-old Ranada Prasad (RP) Shaha eased himself into a chair on the verandah of the handsome red brick home that doubled as the headquarters of his business empire in Narayanganj, an industrial suburb of Dhaka in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
It was his usual nighttime ritual, but a short while later something unusual happened. RP Shaha and his 27-year-old son Bhabani Prasad Shaha were abducted and forcibly disappeared. They were never seen again.
The two men, who were part of a well-known and wealthy Hindu Bengali family from Mirzapur in Tangail district, had been caught in the crossfire of the violence that accompanied the traumatic birth of Bangladesh.
East Pakistan and West Pakistan had both been part of India during British colonial rule. But as the British left in 1947, the territory was divided – with Muslim-majority West Pakistan on one side of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority East Pakistan on the other. As many as two million people were killed during partition and many millions more were displaced.
That East Pakistan was ruled by the West Pakistan-based central government caused resentment, as did efforts by West Pakistan to enforce its culture and language, Urdu, on the largely Bengali speaking East.
In 1971, these tensions reached their peak when West Pakistani troops entered East Pakistan and alongside local collaborators cracked down on the secessionist Bengali nationalists who sought to create an independent country.
Bodies never found
The two Shaha men were among hundreds of thousands of people who were abducted, murdered or disappeared by those fighting on the Pakistani side of the conflict, during the nine-month civil war that followed.
The full details of what happened to the two men remain shrouded in mystery, despite desperate attempts by the family to learn the truth, Shaha’s grandson and Bhabani Prasad’s only child Rajiv Prasad Shaha explains.
The bodies of the Shaha men were never found.
“Our unarmed guards ran away when they saw three to four vehicles of [Pakistani] army personnel with high-power searchlights approach the house,” says 53-year old Rajiv. “But some of … [the guards] hid and saw what happened.”
Some of the intruders wore army uniforms and others were in plain clothes, but their faces were covered, Rajiv says.
“The men went to my grandfather and demanded to know ‘where is your son’, and my father came out hearing the commotion.”
Five people were abducted from the house that night: Rajiv’s father and grandfather, a family friend Gour Gopal Saha, the family’s cattle tender Matlab, and a guard.
“None of them returned,” Rajiv explains, his face pensive as he relives the decades-old trauma that tore his family apart.
A fruitless search
Rajiv was just two and half years old when his father and grandfather were abducted. He recounts these stories drawing from the memories of a coterie of women who shielded him and his mother Shrimoti, who was just 19 years old at the time of her husband’s disappearance.
Chief among them was Pratibha Mutsuddy, whom Rajiv addresses as ‘Boroma’ (elder mother), a name of reverence that binds the noted educationist to the Shaha family.
Pratibha was like a daughter to RP Shaha, and “she is everything” for the Shaha family, Rajiv says.
“My two aunts (RP Shaha’s daughters) and my Boroma Pratibha Mutsuddy searched for them high and low. They went to various government agencies and diplomats.
“I heard they also went to Fort William Kolkata,” Rajiv says, referring to the headquarters of the Indian Army Eastern Command in West Bengal, India.
“They searched for my grandfather and father incessantly.”
There were rumours that after killing the men, the perpetrators threw their bodies in the Shitalakshya River that flows by Narayanganj, but this was “not authenticated,” Rajiv explains.
After a wait of 48 years, the family achieved a semblance of closure in June 2019, when Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) – a domestic war crimes tribunal set up in 2009 to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed during the Bangladesh Liberation War – sentenced to death a Razakar (member of an auxiliary force of the Pakistan army in 1971), for the abduction and murder of the Shaha men.
Mahbubur Rahman was found guilty of carrying out attacks in May 1971 across different areas of Tangail and Narayanganj along with his father Maulana Wadud and brother, also a Razakar, Mohammad Abdul Mannan; the latter two were already deceased at the time of the trial.
The Razakars were one of the pro-Pakistan militias that have been accused of committing atrocities against pro-liberation forces (both Hindu and Muslim), as well as against any perceived enemies of the unity of West and East Pakistan.
Apart from the murder of the Shaha men, Mahbubur Rahman, who was 70 years old in 2019, was also found guilty of abducting and killing 55 other people in two separate incidents in the Mirzapur area in 1971.
Shrimoti, Rajiv’s mother, had tears in her eyes when the verdict was delivered.
The crimes were designed to “wipe the Hindu community” out of Mirzapur, Tangail, which lies a little more than 80km northwest from Narayanganj, the ICT judgement read.
Mahbubur, who had been arrested in November 2015, died in 2020, before he could be hanged, but Rajiv seems satisfied that at least one of the perpetrators was found guilty in a court of law.
Rajiv, who has three daughters and a son, ensured the three younger children who live with him in Bangladesh, were present in court when the judgement was passed.
“I wanted them to see and understand the history of this family and this country,” Rajiv says.
For the love of his mother
RP Shaha was a native of Mirzapur, though he was born in 1896 in his maternal uncle’s home in Savar, near Dhaka. After the partition of British India, Mirzapur fell within the territory of East Pakistan.
But he made his fortune as a coal merchant in Kolkata (then known as Calcutta), a city that lies more than 300km west of Shaha’s village and which fell within India after partition.
“My grandfather was planning on buying the Calcutta Tram Company and had even given an advance payment for it, but when news of partition came along, he chose to buy a business close to his ancestral place in what became East Pakistan,” Rajiv explains.
The decisive factor in him choosing Pakistan over India, Rajiv says, was his bond with his mother, Kumudini Devi, who had died of tetanus during childbirth when RP Shaha was just seven years old.
So, instead, RP Shaha acquired the jute business of the Scottish firm George Henderson & Company in Narayanganj, a hub of Bengal’s jute trade.
In addition to his business, RP Shaha established several charitable projects in the name of his mother, and in 1947 placed all his commercial ventures in a charitable trust called the Kumudini Welfare Trust. Income from the different business ventures was funnelled to support the trust’s welfare projects.
He founded the Kumudini Hospital in 1938, and over the ensuing years also established several schools, colleges and nursing homes.
Going against the current
Such was the faith RP Shaha had in his compatriots that “even when the riots of 1964 happened my grandfather never thought of leaving his countrymen; he swam against the current,” Rajiv says, referring to the wave of attacks on Hindus in East Pakistan following the disappearance of a strand of hair widely believed to have been the Prophet Muhammad’s that had been preserved at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir.
The anti-Hindu riots that broke out in response triggered an exodus of about 135,000 Bengali Hindu refugees into neighbouring India between January and April 1964.
RP Shaha, however, remained steadfast in his faith in his homeland, Rajiv says.
“‘Ami to kichu korini’ (I have not done anything wrong), my grandfather used to say,” Rajiv shares, secure in the knowledge that “whatever he had done, he did for his country [Pakistan].”
The personal becomes political
But after India and Pakistan fought a war with each other in 1965, the atmosphere in East Pakistan became increasingly tense, and even those not directly involved in politics found themselves being portrayed as enemy agents.
In her testimony against Shaha’s killers, Pratibha Mutsuddy said that after the war, the provincial governor of East Pakistan, Abdul Monem Khan, had begun to consider the Kumudini trust as an enemy.
On April 29, 1971, RP Shaha and Bhabani were called to the governor’s residence. As they were leaving, they were picked up by the Pakistani army and taken to a camp in Mohammadpur, a suburb of Dhaka, for further questioning.
They were eventually released on May 5, and the family was lulled into a false sense of security.
“After they were let go my family members were very relieved,” Rajiv explains.
“My grandfather went to Mirzapur and reassured the other Hindus who had been in hiding or had already crossed the border to India that he was safe now, and that the other minorities also should not be scared.”
“My grandfather had invited the [East Pakistani] government people to Mirzapur. He wanted them to see our trust’s work, and see that we are not Indian agents, and are not affiliated with any political party,” Rajiv says, referring to the hospital and various schools and colleges run by the Kumudini Welfare Trust.
When RP Shaha decided to make a trip to the Narayanganj headquarters from Mirzapur just two days after they were released by the army, many of Bhabani Prasad’s friends tried to dissuade him from accompanying his father.
“My father needs me,” Bhabani told them.
The meeting in Mirzapur between the Shaha family and government officials was supposed to take place on May 8 – the day after the two men were abducted.
The women take charge
Rajiv says a few brave women held the family together after the tragedy.
RP Shaha’s daughter, Joya Pati, stepped in to manage the family’s enterprises and continued to do so until 1999, with Rajiv at the helm since.
And when Pakistani soldiers, accompanied by Razakars, went to the Bharateswari School in May 1971 and demanded that female students be handed over, Rajiv says his Boroma Protibha Mutsuddi “stepped between the soldiers and the girls”.
The soldiers and Razakars had also tried to enter the Kumudini hospital earlier that day, Rajiv explains.
“Boroma and my pishis (paternal aunts) faced off with the goons, protecting my 19-year old mother Shrimoti, me and my small cousins,” Rajiv says. They went to face the men by themselves, ensuring the teenage bride remained hidden from their view.
After her husband’s disappearance, Shrimoti, who had married Bhabani Prasad in 1967, continued to dress like a married Hindu Bengali woman for the next 30 years. She would wear shakha pola (white and red bangles) on her wrists and sindur (vermilion) in her hair parting.
Bhabani Prasad still remains a 27-year-old man to Shrimoti, Rajiv says wistfully.
“For years, my mother periodically took out her husband’s clothes for airing, and then lovingly folded them back,” he adds.
It was only in 2000 that Shrimoti wiped away the sindur and took off the shakha pola, and Rajiv performed the ‘shraddho’ (final rites) of his father and grandfather.
“From the time I have gained my senses, my mother has stressed that my grandfather and father sacrificed their lives for the Kumudini trust, for the country,” Rajiv says, his face set in determination. “I have to work for this institution, for my country.”