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OP-ED: When Bangabandhu was heard

  • Published at 03:12 am March 7th, 2021
sheikh mujibur rahman newsweek cover
A Newsweek cover from 1971 featuring the Father of the Nation MUJIB100 PHOTO ARCHIVE

Memories of listening to the historical speech on the radio, 50 years ago

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, and at the age of 25 years I was wondering what I was going to do for the rest of my life. 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, but I was not sure where my life was going to lead me.

Whenever I was at my 1st floor flat in Gaya -- the hottest (up to 50C) 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 electricity was a rare commodity in Gaya. 

On March 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 Bangla language news. 

Different Bengali families, some with East Bengal/Bangladesh connections, were very concerned. My excited Bengali friends gave me a detailed English translation of Bangabandhu’s speech. My friends were very emotional, but at the same time were very confident that a new country, Bangladesh, was about to be born. One of the Bengalis ran a “mishti dokan,” and so many different sweets were distributed.  

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 the Language Movement and the importance of Ekushey, which had just passed in the previous month, and how badly the Bengalis of East Pakistan had been treated 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 of 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, in fact, been born in Patna, his father having migrated from Munshiganj in the early 1900s. 

Little did I know at that time, that within a couple of months, I would be part of a huge humanitarian operation caring for 600,000 Bangladesh refugees out of nearly 10 million women, men, and children in over 900 refugee camps in the border areas of India. 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 March 7 speech, Bangabandhu. 

All these events and activities all those years ago significantly shaped my life, which has been most fascinating, interesting, and rewarding.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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