Bangladesh has instituted Bangladesh Freedom Honour to pay homage to the people who are not Bangladeshi citizens but actively supported the cause in 1971. As a part of this initiative, 129 international personalities and institutions have been named to receive the honour.
The list includes 47 Indian individuals and institutions, 11 Russians, 22 US citizens, 14 UK citizens and institutions, 4 Japanese, 4 Germans and others from countries as diverse as Nepal and Vietnam.
Some of the institutions that have been included in the list are the BBC, Oxfam, the International Red Cross, Indian radio the Indian army and the entire people of India. Many personalities have been awarded including the head of states and governments like Pierre Trudeau (Canada), Willy Brandt (W. Germany), the King of Bhutan Jigme Singhey Wangchuk as well as Nikolai Podgorny and other state leaders of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
A significant awardee was William S. Ouderland who was the only international person who was given a gallantry award for his role in the Bangladesh 1971.
Ouderland came to Bangladesh in 1970 to work at the Bata shoe factory located in Tongi industrial area. At the early stages of the war, he worked in ferrying information important about the Pak army to the Bangladesh forces to let them know what was going on. Later, he began to train the guerrilla including in the premises of the Bata shoe factory using his experience as a World War II veteran.
This was a risky venture but he acted out of a sense responsibility he felt towards the people he considered his own. Subsequently, he came in close contact with Major Haider and other guerrilla leaders of Sector 2 of the war theatre. His activities became known after the war and the people of Bangladesh welcomed him as a special hero.
The background of Ouderland and the mentality of Europeans like him
Why many foreigners became ardent supporters and made contributions to the Bangladesh liberation cause and why it became such a popular issue is an interesting exploration.
Ouderland’s life is remarkable because he actively participated in a war that was not based on his national identity making him a true international like the famous partisans of the international brigade of the Spanish civil war. The Spanish civil war was a major conflict fought in Spain from 17 July 1936 to 1 April 1939. The war began after a group of right-wing military leaders rebelled against the elected government of the Second Spanish republic which led to decades of military dictatorship in Spain under Gen. Franco. Many foreigners came and joined the international Brigade which fought against the Fascists but they were defeated.
“I recollected and resumed in myself the experiences of my youth in Europe, and I felt that I should get the world informed of what was happening in Bangladesh”. (Ouderland)
Ouderland came from a poor working class background in Europe and these people had suffered a great deal during and before the World War II. They had felt helpless as Hitler invaded country after country and the pain of losing independence was something Ouderland know firsthand as his motherland was run over by Nazi Germany. Europe in particular was also greatly affected by the Nazi-Fascist alliance under Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini. Although people had rallied against them, it wasn’t enough and ultimately many had suffered as the German military marched on other people and lands.
Ouderland was not just an ordinary citizen but one who was born poor in Europe and had to start working even before he was 18-year- old shining shoes. It gives an indicator of his class and its sensibilities which had sympathy for other sufferers and rage against the repressors.
It is important to note that Ouderland was not the only European who was involved in the war but many others were part of the movement though not militarily like him. One remembers the French intellectual and radical Andre Malraux as an example whose words and writings brought international attention to the Bangladesh war efforts. Malraux’s remark that he would go and fight in the Bangladesh war is indicative of the liberal and radical European mind.
Ouderland was not an intellectual but a foot soldier but shared the same spirit. That he was a soldier with war experience must have made it easy for him to join the fight without hesitation. As an ex-guerrilla he also must have felt a kinship with the Bangladeshi guerrillas and took advantage of his nationality to clandestinely join the fight.
Many people were also shocked by the images of the war victims which seemed like a déjà vu of the World War II horrors and he felt compelled to do something to both protest the carnage and also aid the victims. He has remarked that recording the horrors was something very important to him because it also showed how much suffering had been caused. By becoming a witness he had fulfilled all the roles possible to him. That was his great achievement.
The Western attitude and 1971
Apart from Europe which had a high number of Bangladesh supporters and where in most cases the governments also backed the cause, the US was a different situation because while the people were pro-Bangladesh, the government was pro-Pakistani. The student movement there opposed the Vietnam War going on in which the US was involved. They and the media had largely succeeded in turning the tides of public opinion against the war. It was on such a fertile ground that the supporters of the Bangladesh war worked. Many of the supporters were from the Democrat Party which was in general more liberal than the ruling Republican Party to which President Nixon belonged.
Most journalists were also supporters of Bangladesh and to this is credited the great surge of global public opinion in Bangladesh’s favour. It should however be mentioned that out of their enthusiasm and sympathy, there was over reporting, misleading reporting, exaggeration and occasionally untruthful reports. International media was biased towards Bangladesh and this was responsible for this kind of focus.
International politics also played a role in organising supporters. For example, almost all Muslim countries supported Pakistan as it was their supporter in the fight against Israel and so almost all Jewish people including media and politicians of Jewish origins supported the Bangladesh cause. In several interviews, Bangladeshi activists have mentioned that Israel had offered support to actively aid the war effort but they were turned down by the Mujibnagar government who didn’t want to antagonise the wider Muslim world and community.
To the international warriors like Ouderland’s participation was a way of affirming the spirit of freedom and liberalism. Although not a Bangladeshi he fought like one. In the end he was not just a Dutch-Australian but a Bangladeshi too.
Afsan Chowdhury is the Executive Editor of bdnews24.com.