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OP-ED: Remembering Pohela Boishakh of 1971

  • Published at 05:37 am April 14th, 2021
pohela boishakh
DU students painting masks on the occasion of Pohela Boishakh MEHEDI HASAN

Noboborsho teaches us the diversity of our beautiful country

I was first introduced to Pohela Boishakh by the Bengali community in Gaya, Bihar, India, where I lived and worked in the late 1960s. If Songkranti brings the year to a close, Pohela Boishakh on April 14 is a new beginning. 

Bengali or Bangla New Year is a relatively “new” celebration, but “Songkranti,” or in Thailand, “Songkran,” goes back millennia. It comes from the Sanskrit, “Sankranta” and means “a move or change.” It is, I understand, related to the zodiac cycle and, of course, any point in the circle is both a beginning and an end. In northern India, for instance, April is the beginning of spring when the trees start to bud and bloom and the hibernating animals come out to find food, so, a new beginning. So, for the ancient Indian people, April was a sign of new life and marked the beginning of a new year. That is why they observed (some still do) their New Year’s Day on April 13

In 1971, while refugee camps were being hurriedly set up in the border areas of India and Bangladesh, Indians living near the border shared the special foods of that day with the families that had fled in fear from Bangladesh. The singing of Tagore songs about Pohela Boishakh gradually brought a few smiles to the faces of the refugee families.

At the same time The New York Times in its issue of April 14, 1971 had a news item by Sydney Schanberg with the heading “Pakistan Calls for Execution of Top Rebels-Scorched Earth Plan to Crush E. Pakistan Economy is Reported.” Written from Agartala, Sydney Schanberg had visited a number of villages in what is now Bangladesh. He wrote: “This correspondent, who has just completed a four-day trip along the border and inside East Pakistan, saw Pakistani soldiers burning villages to deny the resistance forces cover or hiding places. As the smoke from the thatch and bamboo huts billowed up on the outskirts of the city of Comilla, circling vultures descended on the bodies of peasants, already being picked apart by dogs and crows.”

Sydney Schanberg went on to say: “There is no way of knowing how many of East Pakistan’s 75 million Bengalis the army has killed, but authoritative reports from many sources agree that the figure is at least in the tens of thousands. Some report it much higher.”

“However, several members of the East Pakistan independence movement’s high command have survived and have formed a cabinet. They include Tajuddin Ahmed, second-in-command to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League took the steps for independence that brought West Pakistan’s military crackdown.”

“The army, now consisting entirely of West Pakistani troops, has killed students, intellectuals, professors, engineers, doctors, and others of leadership calibre -- whether they were directly involved with the nationalist movement or not.”

Footnote

This was a look back on April 14, 1971. Years later, after coming to Bangladesh and enjoying many Pohela Boishakh occasions, I have always looked forward to tasting the special foods of the day, especially panta bhat and fried illish, always accompanied by different types of bhorta.

The pandemic this year makes it a very quiet one. But it is usually such a very special day with the colours, the new clothes, the music, the wonderful food, and everyone wishing each other Shubho Noboborsho.

As the country celebrates Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, the concept of secularism and respect for all religions has been coming under attack by brainwashed followers of Hefazat. Therefore, it is even more vital and important to celebrate, with loud voices, all aspects of religious and cultural diversity that are present in this beautiful country.

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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