In researching medical-related issues of the Bangladesh Liberation War, a remarkable revelation surfaced that we would like to share with the readers on this 50th anniversary of the country’s independence. This is related to the killing of Dhaka University’s Professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta.
In their memoirs, his wife Basanti Guhathakurta and others have written in detail about his being shot on the night of 25 March and his subsequent death. But that is just a part of the gruesome series of events pertaining to the incident. Our research has revealed further hitherto unknown facts that followed his killing. We would like to share these events as well as put forward a proposal.
We know that in the early hours of 25 March, the Pakistan army crackdown began with Operation Searchlight. A team of soldiers took Dhaka University’s English department professor Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta from flat 34/A, his residence at the university quarters, as well as professor of statistics Muniruzzaman, and shot them in front of the quarters. Muniruzzaman died on the spot and Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta was seriously injured. When the soldiers left, Guhathakurta’s wife Basanti, his daughter Meghna Guhathakurta who was just a schoolgirl at the time, and the maid Swarna, managed to drag the profusely bleeding Professor Guhathakurta into the house.
There was curfew outside and heavy gunfire. These three women spent the entire night and the whole of the next day at home, tending to this unconscious and incessantly bleeding man. Dhaka Medical College Hospital was not far from their home, but it was impossible to venture out at the time. When curfew was relaxed for sometime on 27 March, the desperate Basanti Guhathakurta handed a note over to an unknown woman passing by and begged her to deliver it to the Dhaka Medical emergency department. The emergency assistants came and took Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta by stretcher to the hospital. Meanwhile, the other teachers in the building were fleeing with their families. Basanti took Meghna and Swarna to the hospital.
In the afternoon Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta was shifted from the emergency department to Bed 2 of Surgery Ward 7. He was admitted there under Dr Matiur Rahman in Dr Ali Ashraf’s unit. Five decades on when we talked to Dr Matiur Rahman, he remembered the day clearly. He said that a bullet had hit Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta in the spine and so he was suffering from paraplegia. His arms and legs were paralysed. He had developed septicemia, meaning infection has entered his bloodstream and the two days of bleeding had rendered his condition critical. On 28 March, Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta’s friend Dr T Hossain wanted to take him to his private clinic, but Guhathakurta’s physical condition didn’t permit it. From 29 March Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta’s condition began to deteriorate further and after five days of struggling with death, he finally passed away on the morning of 30 March.
Then complications arose with the transfer of his body. Dr T Hossain sent an ambulance to Dhaka Medical to collect the body. But because of the bullet wounds and injuries, the hospital had recorded this as a ‘police case’. It would require permission of the local police station or magistrate to collect the body. Dhaka Medical was then under the Ramna police jurisdiction. But on 25 March the Pakistan army had gone on a killing spree at the Ramna police station too, so it was inoperative. And there was no way to contact a magistrate at the time. Pakistani troops were patrolling the hospital. It would be difficult to skirt the regulations to take out the body, and so Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta’s body lay there in the verandah of Ward 7. There was an uncertainty in the issuance of his death certificate. The situation at the hospital was suffocating and scary and so Basanti left.
The terrified family later sent driver Gopal to pick up Guhathakurta’s body. He went to the hospital two consecutive days, but failed to pick up the body. When he went on 5 April, Gopal learnt the body was no longer there and no one could say where it had been taken. He was told not to come to the hospital again.
As part of our research, we looked into the 1971 death records of Dhaka Medical College Hospital. We found that after a certain time on 25 March 1971, no more deaths were recorded in the register. Death records only resumed from 30 March, the day that Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta passed away. His name was found there among others. His admission number was 1444/12. The time of his death was recorded as 9:30am, 30 March. And the records show that the body was collected by the ‘police’. But the family never found out where the body was taken and whether it was given a proper cremation.
Then in those days of the war, another personal struggle began for Basanti Guhathakurta. After her husband’s death, she felt too insecure to return to their home at the university quarters. Like a refugee, at times she stayed at the homes of well-wishers, concealing her identity to the neighbours, and at times she stayed at various hospitals as a patient. All their valuables were stolen from their university quarters. She then fell into financial troubles. She approached the university accounts for her husband’s pending dues.
In studying the records of the university’s accounts, we then came across further dramatic tangles. The records show that the university authorities told Basanti Guhathakurta that she would have to produce her husband’s death certificate to collect his dues. But Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta’s body had disappeared from the hospital without any death certificate. The family had no proof of his death.
The university records also reveal that on 24 May 1971 Basanti Guhathakurta had applied to Federal Insurance where Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta had been insured. But on 30 June the insurance company informed her that the money was deposited with the university. They could only make the payment if the university issued clearance.
Basanti Guhathakurta was caught up in a vicious cycle. Records show that Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta had taken an academic loan of Rs 8000 from the university when he went abroad to do his PhD. The university authorities had kept Rs 15,000 of his insurance money as a security deposit against that loan. We note that in July 1971, Basanti Guhathakurta appealed repeatedly to the university authorities for the clearance regarding that deposit. Finally on 5 August 1971 the university authorities wrote that they were unable to issue the clearance and Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta owed them certain dues. They said that he owed them Rs 3,865.90 of the academic loan. This comprised Rs 2,155 of the principal amount and Rs 1,710 in interest. They would only issue the clearance if these dues were cleared.
This bureaucratic rigmarole continued for a few weeks. Basanti Guhathakurta deposited a cheque to the university authorities and finally on 30 August they handed over the clearance for the insurance.
But the drama didn’t end there. The university clearance was not enough, the insurance company informed Basanti Guhathakurta that a form would have to be filled up ascertaining his death. This would have to be done by a physician, with another physician as witness. Basanti Guhathakurta’s efforts to get the death certificate continued, but with police and other complications, the matter remained hanging in the air. However, even though an official death certificate was not issued, the surgery department professor Ali Ashraf and his clinical assistant Dr MA Abdul Majid were willing to sign the form regarding Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta’s death.
We recovered the form with their signatures. They had certainly displayed courage in signing the form at such a critical period. But we note a curious matter in the information regarding his death. The cause of death has been mentioned as ‘spinal cord injury’. This was true, but then again, not true. As the words ‘bullet injury’ were not mentioned, there was no way to determine that this was not a normal injury, but the result of cruel brutality. Perhaps they felt this was the most prudent way to fill up the form so that she could get the insurance money, given the terrifying circumstances where Pakistani troops were everywhere. In her memoirs, Basanti Guhathakurta expresses her surprise at the absence of the word ‘bullet’ in the description of the cause of death, though she wrote that ‘pneumonia’ had been recorded as the cause of his death. We found no recorded evidence of that.
Anyhow, while the complications regarding the insurance money may have been cleared by this certification, bureaucratic tangles remained. Records show continued correspondence between Basanti Guhathakurta and the university authorities for his dues. The university authorities had her caught in the vortex of complications including the death certificate. The university librarian said books he had borrowed, worth Rs 205, had not been returned. The university chief engineer said that many electrical fixtures, worth Rs 748, were missing from Guhathakurta’s quarters. The accounts department said a certain amount of money was missing from the caution money of the Jagannath Hall students kept in a bank account which Guhathakurta operated as provost. Before releasing the dues, the university authorities wanted an account of these matters from Basanti Guhathakurta. These communications were made in November 1971. These letters continued through the time of the war, but the funds were never released.
It was after the independence of Bangladesh, on 12 August 1972, that the vice chancellor of Dhaka University, Muzaffar Hossain Chowdhury, finally signed the approval for these dues to be released.
Our investigation was to reveal these wounds in the history pertaining to the death of Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, killed at the outset of the Liberation War. We found that though he died in hospital, his family did not get his body. They did not get a proper death certificate. And throughout the period of the war, the family had to go through a humiliating struggle in trying to retrieve his dues from the university. We feel, in this golden jubilee of independence, these two institutions have the opportunity to set these shameful things straight. As mentioned at the beginning, we have some proposals in this regard.
We propose that during this golden jubilee, Dhaka Medical College Hospital issue a symbolic death certificate in the name of Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, mentioning the actual cause of death. Dhaka University, celebrating its centennial, can also make a token gesture of returning the interest money taken from Guhathakurta’s family and apologise for the bureaucratic harassment.
On this historical year, Dhaka Medical College Hospital and Dhaka University can arrange a unique joint event to repay this historical debt to the family of Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta.
Shahaduz Zaman is a writer and public health expert. Khairul Islam is the WaterAid regional director for South Asia.
*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir