The Teknaf base that never was

It was a very dark and scary night.  A heavy downpour soon drowned out the cacophony of noises from insects and birds and left us wet, cold and confused.  Armed only with a few pickaxes, spades and kitchen knives, our only strength was our collective, revolutionary courage, which remained to be tested.

 The Teknaf base that never was

by Razi Azmi

(New Age, Dhaka, 1 April 2016)

It was late 1967. Siraj Sikdar laid out his revolutionary thesis before us.  Based primarily on Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s booklet “On Contradiction”, it identified our friends and foes rather neatly. The list of enemies was long, the terminology Maoist, and the exactitude such as to make Marx proud.

The principal contradiction (enemy) of the people of East Bengal (then East Pakistan) was “Pakistani colonialism” (read West Pakistan). Next came feudalism (local landlords), followed by “US imperialism (USA), Soviet Social-Imperialism (USSR) and Indian Expansionism (India)” (in that order). And, finally, the “comprador bourgeoisie” (local capitalists).

Being the spearhead of the revolution, as the vanguard of the proletariat (industrial workers), “we” were to mobilise the peasants, seize villages through guerilla warfare, encircle the cities and ultimately liberate East Bengal for its people.

It didn’t matter that “we” numbered just about a dozen at the time! And what if most of us were barely twenty, some still in our teens! Nor were we bothered by the minor fact that none of us had ever worked in a factory, ploughed a field or had any military training whatsoever!

Avid followers of the guerilla war in South Vietnam and admirers of the Viet Cong, we knew that hilly terrain and jungles were pre-requisites for the success of our military struggle against the Pakistani military might. Pictures of guerillas and their jungle camps complete with tunnels, published in the glossy pages of China Pictorial, looked awesome and left us entranced. For further motivation, we could look back to the epic Long March of the Chinese Communists led by Mao.

As the terrain in the southeast of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) seemed suited for guerilla warfare, Siraj Sikdar volunteered to take up a civil engineering job with a private company building bridges near Teknaf, the southern-most township.

It offered a number of advantages: a regular income in the form of Sikdar’s salary as well as a hilly and jungle terrain. Besides, Teknaf was very close to Burma (Myanmar), where the Communist Party was in control of large liberated areas, according to Peking Review, a weekly newsmagazine which some of us read assiduously, believing its every word like religious gospel.

Anwar Hossain and I (being science students) decided, with Sikdar’s concurrence, to acquire basic expertise in explosives. We set about our task meticulously. After some reading on the subject, we went shopping in old Dhaka for sulphur, fuse etc. as well as a metal barrel about a metre long.  We got one end of the barrel welded shut with a bolt and had a small hole drilled near the closed end.

Equipped with these, Anwar and I locked ourselves in the detached guest room of Sikdar’s house in Rampur (Dhaka) for our experiment in explosives. This room, adjacent to the staircase, was separate from the main residence on the ground floor of the two-storey building, whose upper floor was occupied by another family. Sikdar had already left for Teknaf but his wife Roshanara, who was to join him later, knew what we were up to.

We put up a couple of big, thick discarded registers to make a padding against the wall at the far end of the room and positioned the barrel at our end to aim at it. Next, we mixed the chemicals in appropriate measures, noting the combination (by weight) in a register, inserted the fuse through the slit in the barrel at the closed end, then pushed the chemical mixture, followed by a small stone or pebble, from the front end. Now action time: light the fuse and . . . wait for the blast.

Test by test, every test neatly recorded in our notebook by mixture and force of blast, our ballistic capability steadily improved. Until we made a big bang, so big as to attract the attention of the people upstairs, who came running down.

Anwar and I could hear them ask Roshanara what had happened. To which she confidently replied “nothing”. They asked about the big noise they had heard and she said it must have come from outside. Not convinced, they then asked as to what was in the room, referring to the room we were occupying.

We anxiously listened from inside as she explained, without any hint of nervousness, that it was an empty store room, adding that nothing could possibly have happened there. They retreated upstairs, not quite satisfied and probably a little suspicious about the goings-on downstairs. Our experimentation ended abruptly, albeit on a successful and thrilling note.

Our group of ten or so was now ready for blast-off, so to speak. First, Comrade Mujib took Roshanara to join her husband in Teknaf as well as to familiarize himself with the area. Sikdar had introduced Mujib to his colleagues in Teknaf as his wife’s brother. This was bound to create doubt, and it did, as Mujib had a very dark complexion (hence his nickname Kala Mujib) while Roshanara had light skin.

A couple of weeks later, sometime in the spring of 1968, we took a train with Mujib to Chittagong, then a bus to Cox’s Bazar.  Here we were picked up in jeeps for the final leg of the journey to Sikdar’s official residence, which was about 3 kilometres short of Teknaf, on the western bank of the Naf River, with Burma (Myanmar) on the eastern side.

Sikdar had already told his colleagues of our expected arrival, introducing us as students from Dhaka University, half of us being geology students (I was the only one) and the remainder social welfare students (none at all). We had come to the area for “field research”.

We took up residence in the company guest house, from where we went out into the paddy fields in groups of two or three explaining to the peasants, in Marxist-Maoist language, the reason for their poverty and how we wanted to help them overthrow their oppressors and exploiters.

It didn’t appear that we were able to convince any of these “victims of exploitation” that their “surplus labour” was expropriated by the owners of the “means of production” to augment their own “capital”, let alone succeed in persuading them to rise to overthrow their exploiters!

I remember the look of sheer bewilderment on these peasants’ faces as they heard us. At this point, we had the first of our defections when Rafiq left, heeding the call of his mother to return. As for the rest of us, our mothers didn’t have a clue about where we were and what on earth we were doing, though they knew that a Maoist-Communist revolution in East Bengal was high on our agenda!

A few days later, it was time to start some serious work – dig tunnels in the low hills of Teknaf for guerilla warfare. Sikdar personally led us on foot through the heavily forested hills.  Following paths alongside streams, passing what we thought was elephant dung, after a couple of hours we selected a spot up on a hilltop, where we would set up camp.

When Sikdar left, leaving Samiullah Azmi in charge, I was very impressed with his personal courage in walking back alone through those forests.

Camp set up, buoyed by bread and biscuits we had brought with us, we soon set about digging tunnels, in the manner of the Viet Cong. Tunneling was serious business, far more serious than we had anticipated. The soil was much rockier than we had expected, certainly not the garden topsoil we were familiar with.

After a few hours of very hard labour, with our palms sore and muscles aching, we had made barely a dent. We quickly concluded that this was impractical but postponed a final decision until next morning.

It was a very dark and scary night.  A heavy downpour soon drowned out the cacophony of noises from insects and birds and left us wet, cold and confused.  Armed only with a few pickaxes, spades and kitchen knives, our only strength was our collective, revolutionary courage, which remained to be tested.

If our interaction with the peasants had disappointed us, this failed experiment in tunneling was heartbreaking. We returned dispirited to our rest house the next day, telling Sikdar of our experience. It was time to rethink our strategy.  But that was best left to Sikdar and Samiullah. We were happy foot soldiers of the revolution.

Our minds now turned eastward, in the direction of Burma and its communist party.  We needed some mentoring and assistance from our experienced and battle-hardened comrades across the Naf River.

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