There are few who do not know of the voice of the liberation movement - Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra - and the crucial role they played during 1971. Every family in occupied Bangladesh has a story of huddling around a run-down radio, breathlessly waiting to hear the real news of the war trickling towards them over the airwaves. The brave men and women who toiled day and night to bring these words of hope to the masses of East Bengal have now been recognised as ‘Shobdo Shoinik’. Kamal Lohani, news editor of Shadhin Bangla Betar, speaks to Dhaka Tribune’s Shuprova Tasneem about those turbulent times and the efforts that went into their warfare of words
Dhaka during the beginning of the war
On March 23, the executive body of the East Pakistan Journalists’ Union took a decision that we will no longer print any news of the authority of martial law and the Pakistan army. Their anger against this decision was made obvious when they shelled Press Club on the first night of the crackdown in March, during a time when none of us really believed that this institution could be attacked. Renowned journalist Foyez Ahmed was taking shelter there and was injured by splinters. He used to bring out a weekly paper called Shoraj that played an incredible role that most of us have forgotten - it was shut down after being the only paper to report on the March 19 revolt by jawans at Joydevpur cantonment, that too on the front page, with a heading that paraphrased Chairman Mao - Bidroho nay shommoto (revolution is justified).
I was working at the Dainik Purba Desh and after March 25, the telephone and teleprinter lines were cut, telegrams were stopped and postal services were suspended – so how could we get the paper out? After a few days, we were curtly summoned and informed that communications would not be restored but the papers must come out. It was the new age of the army, and we had no choice. We filled our pages with ISPR press releases, reprinted old adverts and created the perfect contradiction - a newspaper with no news! Not even an editorial was possible. Later on we tried to get around martial law regulations - for example, instead of writing about the killings in a certain place, we would print details of where a milad was happening – but even that was often difficult to write.
The creation of Shadhin Bangla Biplobi Betar Kendra
On 26 March, Shadhin Bangla Biplobi Betar Kendra was created and began transmission from Kalughat radio station. But when Ziaur Rahman was going to announce independence on behalf of Bangabandhu, he argued that the word ‘Biplobi’ had to be dropped. There could be two reasons behind this – one is that the term ‘biplob’ (revolution) is not acceptable to army people, the other is that we were engaging in a war, not a revolution. However I don’t think he had the level of political education to object on the latter ground, so he probably demanded the word be dropped from his position as an army man.
I was not part of the station then, I only joined when they resumed transmission from May in Kolkata, after Kalughat was bombed on March 30.
The road to India
By April I had realised it would not be possible to stay in Dhaka any longer and on May 7 morning, I left for Comilla, crossing the Buriganga with 11-12 others. We eventually crossed the border at Dharmanagar, went to Agartala and later took a train into Kolkata. Around 22 May, I went to the Bangladesh Mission there and ran into an old acquaintance, Aminul Haq Badshah.
He took me to a small flat in Ballygunge, handed me a huge Turkish towel and said “from now on, this is your bed, your towel, your blanket and pillow. You will stay here and from May 25, when Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra begins transmitting again, they have decided to put you in charge of news.”
Of course I agreed. If you are part of a revolutionary radio, you should be able and willing to do everything, whether it is sewing shoes or reciting on the airwaves.
Setting up station
At that time, it was mainly people from Dhaka Betar in Kolkata who set up the 50 kilowatt medium wave transmission, and we prepared to launch on 25 May – the birthday of rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam.
But at the time we really had nothing. Just a recording machine in a tiny room of a two storey house – we chose the middle room to try and minimise sounds from outside. There was no AC and we had to close all windows while recording. We didn’t even have spare pens and paper at first! I wrote the news bulletin in both English and Bangla, and I still remember how on the first day, I wrote the news in the margins of newspapers and it had to be read from there. There were no tables and chairs, and artist Kamrul Hassan suggested I just sit on the floor, Shantiniketan style, and get to writing. Of course all this was acquired over time, but in the beginning it was very basic.
Reporting news from an inaccessible country
We mainly listened to BBC, Voice of America and Akashbani, and also kept local papers to pick up Muktijuddho related news. We even monitored Australian, Japanese and Chinese radio, as well as meetings held in public places by members of the legislative and national assemblies, and received some general news from people who moved in and out of Bangladesh, especially later on during the war.
After a while we had proper reporters and journalists join us and it became a good news department. We even introduced an Urdu section later – we thought it was crucial for Urdu speaking people in Bengal, as well as Pakistani jawans (if our content reached them) to see a true representation of the facts of the war and the reasons behind our struggle.
It wasn’t possible for us to report from the field - there were plenty of security risks. We were so closed off from information that I did not even hear the news of my father’s death, and that of a younger brother of mine. I remember veteran journalist Nirmol Sen (from Dainik Pakistan) giving me the news while we were on a rickshaw, and I didn’t say a word. He was very surprised by my calm reaction but my logic was – so many thousands of fathers and brothers are getting killed, so what can I say about my loss?
The voice of hope
For a lot of people within besieged Bangladesh, we were the only way to know what was happening. We knew how important our transmissions were for them, and we would hear back from people who would travel in and out of Bangladesh, and the guerrillas we would sometimes cross paths with. My wife and youngest daughter were still in Dhaka, and they would shelter freedom fighters sometimes – and we would get information from them as well. So very early on, we realised that for people living in fear in a country under attack, the only words of inspiration and the hope of a better future were coming from Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra.
We knew we had to continue transmissions no matter what, despite two occasions where this became difficult. One was when CPI-M called a 72 hour strike. However, we used the information provided to us by freedom fighters - things like strategic places of attack, the damage done, what weapons were used etc - and we created 27 bulletins – three pieces of news over three days, in three languages. Those who listened to us in Bangladesh were counting every day and every moment, and we could not let them think that Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra had been attacked or shut down. It was our duty to keep broadcasting, keep up people’s spirits and continue the war effort.
The second occasion for trouble was in the fifth or sixth month of the war, when a group of musicians at the radio decided to submit a memorandum to Prime Minister Tajuddin asking for designations and salary structures, and they actually wanted to go on strike over their demands. Most of us were completely against this and we continued transmissions. We were the Liberation War efforts radio station – we didn’t need these things as long as we were able to eat, sleep and work for our nation. In almost all recent revolutions of the world, the radio or voice of the movement would be embedded with the freedom fighters and travel with them. We were living in a city like Kolkata with all basic necessities - so why worry about designations? Our work should involve everything, from sweeping floors to writing news.
Later on the government did create a salary structure and designations, which was an incredible thing to have during those times. But for those of us who were progressive and believed in the cause, it was very hard to accept these unnecessary demands.
We monitored the radio wavelengths the entire time, especially after India officially entered the war on December 3, and on the 15th or 16th morning, we found the wavelength where Pakistani General Niazi and Indian General Aurora, who happened to be batchmates, were talking. It was uncanny to hear them chatting so normally yet discussing something so incredible - the surrender at Race Course Maidan at 4.30pm on December 16.
I wrote the announcement of independence and it was the only news that went out that afternoon, because what other news could matter? Interestingly enough, that same morning a poem written by my wife - Dhakay shadhinotar shurjo - was also broadcast. Eminent cultural personality Syed Hasan Imam really wanted to make the announcement because he had read the first ever news and wanted to read the last one too, but the routine was set for another junior announcer and we wanted to give him this chance of a lifetime. Poor Hasan Imam was quite sad about this and left.
But it didn’t quite work. People who read news do it in a very normal voice, but there is no modulation involved and the announcement contained more emotive language. Ultimately everyone agreed that it would be best if I read it. It was an incredible moment in my life, but I felt very bad for not having allowed Hasan Imam to read it.
Right after the announcement, we played the song - “Bijoy nishan urche oi, urche Banglar ghore ghore”. While I was writing the news, Shahidul Islam was sitting in another studio writing that song, Sujeyo Shyam was composing it and Ajit Ray was practicing. They finished writing and composing in 20 minutes, rehearsed and sang the song live on radio - it was created right then and there. I think it is an incredible moment in the history of the Betar and a tribute to their patriotism and their commitment to the cause.
Journalism: then and now
From March 1 to March 25, every single line we journalists wrote was against the Pakistani army and expressed the revolutionary spirit of the people. Journalists in East Pakistan played a huge role in defying many obstacles and bravely going forward with writing the truth, even under martial law. We answered Bangabandhu’s call and took what was almost an oath to write everything in the favour of the people of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu was able to feel the pulse of the people and knew how to reach inside every single person and express our hopes and spirits through his words. He understood the people, and the people understood him, and ordinary people in Bangladesh, in their lungis and their dhutis, fought under his leadership against a powerful army like Pakistan’s and forced them to surrender.
So now it truly hurts to be a citizen of an independent country with countless daily newspapers and new journalists, and watch them fall prey to power politics. Newspapers are divided between those for, or against, the government. This state of events came about especially under the patronisation of Ziaur Rahman, and we slowly allowed communalism to seep into even our newspapers, especially under the influence of Jamaat. What is the point of writing about the government and the opposition, but not the people? I believe journalism that is patronised by power and attracted to power to be nothing but yellow journalism.