Ampati, a graveyard and the benevolent lady

by Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir
A benevolent lady with a difference... the late Rawshan Ara Begum Sangma

A benevolent lady with a difference… the late Rawshan Ara Begum Sangma

IN 1971 the present area of the state Meghalaya was under the state of Assam. After the crackdown by the Pakistan army in Bangladesh, large parts of the population took shelter in the bordering states of India. People from the districts of Sherpur, Mymensingh, Netrakona and Jamalpur of Bangladesh moved across the border into India. Many of them took shelter around Tura and Mahendraganj areas of India. As these two areas could not accommodate more refugees, the trail of refugees started moving inwards following the narrow branch of Dalu River. By April, the refugee trail reached near the Ampati village. Meghalaya’s populations are mainly Khasis, Jaintia (Austric origin) and Garo (Bodo origin). However, the majority populations of Ampati areas were from Garo tribe.

Location of the graveyard near Ampati village

Location of the graveyard near Ampati village

The condition of the refugees was desperate. They had to walk for more than 20 miles inside India. Thousands of refugees were gathering near the branch of Dalu River near Ampati. The large gathering of refugees created tension among the Garo tribe who were concerned about the refugee camps near their village. They apprehended that they would become permanent settlers and would not return to their original home. Garo landowners along with Garo villagers came in large numbers and obstructed the refugees in their effort in setting up the camps. A desperate situation was created. The refugees were hungry, tired and did not have the energy to move any more. Many of them were lying on the open spaces and many were begging the Garo leaders to allow them to camp near the river.
After some period of utter confusion, a lady from the village appeared on the scene. She inquired about the situation from the Garo leaders. They were very respectful to her and expressed their concern about the refugees. After hearing about the problem from the Garo leaders she went to the refugees and saw their plight. Tears rolled down her cheeks at seeing the condition of the refugees. She addressed the Garo leaders and told them that everyone has the right to exist in this world and if they did not allow the refugees to camp in their land, she would provide her land for them, near the riverside. The Garo leaders cautioned that her property may be endangered, as the refugees may not leave the land, if they are allowed to settle down there. However, she had made up her mind.
The respected lady called the elders among the refugees and told them that they could camp in her property near the river and requested them to remain peaceful and not create any conflict with the Garo tribesmen. The refugees settled down near the river in her land and their numbers increased many fold slowly. The benevolent lady made a moral choice to identify with the hungry, the sick, the homeless and the desperate. She chose to give dignity to people who were denied their self-worth and their right to live. She chose to respond to a higher calling of service and to her conscience, at a time when so many were silent. She dared to go against the opinion of her own people. Her determination to protect and preserve the sanctity of life in the darkest hours of men’s life and her humane qualities to her fellow beings is a reminder of the moral choices that we should have the courage to make in times of crisis.
The kind wealthy lady not only had provided the refugees her land to camp in, but also provided food and clothing to the refugees. Every morning she used to walk to the camps with her 6-year old son clutching her fingers, accompanied by her servants who carried food and supplies to the refugees. The refugees could also go and visit the kind lady at her home. She used to make her six-year old son sit with the refugees and have his meal with them. The peaceful refugees slowly earned the confidence of local people and they also put in an effort to help them. After some time the assistance from Indian government and other agencies arrived. The refugees used to call the lady as ‘Ma Jee’ but did not know her name.
Slowly, the other areas around the first camp were filled up with the refugees and the total number of people in the camps grew to about 45,000 in number.
In the month of June, during the rainy season an epidemic broke out in the refugee camps. The lady was seen nursing and helping the sick. There was large number of dead among the young children. She along with the assistants and the local volunteers made arrangements for the burial and cremation as applicable for the dead refugees. Slowly, one side of the river became a cremation site and the other a graveyard. Nearly 3,500 people (many of them children) died in Ampati and the surrounding camps. These became amongst the largest refugee camps and were also where the largest number of refugees died. Amidst the tragedy of death in Ampati camp, there emerged a remarkable story of this noble woman with compassion, who tried her best to stand by the suffering humans.
After independence of Bangladesh, all the living refugees returned to Bangladesh and the kind lady along with the Garos bade a tearful goodbye to them. Working in those villages for collecting information from where the refugees went to Ampati, we could collect the names of about 800 people who died in Ampati, but the details of many newly born and very small children could not be ascertained. The number of 3,500 dead was obtained from the refugees, families of the dead and the local people of Ampati and surrounding areas.
Thirty-nine years after independence while inquiring about the kind lady in Meghalaya, I had the opportunity of meeting her then six-year old son, who told me that the name of the lady was Rawshan Ara Begum Sangma. She died in 2009. The son was none other than Dr Mukul Sangma, the present chief minister of Meghalaya, who used to be brought to the refugee camps and advised to eat with the refugee children to learn about human compassion. He informed me on the entire episode.
Bangladesh has honoured Rawshan Ara Begum Sangma with ‘Friend of Liberation War Honour’ on March 27, 2012, a belated effort to do justice to her glorious humanitarian effort and for her compassionate and humanitarian services. There still remains the urgent task to uncover significant, yet, forgotten contributions of private citizens to our struggle for independence. Only then can we truly honour such selfless acts of compassion and remarkable courage.
The Ampati graveyard and cremation site can hardly be recognised now. There is a requirement to construct a small memorial there for our new generations, to visit and know about the history of the camp, which may otherwise start to fade. We have a solemn obligation to our citizens who died in large numbers there.
Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir Bir Protik is a retired lieutenant colonel, freedom fighter, recipient of Swadhinata Padak and researcher on Liberation War.

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