On Mar 21 evening I was privileged to attend a seminar at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS) on ‘Bangladesh’s Graduation from LDCs: Opportunities, Challenges and Imperatives’. Understandably there was a certain amount of celebration in the air, but with the very learned speakers and analysts at the seminar, there was an attempt to put the future challenges in perspective. We were most fortunate to be able to hear the views and advice of many distinguished guests from the United Nations HQ and Bangladesh, the European Union, the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the Policy Research Institute, BIISS and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The chief guest for the opening session was Bangladesh’s honourable foreign minister, and Bangladesh’s foreign secretary chaired the working session and summed up the discussions.

Although the Seminar was mostly looking at Opportunities and Challenges that lie ahead for Bangladesh, I could not help but remember the challenges that Bangladesh faced immediately after the Liberation War.  I dipped into my archives of that time and found an editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal published one day after Victory Day, Dec 16. The editorial of Dec 17, 1971 was entitled “Bengal’s Dim Future……”. I recalled that only two days earlier on Dec 15, 1971, I had attended a meeting in Calcutta called by Government of Bangladesh officials to discuss the needs of Bangladesh and how international NGOs such as Oxfam could contribute. The participants of the meeting were reminded that in addition to the 10 million refugees that were expected to return to Bangladesh by the end of February at the latest, there were an estimated 20 million Bangladeshis internally displaced. Immediate needs we were told were 500,000 tonnes of foodgrains per month, 1000 trucks, 500 buses and bamboos for shelter construction as the Pakistan Army had destroyed most shelter material and thousands of villages, burnt by the Pakistanis, needed to be rebuilt.

When I drove overland from Calcutta in late January 1972 there were lines and lines of jubilant Bangladeshis trudging home but many with a certain amount of apprehension regarding what would they find when they got back to their homes. By March 1972, when there was a more accurate picture of the needs for Bangladesh’s survival, I met much older UN experts who were of the opinion that unless the food imports materialised and the infrastructure was repaired quickly, they doubted if Bangladesh could survive as a state. Before Bangladesh could make much headway, there was a devastating famine in 1974, and so in 2018 we can reflect on the great progress that the country has made in food production and the amazing strides that Bangladesh has taken in economic activities, particularly in the very successful readymade garments industry.

The last paragraph of that editorial of Dec 17, 1971 read as follows:

“In other words, Bangladesh is not a victory for anyone. Whether it will remain a continuing source of tragedy will depend very heavily upon the ability of richer nations to submerge their own differences and help with reconstruction efforts. If the events of the last few weeks are any indication, the prospects for that are not terribly bright either.”

It is not often that one can witness the birth of a nation but I have been fortunate a passenger on and an observer of the whole journey. It has been an amazing experience and the hardworking people of Bangladesh should be immensely proud of their achievement. Mar 26, 2018 is an Independence Day to remember in a very special way. The people of Bangladesh have ensured that there is not a “Dim Future” for Bangladesh.

Julian Francishas worked for many years in Bangladesh with poverty alleviation programmes and disability related programmes. In recognition of his work in 1971, the Government of Bangladesh bestowed on him ‘The Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in 2012 and in July 2018 he was honoured with the Citizenship of Bangladesh.

One Response to “Witnessing the birth of a nation and remembering the journey”

  1. Uday Sankar Das

    Reminiscing our days in 1971 helping the refugees in Oxfam”s operations in various camps in West Bengal. Thanks very Julian.

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