My friend . . . . . the scholar-soldier
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Our first meeting was in the compound of St. Francis Grammar School, Quetta, where students could drink water from a tank set up for the purpose. Over the preceding few days, I had been told by some of my friends that yet one more brilliant Bengali student had taken admission in the school, in class nine to be precise. I was in class ten. At that water tank, one look at him convinced me it was the new student. ‘You are Shakil, aren’t you?’ To which his response was a yes. And then he asked me, ‘You are Badrul bhai, aren’t you?’ He had heard about me and I had heard about him. He was one more of those Bengalis who did better than anyone else in studies. I was happy to have him there, as one more member of the not so big club of Bengali students at St Francis Grammar. Class-wise and age-wise I was the most senior and Shakil was right after me. My younger brothers were in junior classes.
A couple of days before he was murdered by mutineers at the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Peelkhana along with fifty six other brilliant and dedicated officers of the Bangladesh army, my friend Shakil Ahmed called me on my mobile phone to ask where I was at that point. I was, I told him, on my way to meet General Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, former chief of staff of the army and at that point Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission. The reason for my trip to General Chowdhury was simple: he had a collection of Mohammad Rafi’s songs which he wished to gift me. Shakil then asked me if I could see him after my meeting at the ACC was over. I would be checking into a hospital for a minor surgery, I told him, right after the meeting with General Chowdhury. Could I see him after a few days? He agreed and then told me he needed to have my opinion on certain matters. ‘Please come as soon as you leave hospital’, he said.
That was my last conversation with Major General Shakil Ahmed, Director General of BDR. A couple of days later, at home, I received a call from my younger brother in the morning asking me if anything was going wrong at Peelkhana. Yet to recover from the surgery, I switched the television on and knew immediately that something terrible was going on. On my mobile phone, I called Shakil to find out if he was safe. He did not pick it up. I tried again. No response. I called a third time. This time it was picked up, but whoever it was at the other end said not a word in response to my insistent ‘hello’. In hindsight, I came to believe that whoever had picked up the call was one of the men who must have put the life out of Shakil by then. As the day wore on and then passed into the next, the sheer horror of what had happened began to dawn on all of us.
My friend Syeda Nazneen Ferdousi, then with the British High Commission and on her way back to Dhaka after an official trip outside the capital, was in tears on the phone because she had no idea where her brother-in-law, Colonel Mojib, was. A senior officer at BDR and a thoroughly professional soldier, he was one of the first to be killed by the mutineers. But, of course, we found that out later when his body was washed up on a river bank. Shakil, his wife and all the other officers were brutally murdered and their corpses dumped in a mass grave inside the Peelkhana compound. Never before had this nation lost so many officers together, not even in the War of Liberation.
This morning, eleven years after he lapsed into silence for all time, it is the intellectual man in Shakil Ahmed I recall in funereal gloom. At school, he and I were known for our voracious reading habits, for the number of books we borrowed from the library, for how fast we finished reading them. And every time I was at his office at BDR, where it was wonderful coffee I was treated to, we discussed books and politics and history. There were the times when I told him I looked forward to the day when he would take over as army chief of staff. He laughed and then told me he wished to see the day when I administered the country. That was plain banter, but we engaged in it anyway. He read my articles assiduously and then called to say why he agreed with me.
There was ever the polite being in him. Here we were, all those decades after our first meeting in school, and yet it seemed we had never parted company with each other. When I left Pakistan for Bangladesh, then an occupied land, with my parents and my siblings in 1971, Shakil and his family stayed back in Quetta since his father was in the army. We lost touch with each other. When all Bengalis stranded in Pakistan, civilians and military personnel, began returning home in 1973 under the repatriation programme arrived at between Dhaka and Islamabad, I knew that Shakil too must have come home. But I had no idea where he was and I am sure he did not know where I happened to be.
Our reunion was certainly a miraculous happening. When I joined the Bangladesh High Commission in London as Minister (Press) in February 1997, I made a point, as was customary, of getting acquainted with all my colleagues at the mission. I had heard that the assistant defence advisor at the mission, named Col. Shakil Ahmed, would be leaving London on his way back to Dhaka as his term had come to an end. I had no idea it was the Shakil I knew at Grammar School. When I stepped inside his room, which was next to mine, to say hello, we shook hands. At that point, something happened. We kept looking at each other for a good many seconds, and then Shakil asked: ‘Where have we met before?’ I told him it was my question too. It was he who stumbled on the discovery. ‘St. Francis Grammar School, Quetta?’ And that was it. ‘My goodness, yes’, I answered.
We had connected again, nearly twenty six years after 1971. There was a lot of catching up to do and we did in the few days left to him before his departure for Dhaka. A few months later, arriving in Dhaka on a visit to see my mother and my siblings and baby niece, I was happy to see Shakil at the airport. He was there to receive from me a package sent by a colleague at the High Commission. We stood talking before the conveyor belt waiting for my luggage to arrive. It did arrive in a short while, but that package (which was rather large and separately boxed) was nowhere to be seen. We were both perplexed and asked an airport official about it. He told us that by mistake it might be taken to Sylhet on the next flight out of Dhaka.
Shakil, attired in his army uniform, lost his temper. I asked the official how we could retrieve the package. He was at a loss for words, at which point I simply got on to the conveyor belt as it went in the reverse direction, emerged on the other side through the fairly large, almost window-like hole in the wall and found the missing package about to be loaded on to an aircraft indeed bound for Sylhet. Seizing the package, I got back on the conveyor belt and returned to find Shakil doubling up in laughter. As we walked out of the terminal building, we sensed many pairs of eyes observing us in all the curiosity they could muster.
I miss my friend, every day. Every time I pass by the gates of the BDR, now BGB, a searing pain courses through the heart as I recall the afternoons Shakil and I spent in his office talking of ideas, of books, of politics in the country. He would have made a very cerebral chief of staff. In retirement, he would be writing books. I like to think he and I, in our superannuation, would have been part of a think tank churning out positive research and analyses for others to build on. Shakil Ahmed was a scholar in the true sense of the meaning. His reading was vast; his thoughts were deep, all of which shone through in his conversation. He was a scholar soldier every inch of the way.
The first time we met, we were teenagers. The last time we said goodbye to each other, he was a senior military officer and I a senior journalist. That last time, he insisted, as he always did, on a BDR vehicle dropping me home. We shook hands, promising to meet again, and soon.
That meeting was not to be. The old conversations will not be again. In the deepest recesses of the mind, a lost world gleams. Shakil and I, drinking water at the tank in our school before a ringing of the bell announces an end to recess, know that our friendship is about to take roots.
The roots are yet there. But one of us has gone missing.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist, historian and author of ‘From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’.