Salute, Colonel! In death, you live…now and always

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Published on November 20, 2020
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Syed Badrul Ahsan:
 
One more chapter in history comes to an end. One more of our heroes passes into the ages. One more time is upon us to reflect on an era that did us proud.
 
In the passing of Col. Shawkat Ali is our farewell to a man who remains part of the decisive moment in the heritage that today defines this sovereign republic. There was bravery in him, courage of the kind that had sublimity about it, boldness that was intertwined with the interests of the people who were his own. When in late 1967 he was put under detention, along with thirty four other Bengalis, on charges of having planned to bring about the separation of Pakistan's eastern province from the rest of the country, he did not flinch in the face of danger staring him in the face. He did not say sorry. Neither did he repudiate his patriotism.
 
But, of course, it was a time when Bengali heroes were around, the greatest instance of such heroism being Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The future Bangabandhu instilled courage in his fellow prisoners, gave them the confidence, even as the future of all these thirty five men seemed clouded in darkness, to believe that the lights would shine, that a better and brighter tomorrow would dawn.
 
The state of Pakistan called the case State Versus Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Others. Historically it has come to be known as the Agartala Conspiracy Case. Bangabandhu would later refer to it, in all his sarcasm, as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
 
Shawkat Ali was a young officer in the Pakistan army when he was carted off to prison. He would serve thirteen months in the harshest conditions the Ayub Khan regime could think up as a way of punishing him and his fellow prisoners, all Bengalis and all in the armed forces and the civil service. In the course of the trial, conducted under a special tribunal in Dhaka cantonment, many were the tales that were revealed --- of intimidation, of torture, of the regime going out on a limb to find approvers whose testimony would help lead to a conviction of the thirty five men accused of sedition. The Ayub Khan junta had a simple yet ominous motive --- to use the trial to put Sheikh Mujibur Rahman away for good, either through imprisonment for life or a sentence of death. And those others would follow in his footsteps. The regime's arithmetic was simple. But in the end, all the addition and subtraction failed to hold up. The calculations went terribly wrong.
 
In prison, Shawkat Ali did not break. Not one among his co-accused wilted under psychological pressure or physical ill-treatment. Each one of these sons of the soil, driven by love of country, indeed by thoughts of freedom to come to a land that was under subjugation, stood tall and proud before the tribunal, before the world. The prosecution, comprising some of the government's eminent legal minds, was determined to show up these thirty five men as traitors. In turn, it would be an entire Bengali nation that would be projected as being guilty of treason before the world. But such chicanery would not work, did not work. It did not because eminent lawyers were there to defend the accused. Outside the courtroom, every Bengali observed, stayed alert, in increasing suspicion of the regime's intentions.
 
Col. Shawkat Ali survived. So did thirty three others. Of the thirty five men on trial, thirty four were to emerge free in February 1969. One would be absent. A week before the unconditional withdrawal of the case, Sergeant Zahurul Haque was murdered by his guards in the cantonment on the pretext that he had tried to escape from his confinement. The explanation was an exercise in absurdity. In dying, Haque made the supreme sacrifice. His compatriots, as they walked out into freedom, only strengthened the national resolve for the attainment of self-esteem.
 
And Shawkat Ali was a man of self-esteem. He went off to war in 1971, playing a pivotal role in shaping guerrilla resistance to the Pakistan occupation army. Back home in a free country, it was politics that he would eventually embrace as his new profession. He joined the Awami League, for the party symbolized the ideals of Bangabandhu. Yet in his free country, it was again his freedom that came under assault, this time through the predatory instincts of a homegrown dictator. In the darkness of the Ershad years, Shawkat Ali spent sixteen months in prison. His spirit remained unbroken. A man who had survived the Agartala Case possessed the ability to survive anywhere and in any condition. Shawkat Ali survived. He went into parliament as a lawmaker, his constituency re-electing him through the years. As Deputy Speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad, he demonstrated a flair for presiding over parliamentary proceedings that is not to be spotted with ease.
 
Age and ailments have brought Col. Shawkat Ali's life to an end. And yet this nation knows that beyond the grave, his achievements, his courage in the face of adversity, the fullness of his patriotism will shine through --- today and in the times to be.
 
We who went to school in the 1960s, who as teenagers were imbued with love of country by Shawkat Ali and his fellow prisoners in the Agartala Case, stand today with heads bowed before the Colonel.
 
Salute, Colonel! In death, you live on. Heroes do not die.
 
Writer: Senior Journalist and Columnist
 
Source: Daily Asian Age