During the last one week, I was in Kolkata looking up old friends who worked with me in 1971. They were part of an amazing team which ran OXFAM’s large refugee relief operation which assisted about 600,000 men, women and children in many refugee camps in Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, West Dinajpur, Balurghat, Bongaon and Barasat.
On the evening of December 10th this year, I sat on the lawn of the Kenilworth Hotel, Little Russell Street, closed my eyes and remembered the same day in 1971. On the evening of December 10th, 1971, I was sitting on the same lawn in pitch darkness because at that time there was a blackout due to the ongoing war with Pakistan. I had a transistor radio with me and while trying to connect to the BBC World Service, I was very surprised to connect with the Pakistan radio news in English. I heard the newsreader say:
“Today, the Pakistan Air Force bombed the Calcutta telephone exchange and the Howrah Bridge is floating down the Hooghly River. Calcutta has been cut off from the rest of the country!”
It was very amusing as we knew that by that time the Pakistan Air Force based in East Pakistan had already been neutralized by the Indian Air Force.
My major concern in December 1971 was getting trucks of relief supplies through to the refugee camps. The roads in the border areas were full of military vehicles and military supplies. At the same time, because of the dangerous situation, we had to bring the very dedicated volunteers from different Gandhian organizations back from the camps to Calcutta. So, I had many headaches. Until the end of October 1971, we had no idea how long we would need to care for the refugees in the camps and we were always planning for a least 3 months in advance. Our urgent work in the months of October and November had been to supply blankets and warm clothing particularly in the much colder areas of the north of West Bengal and Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura.
The Freedom and Liberation of Bangladesh came much more quickly than we expected and then we were faced with other logistical challenges as Bangladeshis started going home and the refugee camps were closed down in an orderly way. We also needed to transfer all relief materials that were in our Calcutta godowns so that they could be put to good use inside Bangladesh. We knew that there were millions of people who had been displaced in Bangladesh but had not left the country and their condition was very bad, and so, OXFAM was able to transfer supplies and funds to organizations like CARE and CARITAS. As 1971 drew to a close, I found that I was in trouble with the accounts department in OXFAM’s Head Office. Some months earlier, the volunteer doctors in the refugee camps and the volunteers from Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, Orissa, had told me that they thought that the provision of harmoniums and tablas would, in their opinion, be more helpful than a lot of the medicine. They wanted to bring some smiles and laughter which would make people feel better. I needed to explain how I had authorized the purchase of about 50 harmoniums and 50 sets of tablas and paid for them out of the medicine budget line! In the end, I obtained a medical certificate from a senior doctor congratulating me for improving the health of people through music.
From my archives of treasured papers, I see that on this day before Victory Day, December 15th, 1971, I attended a meeting called by Bangladesh government officials in Calcutta to discuss the future needs of Bangladesh. The telex that I sent to OXFAM that day said: ‘BDG (Bangladesh Government) EXPECTS AND HOPES MAJORITY REFUGEES IN INDIA RETURN BY END JAN. ESTIMATE IN ADDITION TO THESE 10 MILLION, THERE ARE A FURTHER 20 MILLION HOMELESS IN BANGLADESH. FOR ALL THESE PEOPLE FOODGRAIN REQUIREMENT ESTIMATE HALF MILLION TONS PER MONTH. IMMEDIATE REQUIREMENT VEHICLES, 1,000 TRUCKS, 500 BUSES. MOST SHELTER MATERIALS SUCH AS BAMBOOS REPORTED DESTROYED BY PAKISTAN ARMY’…
Fast forward to 2012. The Government of Bangladesh has made a unique and wonderful gesture by honouring and thanking foreigners who contributed in different ways during the Liberation War. When OXFAM as an organization and I, as an individual, received the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in March this year, I thought of the hundreds of young men and women who worked as volunteers in the refugee camps on a rotation basis. They came from the Calcutta and Bombay Medical Colleges and large numbers of volunteers were sent by Gandhian organizations in Orissa and Gujarat. Narayan Desai was the main organizer and Jayaprakash Narayan’s oratory and encouragement of the youth was very powerful. It is very right and fitting that both these remarkable men have also been honoured by the Government of Bangladesh. It is also very important that the Bangladesh youth of today learn and understand the detailed and painful history of how their country came into being.
Julian Francis, who has been associated with the development of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation, received the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ from the Bangladesh Government in March, 2012.