My visits to both the Liberation War Museum and the Father of the Nation Museum were very moving experiences, and prompted me to find out more about the history of this period.
The war museum is on Segun Bagicha road, and has interesting displays of photographs and newspaper cuttings (in English as well as in Bangla), documenting the various efforts towards liberation by the people of Bangladesh, which culminated in the 1971 Liberation War. Some of the photos and exhibits (including human skulls) are quite visceral. The collection of photographs is stunning though. There is also footage of the 1971 concert, the first benefit concert of its kind, hosted by George Harrison et. al. to raise awareness of the genocide taking place in Bangladesh. I listened to a lovely piece of music by Ravi Shankar, the great Indian sitar maestro, who with Bangladeshi musician Ali Akbar Khan, had teamed up with Harrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Joan Baez and others for the concert, held in Madison Square Garden in New York. Joan Baez wrote a song called ‘Bangladesh’ and collected money through charity concerts. Allen Ginsberg visited the refugee camps in West Bengal and wrote ‘September on Jessore Road’ – see below. This was definitely one of the best ‘museum’ experiences I have had in a long time. (The Liberation War Museum website seems to have been suspended since I last logged in – not sure if it will be back. In the meantime, have a look here for more information, pictures, video clips etc.)
On the 26th March, Bangladeshis celebrate Independence Day, the date in 1971 when they took up arms against Pakistan. Thus began the Liberation War, which lasted till the 16th December 1971, and that date is celebrated as Victory Day. Anthony Mascarenhas (1928-1986) in Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood (1986), one of his two well-respected works on this subject, estimates that during the entire nine-month liberation struggle more than 1 million Bengalis may have died at the hands of the Pakistani Army. (I have read some reports that put that figure nearer to 3 million. Furthermore, it is estimated that close to 30 million people were internally displaced as a result of the war, and up to 10 million fled to India.)
Briefly, the immediate trigger for the war can be traced to the 1970 general elections. The Awami League (AL), a Bengali nationalist party led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Since the East had the larger population, this gave it an absolute majority in the national parliament. After West Pakistan failed to recognise the AL’s majority, Sheikh Mujib launched a secessionist uprising. The Pakistan Government responded with vicious military tactics, including the targeted murder of ‘intellectuals’ (including many Hindus) and mass rape. This eventually led to the intervention of the Indian army, and the new state of Bangladesh was declared independent on 16 December 1971.
Sheikh Mujib became the first President and then Prime Minister of Bangladesh. His AL government introduced a secular and democratic constitution in 1972. However, in December 1974, facing growing economic difficulties, the government declared a state of emergency and a month later amended the constitution, replacing parliamentary rule with an executive presidency, and providing for the introduction of one party rule. Sheikh Mujib assumed the role of President, turning the country into a personal dictatorship overnight. The Mujibist dictatorship was toppled when he was assassinated in August 1975 in a military coup.
Though his popularity had fallen precipitously by the time of his assassination, Sheikh Mujib is remembered affectionately by countless supporters as ‘Bangabondhu’ (Friend of Bengal) and also as ‘Father of the Nation’. He lived in Dhanmondi, not far from Lalmatia where I live, and I went to visit the house which is now the ‘Father of the Nation Museum’. In this house, he, his wife, children – except for two of his daughters, one of whom is Sheikh Hasina (now Prime Minister) – and members of their extended family were brutally murdered. It was a surprisingly peaceful house, despite the shocking violence that had occurred there. The day Bangabondhu was murdered, 15th August, is commemorated as National Mourning Day.
This is, admittedly, a rather simplistic summary of the history of this period. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the contextual complexity of events surrounding the Liberation War. I cannot profess to have engaged deeply with the web of historiography for this period, but as with any conflict there are multiple histories and perspectives. For example, for some, the word ‘Bangladeshi’, as a term to describe the people and culture of Bangladesh, was associated with General Ziaur Rahman and the Bangladesh National Party that he founded (see post 8): there were others in the country who preferred to speak of themselves as ‘Bengali’ rather than ‘Bangladeshi’. Many, though not all, of the latter were supporters of the Awami League, the party that fought for Bangladesh’s independence on the basis of a Bengali identity, one that overrode the Muslim identity that was the basis of Pakistan.
Other issues revolve around the criticism of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government in relation to its post-war economic and political policies. The treatment of the Hindu minority has been condemned, particularly in relation to the confiscation of property belonging to Bengali Hindus, who had fled the genocide. His government is criticised too in relation to its post-war dealings with the ethnic minorities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Following independence, they were hopeful of realising their right to self-determination, a measure of which they had enjoyed under British rule. Sheikh Mujib was unsympathetic (the Chakma king had sided with the Pakistanis during the war) and considered the request to be secessionist. (For more detail, see post 43.) Another issue on which not much is written is the retaliatory violence against Biharis, those Urdu-speaking people trapped in Bangladesh after the war – see post 57. Other commentators question the treatment of babies born to victims of rape (perpetrated by Pakistani soldiers): many were shipped overseas for adoption. There is a related narrative around the need to recognise the many roles played by women in the Liberation War, apart from the most commonly perceived role (at least until relatively recently) of women as victims of violence, or as mothers, wives and sisters. Similarly, there are many other lesser heard voices of the War e.g. those of rural farmers. Questions arise almost daily in the newspapers today in relation to accountability, war crimes and justice – or the perceived lack thereof. These, then, are just some of the multiple narrative strands of the 1971 conflict and its aftermath.
Postscript: Five of those convicted of the killing of Sheikh Mujib and his family were hanged on 28th January 2010. (See post 57.) On 31st January 2010, an article in the Daily Star titled ‘Thanking the ‘Friends of Bangladesh’ – Bangladesh Comes of Age’ by Asrar Chowdhury, summed up the world reaction to the genocide that was occurring in Bangladesh in 1971. He begins as follows with a quote: ‘“And the story of Bangladesh is an ancient one again made fresh”. Bangladesh by Joan Baez, ‘Friend of Bangladesh’, 1971’. The article continues as follows:
1971. 266 days. Three million lives. 7.83 lives per minute. An estimated 10 million dislocated in neighbouring India. Countless victims of brutalities and crimes against humanity. This is just the human price a nation paid for her freedom. This is just the human price a nation paid to write a ten letter word B-A-N-G-L-A-D-E-S-H.
As the green fields of East Pakistan became soaked in red that was soon to become Bangladesh, genocide was unleashed on innocent women and men. The entire world reacted. The Liberation War of Bangladesh became a Liberation War of the world’s conscience. This was the background to the response against one of the most brutal genocides of the last century.
Slowly and gradually resistance started in Bangladesh. And with this resistance started a response from the conscience of the world. They came from the East. They came from the West. Some used music as their weapon for Jagoron. Others used the ink of their pens. Leaders used their charisma to influence global opinion. Politicians, litterateurs, musicians, journalists and common men and women united for a common cause: Stop the Genocide in Bangladesh.
The article goes on to say that 40 years later, the state recalls the ‘Friends of Bangladesh’, who will be formally thanked on Victory Day 2010.
A small set of images relating to the events of 1971 follows. Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.
Click on image below and then on the top-left image (39 photographs). Enjoy!
Below is the text of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, September on Jessore Road, referred to above. Millions of Bangladeshis fled to India from the war at home. Ginsberg visited a refugee camp on Jessore Road, the road leading from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal to Jessore in Bangladesh. [Note: I had a link here earlier to a YouTube video presenting a Bengali interpretation of the poem (in song) by Moushimi Bhoumik. The video was set against some explicit images from that time. However, it has since been removed from YouTube.]
September On Jessore Road by Allen Ginsberg (1971)
Millions of babies watching the skies
Bellies swollen, with big round eyes
On Jessore Road–long bamboo huts
Noplace to shit but sand channel ruts
Millions of fathers in rain
Millions of mothers in pain
Millions of brothers in woe
Millions of sisters nowhere to go
One million aunts are dying for bread
One million uncles lamenting the dead
Grandfather millions homeless and sad
Grandmother millions silently mad
Millions of daughters walk in the mud
Millions of children wash in the flood
A million girls vomit & groan
Millions of families hopeless alone
Millions of souls nineteenseventyone
homeless on Jessore road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
Taxi September along Jessore Road
Oxcart skeletons drag charcoal load
Past watery fields thru rain flood ruts
Dung cakes on treetrunks, plastic-roof huts
Wet processions families walk
Stunted boys big heads don’t talk
Look bony skulls & silent round eyes
Starving black angels in human disguise
Mother squats weeping & points to her sons
Standing thin legged like elderly nuns
Small bodied hands to their mouths in prayer
Five months small food since they settled there
On one floor mat with small empty pot
Father lifts up his hands at their lot
Tears come to their mother’s eye
Pain makes mother Maya cry
Two children together in palmroof shade
Stare at me no word is said
Rice ration, lentils one time a week
Milk powder for warweary infants meek
No vegetable money or work for the man
Rice lasts four days eat while they can
Then children starve three days in a row
And vomit their next food unless they eat slow.
On Jessore road Mother wept at my knees
Bengali tongue cried mister please
Identity card torn up on the floor
Husband still waits at the camp office door
Baby at play I was washing the flood
Now they won’t give us any more food
The pieces are here in my celluloid purse
Innocent baby play our death curse
Two policemen surrounded by thousands of boys
Crowded waiting their daily bread joys
Carry big whistles & long bamboo sticks
To whack them in line They play hungry tricks
Breaking the line and jumping in front
Into the circle sneaks one skinny runt
Two brothers dance forward on the mud stage
The guards blow their whistles & chase them in rage
Why are these infants massed in this place
Laughing in play & pushing for space
Why do they wait here so cheerful & dread
Why this is the house where they give children bread
The man in the bread door yawns & cries out
Thousands of boys and girls take up his shout
Is it joy? is it prayer? “No more bread today”
Thousands of children at once scream “Hooray!”
Run home to tents where elders await
Messenger children with bread from the state
No bread more today! & and no place to squat
Painful baby, sick shit he has got
Malnutrition skulls thousands for months
Dysentery drains bowels all at once
Nurse shows disease card enterostrep
Suspension is wanting or else chlorostrep
Refugee camps in hospital shacks
Newborn lay naked on mother’s thin laps
Monkeysized week old rheumatic babe eye
Gastroenteritis blood poison thousands must die
September Jessore Road rickshaw
50,000 souls in one camp I saw
Rows of bamboo huts in the flood
Open drains, & wet families waiting for food
Border trucks flooded, food can’t get past,
American Angel machine please come fast!
Where is Ambassador Bunker today?
Are his helios machinegunning children at play?
Where are the helicopters of U.S. AID?
Smuggling dope in Bangkok’s green shade.
Where is America’s Air Force of Light?
Bombing North Laos all day and all night?
Where are the President’s Armies of Gold?
Billionaire navies merciful bold?
Bringing us medicine food and relief?
Napalming North Vietnam and causing more grief?
Where are our tears? Who weeps for the pain?
Where can these families go in the rain?
Jessore Road’s children close their big eyes
Where will we sleep when Our Father dies?
Whom shall we pray to for rice and for care?
Who can bring bread to this shit flood foul’d lair?
Millions of children alone in the rain!
Millions of children weeping in pain!
Ring O ye tongues of the world for their woe
Ring out ye voices for Love we don’t know
Ring out ye bells of electrical pain
Ring in the conscious of America’s brain
How many children are we who are lost
Whose are these daughters we see turn to ghost?
What are our souls that we have lost care?
Ring out ye musics and weep if you dare–
Cries in the mud by the thatch’d house sand drain
Sleeps in huge pipes in the wet shit-field rain
Waits by the pump well, Woe to the world!
Whose children still starve in their mother’s arms curled.
Is this what I did to myself in the past?
What shall I do Sunil Poet I asked?
Move on and leave them without any coins?
What should I care for the love of my loins?
What should we care for our cities and cars?
What shall we buy with our Food Stamps on Mars?
How many millions sit down in New York
& sup this night’s table on bone & roast pork?
How many millions of beer cans are tossed
In Oceans of Mother? How much does She cost?
Cigar gasolines and asphalt car dreams
Stinking the world and dimming star beams–
Finish the war in your breast with a sigh
Come taste the tears in your own human eye
Pity us millions of phantoms you see
Starved in Samsara on planet TV
How many millions of children die more
before our Good Mothers perceive the Great Lord?
How many good fathers pay tax to rebuild
Armed forces that boast the children they’ve killed?
How many souls walk through Maya in pain
How many babes in illusory pain?
How many families hollow eyed lost?
How many grandmothers turning to ghost?
How many loves who never get bread?
How many aunts with holes in their head?
How many sisters’ skulls on the ground?
How many grandfathers make no more sound?
How many fathers in woe
How many sons nowhere to go?
How many daughters nothing to eat?
How many uncles with swollen sick feet?
Millions of babies in pain
Millions of mothers in rain
Millions of brothers in woe
Millions of children nowhere to go