Monday 20th May 2024,
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I was forced to change my religion

I was forced to change my religion

People in the Hindu communities were subject to forced conversion to Islam

There were several near-death experiences during the nine long months of the Liberation War. It was an unsettling, suffocating feeling: As if we were all waiting to die.

After the heinous genocide of March 25, everyone started to flee the cities in fear. I also left for my aunt’s house in Palashihata, a village about 20 miles away from Mymensingh town, with my parents and my two and a half years old son. Professor Jatin Sarker (my husband) stayed back in town with his parents and siblings. So as I was leaving town, I was worried about what would happen to the rest of my family. For nine months, I did not know their whereabouts. Later, I came to know that they had gone to their village home in Netrokona just a couple of days before the Pakistani army came to Mymensingh.

We were staying at my aunt’s house. First came the bandits and then the military. Haunted by them, we fled to our own house in the village of Shibrampur, three miles south of Palashihata. We passed our days there in dreadful suspense as well. The army took my cousin Ramendra Narayan Dey from his house. He had gone back there in secret to check on the condition of the house. He told us that he would be back soon. He never did return. They burnt down the house as well.

I was at home with my parents, two brothers, and one sister-in-law. Fear and uncertainty was everywhere. There was an army post set up just one and a half miles from our house. We could have been attacked at any moment. Besides, the razakars had already organised themselves in the village. Every now and then they would carry out an “operation”. We were reeling like pawns in a labyrinth inside the village. The District Board Highway (main road to the district headquarters) passed right by our home. It was the only entry point of the village. The army could come from any direction using that road. We were stuck in the village with no way out. So, in order to survive, we stuck to the ditches and roads inside the village, always trying to keep out of sight from the Pakistan army.

So, it went on — on one hand there was the brutality of the Pakistan army and the razakars and on the other hand there was this craze for forced religious conversions to Islam

So, it went on — on one hand there was the brutality of the Pakistan army and the razakars and on the other hand there was this craze for forced religious conversions to Islam. We would continuously hear about atrocities going on in the neighbouring villages. People were now hiding in the nearby hills for safety. Emotionally I was a wreck, almost on the verge of breaking down. In this condition, on August 12, volunteers from the Mukti Bahini instructed us to leave the village before dawn as the army was coming the next day. But we had nowhere to go! We were exhausted, both physically and emotionally, from the incessant struggle to stay alive. But survival, I guess, is truly a basic human instinct.

So, we were on the road, again. It was late at night and it was quiet and dark. We had been walking for miles for a safe shelter. Suddenly, from far afar, someone shouted for us to stop. They threatened to shoot us if we moved an inch further. I saw a powerful light moving quickly towards us. I suspected the worst and thought that these were razakars. Probably four or five persons blocked our path and had their rifles aimed at us. They introduced themselves as members of the Mukti Bahini. They had thought that we were razakars and were about to shoot us. Then they saw the end of my sari in the glow of the lantern and stopped.

Taking their advice, we put out the lantern and walked about a mile to take shelter in a house in the village Kakonerpur. The owner of the house was named “Bharatbasi”, which means citizen of India. Even in that situation, I could not but laugh. I told him that his name was enough to get everybody killed. We took shelter in an almost deserted house. A couple of goats and dogs were in the same room as we were. The room had firewood stacked high up to the ceiling; it was full of rodents. Who knew if there were snakes or not? We spent the whole night awake in fear of the venomous creatures. We stayed there for four days and returned home on August 16. As soon as we came back, we heard that the army was about to come; people who had returned home were fleeing once again. We were so tired that it was not possible for us to move out this time. We stayed back and spent the night at one of our Muslim neighbours’. Wherever we went, we heard that the only way to survive was to convert and become a Muslim. There were rumours of forced conversions in the neighboring villages. We did not have any means to verify the truth behind those rumors. One of our relatives, Dr Anil Das, told us, “There is a heavy push to become Muslims; there seems to be no other way to survive. I have decided that I will convert and become a Muslim. You should do the same. Staying alive is more important than religion.”

When it became absolutely impossible to live in the village like this, we tried to come back to the city upon hearing that life there was coming back to normal. Through a boy in our village, I contacted the principal of my school (I was a teacher in an English medium school), Sister Helen. My brother also wrote a letter to his student, Helal. The boy returned with replies from Sister Helen and Helal the very next day. Sister Helen even sent some money for me as transportation cost. With his reply, Helal sent an attached letter in Urdu advising that if anything happened on the way we should show this letter to the people concerned. He wrote, “Don’t worry, just come.”

On August 27, we left for the city at the crack of dawn along with two Muslim young men from our village. Around 7 am, we reached the home of a razakar commander in Bakta village. He was the in-law of one of our companions. Besides, the razakar commander’s father and uncle were students of my grandfather and were very fond of him. He was in fact quite embarrassed when he received us. Everyone in that house was scared to think about our fate. One college student warned us about all the dangers on the road. Not only that, he even threatened the father of the razakar commander that the army would burn down his house if he gave shelter to Hindus. The gentleman replied, “I don’t care if they are Hindu or not. If they want to set fire to my house for providing shelter to some people, so be it. That is none of your business.”  His words reassured us.

Covering ourselves in burqa, we took a baby-taxi (a motorised three wheeler taxi) and reached Helal’s home in the city at around 4 pm. They received us cordially and we stayed there for a couple of days. But we dared not step outside the house during our stay. Helal’s mother became paranoid that their house might be set on fire because they had sheltered some Hindus. Helal and his brothers were really embarrassed at their mother’s paranoia, but we thought it was only appropriate that we left their house. We took shelter in Ali Asgar’s house; another of my brother’s students. But how long could this continue? Who would give us shelter day after day?

Everybody was saying that it was not safe to stay like this. We needed identity cards to go out and move about. No one would rent us their house as we were Hindus. It was the same story as in the village — we had to convert to Islam to survive. Many people had already converted and others were also in the process. We were not sure what to do. Should we convert and become Muslims? Was there any other way? We could not even get out of the house, let alone return to our jobs. Seeing no other alternative, I forced myself to be strong. We had a discussion with our parents; we had to convince them that survival should be our first priority.

We needed to live before upholding our religious identity. So we all converted. After convincing my parents, we accepted Islam as our faith at the big mosque with the help of Ali Asgar and his father Mr Abul Ali. With help from the daughter of the Imam (cleric of mosque), we were taught to perform wudu (ablution). Then the Imam told us to hold on to the four corners of a white linen. He started reciting a surah (verses from the Quran) urging us to repeat after him loudly. In the middle of the recitation, he would sharply admonish us, “Recite louder, this is not your Hindu Mantra (scripture).” I wished the earth beneath my feet had split so I could slip underneath. But there was no other way – we were like sacrificial animals. I had already stopped using religious emblems like conch bangles and sindoor in the village and now I was forsaking my religion as well. At the cost of my religion, we got Identity Cards for our security. It allowed us to rent a house. Mr Abul Ali arranged the rental for us. Both my brother and I went back to our respective jobs. We came to know that Mr Dwijen Chowdhury who was the additional district judge of Mymensingh at the time, artist Sunil Dhar, Headmaster of Begunbari School Shashank Mohan Dey, Nripendra Sarker, Manoranjan Sen, Bishnupod Bhattacharya, and many others had converted to Islam. The worst part was that the news of our conversion was announced all over the city almost as soon as we converted, “Professor Jatin Sarker’s entire family along with his in-laws have converted to Islam.” They had not done the same in the case of the others. We were shocked and realised that all this was done on purpose – they had kept us under extreme mental pressure by design …

[Excerpted from Bangladesh 1971: Dreadful Experiences, Published by Shahitya Prakash (February 2017), edited by Munawar Hafiz, Salwa Mostofa, Ashfaqur Rahman and Farhana Binte Sufi. The original Bangla version was edited by Rashid Haider, 1989]

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