Short but extraordinary life of Samiullah Azmi

For the 21 years that she lived after Samiullah’s reported death in a hail of bullets in 1971, this most loving of mothers refused to believe that her son was dead. She would pray to Allah on his behalf every single night before retiring to bed, hoping that her son was alive and well somewhere, somehow.

The short but extraordinary life of Samiullah Azmi

by Razi Azmi

(Published in New Age, Dhaka, 16 Nov 2015)

In the four decades since the death of Siraj Sikdar in 1975, much has been written about him and his party, Purbo Banglar Shorbohara Party (East Bengal Proletarian Party* – see note below), but very little about his closest associates and the party’s beginnings. Since the movement always remained underground, there are inaccuracies and gaps in nearly all of the published information.

In 1991, the Party published “Shfulingo” on the 20th anniversary of its formal launch some twenty years earlier. Among other things, it gives a list of all the “shaheeds” (martyrs) of the party.

It is a long list, prefaced with the statement that while the editors have taken every care to provide “a full and error-free list of martyr-comrades, it is bound to have errors, because a lot of history has been lost.”  It also welcomed comments, suggestions and corrections.

Siraj Sikdar’s photo appears in this section with the caption: “Party Founder and Chairman of the First Central Committee Martyr-Comrade Siraj Sikdar”.

After Sikdar, and numbered “1” on this list of honour is: “Taher, Real Name: Samiullah Azmi, Kamlapur, Dhaka” (no photo). This brief entry says that he belonged to a family of refugees from Hyderabad in India. Virtually nothing else about him.

I owe it to the memory of this barely-known Samiullah and to posterity, both as my brother and as one who sacrificed his life for the people of Bangladesh, to state some very basic facts about him in order to set the record straight.

Naeem Mohaiemen’s “Terrorists or Guerillas in the Mist” states: “In a December 2005 interview with the author, ex-Sharbahara Raisuddin Ariff claims that among the flag’s co-creators was party member and non-Bengali Saifullah Azmi” (footnote 6, page 310 of web version).

The flag in question is the strikingly simple design with a red circle (denoting revolution/ working class) against a green background (fertile and rural Bangladesh/ peasantry) that later, most coincidentally, was adopted as the flag of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

In his book, “Mohan Muktijuddho o Shaat’í Novembor Obbhutthane Col Taher”, Dr M Anwar Hossain also mentions the “non-Bengali Samiullah Azmi” (pp. 13-14) and his brother, the present writer.

Another reference to this “non-Bengali Saifullah Azmi” is to be found in Suruja Rokan’s “Ruhul and Rahela” (http://www.bengaliska.com/):

“In 1968 Siraj Sikder alias Ruhul Alam went to Burma for guerrilla training and tried to dig tunnels in Chittagong Hill Tracts in the spring of 1968. But when five young Bengali boys who accompanied him deserted, he was left with only two non-Bengali boys Azmi alias Ruhul Kuddus and his younger brother, a first year Honours in Chemistry of Dhaka University”.

Being the afore-mentioned “younger brother”, who was majoring in Geology (not Chemistry) at Dhaka University, I am in a position to categorically state that Siraj Sikdar himself never set foot in Burma. In the spring of 1968, he had based himself a few miles north of Teknaf (with an engineering job), where he assembled 10-12 revolutionaries, including Samiullah. It is this group, led by Samiullah and including the present author as well as Anwar Hossain, that crossed the river Naf into Burma hoping to contact the Burmese Communist Party, but returned after a few days without success.

A few members of this group deserted shortly thereafter for personal reasons, others parted company with Sikdar because of political differences. One of the latter was Anwar Hossain himself who, in his above-mentioned book, provides a partial list of the group (footnote 6, page 139), besides some other interesting details.

Mohammad Samiullah Azmi (“Bachchu”) was born in January 1947 in the town of Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) in India.  He was the fifth of what were to be five brothers and three sisters. I was his immediate junior, becoming his best friend, confidante and sometime closest associate. Both our parents were from the village of Koiriyapar in Azamgarh district (now in Mau district) of U.P (not Hyderabad).

As a result of his parents’ migration in 1948, Samiullah grew up in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), going to Bengali-medium schools in Talora, Gaibandha and Feni before finally settling in Dhaka, going first to the English-medium Don’s School (class-7) and Shaheen School (classes 9-10), then to Intermediate Technical College, Tejgaon (11-12) and Quaid-i-Azam College. Here, he was studying for his B.Sc, majoring in Soil Science, when he plunged head-on into revolutionary actvities. His last residence before going underground in 1969 was 95 Sabujbag in Kamlapur, Dhaka.

He was by far the leading figure among the first handful of recruits of Siraj Sikdar. Their first meeting took place sometime towards the end of 1967, in a one-room East Pakistan Students’ Union (EPSU-Menon Group) office in Topkhana, Azimpur (Dhaka).

On that day I had accompanied Samiullah to the EPSU office. We were listening to some high-ranking leader of EPSU (from memory Mahbubullah), when our attention was suddenly drawn towards an unknown young man sitting behind us and talking to someone. He aroused our interest and, as we moved towards him and began to listen to what he had to say, we were awed by his personality and eloquence.

Altogether a chance meeting, and a very fateful one at that, this was our first sight of Siraj Sikdar. He was barely known in EPSU circles outside of the East Pakistan Engineering University (now BUET), where he studied. Having just sat his final B.E. (Civil) exams. Sikdar now earnestly began to recruit a group of highly motivated revolutionary young men to launch his movement for the liberation of the “oppressed people of East Bengal”.

Within a few days of this first meeting, Samiullah became Sikdar’s closest comrade and remained so until his death in Savar in August 1971. Following Samiullah’s pre-mature and sudden death, by which time most of his family had left for Karachi owing to the violence and uncertain situation in Dhaka and elsewhere, Sikdar sent a hand-written eulogy to our sister in Muhammadpur, Dhaka. In it he paid tribute to Samiullah’s contribution to the party and to the people of Bangladesh.

To underscore Samiullah’s sacrifice for the people of Bangladesh, while not himself being an ethnic Bengali, Sikdar drew comparison with Norman Bethune, a Canadian communist who had died in 1939 while serving as a doctor with the Chinese Red Army.  Bethune was known to us through a stirring obituary written by Mao Zedong, “our great helmsman” at the time.

Our Teknaf venture had little to show by way of results, except bruised hands (from a failed attempt to dig tunnels in the hills like the Viet Cong) and battered illusions. The original group had dispersed and morale was low. After an inspiring conversation on the front lawn of Sikdar’s residence in Rampur, Dhaka, one quiet evening Siraj Sikdar, Samiullah and myself signed, in blood, an oath to stick together on the revolutionary path, viewing ourselves as the kernel of the revolution which was “inevitable”.

At this informal meeting in which only the three of us were present, we signed the oath under pseudonyms. Sikdar signed first, choosing for himself the pseudonym Ruhul Alam, while Samiullah settled on Ruhul Amin (later becoming known as Comrade Taher). Before I could decide on a pseudonym for myself, Sikdar suggested Ruhul Quddus. The “Ruhul” common to all three would signify a brotherhood of close comrades, so we hoped! More about what followed, and about the revolution which did not follow, at a later date.

In 1970 a revolutionary young woman named Khaleda, from the district of Coch Behar (in West Bengal, India), became Samiullah’s de facto wife. She was the younger sister of one Kalam, a party sympathiser.

Samiullah’s father, Mohammad Safiullah, who worked in the Indian railways, migrated to what was then East Pakistan in 1948. He became a Station Master in the East Bengal Railway (later Pakistan Eastern Railway) and served in the following stations (in that order): Tistamuk Ghat, Ruhea, Badarganj, Kauniya, Talora, Gaibandha, Feni, Sylhet, Jamalpur Town, Gandaria and Goalundo Ghat (from where he retired in 1969).

Far from having any political, let alone revolutionary leanings, our father was a typical Indian babu with a worldview and attitude that combined his substantial jurisdiction and authority as a station master (bodo babu) with his inherited north Indian feudal mindset. Not at all religious, he never fasted or prayed (except for the two annual congregational Eid prayers), until he was in his seventies.

Our mother, Mehrunnessa Begum, was a very pious woman, a devoted Muslim, extremely compassionate and kind. She steadfastly adhered to her religion and was respectful of all faiths, castes and creeds. She taught us to respect all humanity and all religions, and to be especially kind to the poor and the oppressed, but also to keep safe and out of harm’s way.

For the 21 years that she lived after Samiullah’s reported death in a hail of bullets in 1971, this most loving of mothers refused to believe that her son was dead. She would pray to Allah on his behalf every single night before retiring to bed, hoping that her son was alive and well somewhere, somehow.

May both souls now rest in peace! And having clarified some elementary, but hitherto unknown, facts about my late revolutionary brother for whomever might be interested, I too hope to be at peace with myself.

*Author’s note:  The Purbo Banglar Sarbahara Party (East Bengal Proletarian Party) was formally launched on January 8, 1971 at a secret conclave of the Purba Bangla Sramik Andalon (East Bengal Workers’ Movement) in Barisal in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The East Bengal Proletarian Party’s roots, however, go back exactly three years, to January 8, 1968, when a very small group of people led by Siraj Sikdar (Sikder) formed the East Bengal Workers’ Movement.  In fact, the date of January 8, 1971 was chosen to launch the Party because of its significance as the third anniversary of its actual founding date, that of its precursor, the East Bengal Workers’ Movement.

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8 Responses to Short but extraordinary life of Samiullah Azmi

  1. Dipu says:

    I have received the following comments on my articles on Samiullah Azmi from “Dipu”, who worked very closely with Samiullah during 1971-72. I reproduce them here with his permission:

    I

    (A rough translation of the original in Bangla which follows)

    I learned many new things about my ideal person, Samiullah Azmi aka Taher Bhai (from these articles). I had the opportunity to learn many unknown facts.

    It appears that even Razi Azmi does not know some facts after he (Samiullah) went underground. For example, for several months in 1970 (approximately 6 months?), both he and his comrade-wife Sufia aka Khaleda were in Barisal. But when it became difficult to stay in Barisal due to severe police action in response to intense revolutionary activities, they moved from there to Chittagong.

    There we started preparing for mountain based guerrilla operations from October to March 1971. Together, for almost 6 months, we lived a dreamy and colorful revolutionary life in Halishahar in Chittagong. Razi does not know about those times.

    One result of secret revolutionary politics, about which Razi has said from a realization deep within his heart, with which I agree and which I liked very much: “Gradually but surely, a personality cult grows around one leader, in this case Siraj Sikdar, differences of opinion begin to be viewed as conspiracies, and the purveyors of those views as potential enemies and enemy agents”.

    Why only in secret revolutionary politics? This is evident even in the so-called democratic politics of under-developed societies (I felt this in 1972, because of which I left the Sarbahara Party, although I continued to be associated with such politics for over 15 more years).
    ________________________________________
    আমার আদর্শ পুরুষ আজমী ভাই সম্পর্কে অনেক কিছু জানলাম। বেশ কিছু অজানা তথ্য জানার সৌভাগ্য হ’ল।
    তবে দেখা যায় আজমী ভাই আন্ডার গ্রাউন্ডে যাবার পরের বেশ কিছু তথ্য তিনিও জানেন না। যেমন আপনারা দু’জন ১৯৭০ সালের এর প্রথম দিকে বেশ কয়েক মাস (প্রায় ৬ মাস?) বরিশালে ছিলেন আর তখন বরিশালের বিপ্লবী তৎপরতা অনেক তীব্র হয়ে যায়। পরিণতিতে বড় আকারে পুলিশি আক্রমন আসে, ফলে সবাইকে বরিশাল ছেড়ে চিটাগং গিয়ে পরবর্তী আস্তানা পাততে হয়। শুরু হয়ে পাহাড় কেন্দ্রিক গেরিলা ঘাটি গড়ে তোলার তৎপরতা – অক্টোবর থেকে মার্চ, ১৯৭১ – প্রায় ৬ মাস। সাথে আমাদের হালি শহরের সেই স্বপ্নময়, বর্ণাড্ডময় ৬ মাসের বিপ্লবী জীবন। সেসব অংশের বিষয়ে রাজী ভাইয়ের জানা নেই।
    গোপন বিল্পবী রাজনীতির একটা পরিনাম, যা তার হৃদয়ের গভীর উপলদ্ধি থেকে তিনি বলেছেন (শুধু গোপন বিল্পবী রাজনীতি কেন পশ্চাদপদ সমাজের তথাকথিত গণতান্ত্রিক রাজনীতিতেও তা দর্শণীয়) এবং যার সাথে আমি একমত, (সেই ১৯৭২ সালেই এই উপলদ্ধি, যার কারণে তখন আমি সর্বহারা পার্টি ছেড়ে দেই, যদিও আরো প্রায় ১৫ বছর ওই সব রাজনীতির সাথে মিশে ছিলাম) খুব ভাল লেগেছে। কথাটা হ’লঃ “Gradually but surely, a personality cult grows around one leader, in this case Siraj Shikdar, differences of opinion begin to be viewed as conspiracies, and the purveyors of those views as potential enemies and enemy agents”.

    II

    I have lot of emotions with the memories of Azmi Bhai. During my active political career from late 1969 to 1980, and thereafter again when studying political literature actively till 1990 (I still read, but just to review), I have never found a talented, dedicated, courageous person like Samiullah Azmi aka Taher Bhai.

    He was an exceptional character who could mould my early life in a particular direction at that early age and to whom I mostly owe the little virtues I have in my character. For the rest, three ladies are responsible, my mom, Sufia Apa aka Khaleda (my mom was very fond of both Azmi Bhai and Sufia Apa) and my late wife A. Jahan, who had started her political career at 14-15 years of age with the East Pakistan Communist Party (M-L).

    In a traditional sense, Azmi Bhai was my guru, although my first political study started with Humayun Kabir (who was killed by Sarbahara cadres, becoming an early victim of the “personality cult”). I also became a target of this cult in late 1972 when I raised some questions. Probably Azmi Bhai too would have been targeted had he remained alive till then.

    Humayun Kabir used to take political classes in East Pakistan Students Union (Menon) group’s office in Barisal in 1969-70, based mostly on Chairman Mao Tsetung’s Little Red Book. At that time I was a student of class-X and sat for the Matriculation exam in March/April 1970. About that time Taher Bhai came to Barisal. Thereafter, so many activities and historical moments with him!

    Let me mention some major events now, hope to write more later. After some ultra-leftists’ actions in Barisal, the party attracted many good cadres quickly. However, it became difficult to sustain in Barisal any more (some were already arrested). So with direction from the “top brass”, Azmi Bhai along with 13-14 cadres left for Chittagong (in small groups) in late September 1970 to prepare for a guerrilla war in hills and jungles.

    Two groups of 6-7 per group were sent to work in Ramgarh among tea garden workers and another group in Bandarban to work among the ethnic minorities. But Taher Bhai remained in Chittagong, in the Halishahar area, along with Sufia Apa and me, his close lieutenant at the time. His task was to coordinate our activities and to work in Chittagong city to recruit more cadres from students and workers. So we organized some study circles there.

    Sometime in early 1971 Siraj Sikder himself came to Chittagong and stayed for 4/5 days with us in Halishahar. We had a 2-room accommodation in a small colony-type one storied building surrounded by a wall. One room was occupied by Azmi Bhai and his comrade-wife Sufia Apa, while I had the other room. Sikder stayed in my room. The day Sikder returned to Dhaka, I accompanied him upto Sitakunda for his security.

    Our life in Halishahar was very difficult, particularly financial hardship was severe. So I had to work at various times as a dishwasher in a restaurant, as a cart puller, as a daily labourer in the port area, etc. Sufia Apa and Taher Bhai were very strong and gave courage as occasionally we had nothing to eat.

    Sufia Apa kept all the accounts very sincerely in order to maximize food benefit with minimum expenditure. We didn’t have enough money for the bus fare and hence had to walk 7/8 miles one way under the blazing sun to take study circle classes of students and workers. But despite all odds Taher Bhai remained very strong and cool, giving us overall guidance always with his smiling face.

    After some ultra-leftist actions in Ramgarh and Bandarban, the leadership decided to move gradually from there. Hence I was sent back to Dhaka, on 17 March 1971 if I remember correctly. That was the last time I saw Azmi Bhai and Sufia Apa.
    I got back my Sufia Apa just 2 years ago, but my dearest Azmi Bhai – will never come back. I heard about his death in Savar in 1971 the following year, when I was busy with party work in other areas.

    Thus I lost my wonderful leader, comrade and my mentor forever. It is difficult to accept that from my heart. I can never forget him till my death.

  2. Javed Agha says:

    Great life story of a revolutionary. I only wish he had lived long. What a pity at passing away so young.

  3. Thank you Razi Sahib for sharing Dipu Bhai’s comments. It certainly had added to stature of Samiullah Bhai and knowledge about his life.
    Stay Blessed.

  4. Khurram says:

    Most of the time, these great martyrs are forgotten. I always wanted to know more about him. Thank you for the article and sharing the comments of others.

  5. Khurram says:

    I wish if any body knows about his wife.

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