As coordinator of the refugee relief programme assisting 600,000 Bangladeshis, I was sitting in my OXFAM Refugee Relief Office near Park Circus, Calcutta on Feb 21, 1972 when I was informed by a very alarmed office messenger that a few hundred men, women and children were outside waiting for me and were shouting my name. Had they come from one of the camps to make a complaint, I wondered.
I went outside and the spokesman of the group of nearly 500 people told me that they had decided to start for home on an auspicious day and proceeded to explain to me the historical importance of ‘Ekushey’ and that year was the 20th anniversary of the day when, because of the Bangla mother language, people had lost their lives due to Pakistani police firing. “Ekushey is one of the main reasons we have our own country now,” I was told. The refugees had come from a camp quite near Calcutta called Digberia.
The organisers of this large group of refugees reminded me that they were all so grateful that, during the monsoon months of 1971, I had arranged to provide harmoniums and tablas in all refugee camps which were connected to OXFAM. They said that this music had not only helped to improve the health of all inhabitants of the camps, especially the children, but also helped them keep the Bengali music, culture and language very much alive all the time. With this they felt, I was told, that they were always going to have a better future when they were able to return home.
They explained that they had come to say goodbye and to thank OXFAM for everything that had been done to assist them. One of them had carved a vase made of bamboo and some woolen flowers on wire stems had been placed in it. It is a gift that I have treasured for many years.
My visitors that day had heard that I had a couple of weeks earlier, gone by road to Dhaka and so asked me to tell them in detail about my journey and what I had seen. I was therefore able to prepare them for the worst while hoping, against all odds, for the best. In my own mind, the spirit of Bangladeshis like the ones who came to see me on this day 46 years ago is how Bangladesh has progressed and developed so much since then. The sky is the limit and so much more is possible.
This is how I remember ‘Ekushey 1972’.
In March 1971, I was working as an agricultural volunteer on a Gandhian related poverty alleviation project in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, in the villages worst hit by the Bihar Famine of the late 1960s.
I had been in India for three years as an agricultural volunteer. I know that I should/could have contributed more, but I was happy that the ‘dairy farm’, with dairy cows that I organized at a Gandhian children’s school in 1968/69 was going on well (and it is still going well in 2018!).
Whenever I was at my 1st floor flat in Gaya –the hottest (up to 50° C) and dirtiest town in India in 1971- in the evening, I went on to the roof of the building to try to get the best reception on my transistor radio, which could work on both mains electricity and batteries, which was just as well as the electricity was a rare commodity in Gaya. And on Mar 7 or 8, 1971, I heard about Bangabandhu’s call to the Bangladeshis. The radio reception was not good, so I headed down to the centre of the town (Gaya) where a number of Bengali businesses and families were situated and they always tuned into the BBC Bengali language news. Different Bengali families, some with East Bengal/Bangladesh connections were very concerned. And I got the full English translation from my Bengali friends who were very emotional and at the same time being very confident that a new country, Bangladesh, was about to be born.
As a ‘bideshi’ of only 25 yrs of age at the time, I was amazed with what I had heard and the content of everything about the expected independence of Bangladesh being anticipated and my Bengali friends explained about the importance of Ekushey and how badly treated the Bengalis of East Pakistan had been by the Urdu speaking West Pakistanis. Some days later, through the airmail post, I received the Guardian Weekly from the UK which also detailed the tension which was taking place, particularly in Dhaka. I also spent some hours on successive days discussing the possible future scenario on Bangladesh with my next door neighbour, a retired civil engineer, who, more than a year later, was to become my father-in-law! My future father-in-law had been born in Patna, his father having migrated from Munshiganj in the early 1900s.
Little did I know at the time that within a couple of months I would be part of a huge humanitarian operation caring for nearly 10 million women, men and children in over 900 refugee camps. They had fled over the borders from Bangladesh fleeing from the brutal genocide perpetrated by the Pakistan Army, their civilian officers and local collaborators. And, of course, in March 1971 in Bihar, India, I had no idea I would be meeting – in January 1972 – the man who made that amazing Mar 7 speech, Bangabandhu.
All these events and activities all those years ago significantly shaped my life which, since then, has been most fascinating, interesting and rewarding.