Fifty years ago, London played a key role in the formation of the state of Bangladesh and in a recent walking tour of three key London sites during the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, this was highlighted well, as we moved between the main sites.
We started the walking tour of course from Trafalgar Square where many of the demonstrations 50 years ago ended with the demands of stopping the genocide, releasing Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, and the recognition of the new state of Bangladesh.
Here we heard the recollection of Habib Rahman, then a young student at UCL, enthralled by the mass demonstrations at Trafalgar Square and places around it where the campaigning had been organized. At times, it felt like the whole community had turned out to these demos when the community could not have been more than an estimated 100,000 strong in the UK, and mostly young men, and would have been subsumed within figures for Pakistani within the UK.
Now before Liberation, many of the Indian restaurants run by Bengalis in Central West London were often the locations where Bengali nationalist met, ate, and discussed the politics of “back home” during the 1960s in establishments like the Ganges Restaurant along Gerrard St, W1. It was run by Tasadduq Ahmed, a secular progressive student political activist in Assam and Bengal from the 1940’s now in political exile in London. He had also served as a journalist in East Pakistan for the Observer and Sangbad and was involved in the underground left movement.
The Ganges restaurant became the meeting point of the left and cultural activists and frequented by left figures like Michael Foot, Peter Shore, journalists like Christopher Hitchens, Paul Foot from the Guardian and Liberty. Tariq Ali was also a regular there during his student days and has fond memories not only of the talk but the food of the day.
It was also from the Ganges that Tasadduq Ahmed published the Desher Dak newspaper. So not surprisingly, it was also frequented by many from Bengali politics of the left passing through London, like Moulana Bashani, Shaheed Shawhyam, and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and, it is even said, by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto during the 1960s.
During the Liberation War itself, 24 Pembridge Gardens in Notting Hill Gate became a major centre for the campaigns for the liberation of Bangladesh before becoming the first embassy of the new state of Bangladesh in the UK and abroad.
From here, Justice Abu Syeed Chowdhury headed the campaigns in the UK. He was appointed as the vice-chancellor of the University of Dhaka in 1969. In 1971, while in Geneva, he resigned from the post as a protest against the genocide in East Pakistan by the Pakistan army. From Geneva he went to London, UK and became the special envoy of the provisional Mujibnagar Government.
An umbrella organization, The Council for the People's Republic of Bangladesh in the UK, was formed on April 24, 1971 in Coventry, UK, by the expatriate Bengalis, and a five-member steering committee of the council was elected by them. He was to become the first High Commissioner for the People's Republic of Bangladesh in London from August 1, 1971 to 8 January 1972 when the premises became the first embassy of Bangladesh from money raised by Bangladeshis in the UK.
24 Pembridge Gardens is currently known as the Bangladesh Centre and has just recently been completely refurbished and opened again on December 19, 2021.
And then there was of course, immediately after the Liberation war ended on the 16th of December 2021, the visit of Sheikh Mujib to London before he returned to Dhaka, and the newly formed state of Bangladesh. He was put up by the British government at the Claridges Hotel in Mayfair between the 8th to 10th of January 1972, where he held a famous press conference before going back to Dhaka on an RAF plane.
During those two days, he met all those who he needed to establish a political relationship, from the PM Edward Heath MP and the opposition leader of the day Harold Wilson. The mystery is what the Pakistani authorities did with him between their surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971 to January 7, 1972 when they released him to go back via London. One thing it certainly helped was the recognition of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh by the British government on February 4, 1972.
So whilst the Bangladeshi probashi ( known as Londoni’s as well in Bangladesh) in the UK were not killed or abused as many in Bangladesh were during the Liberation War, they did assist in getting the new country recognized by the UK government and the release of Sheikh Mujib by lobbying successfully their MPs and other parliamentarians on the world stage.
And while the genocidal claims are still outstanding -- this campaign and argument is still being heard in the UK and beyond -- the probashi in the UK played a small but key role in the formation of Bangladesh at key moments from London.
Murad Qureshi is a former member of the London Assembly and chair of the Stop the War Coalition.
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