A trip to the Indian border encapsulates the history of Bangladesh since independence in 1971, and even takes you back to the days of the Partition in 1948. It is now amongst the most relaxed borders in the world, but the evidence around about shows that this was not always the case. There are fortifications and watchtowers. It is quite easy to imagine the soldiers of the Indian and Pakistani armies confronting each other, eyeball to eyeball, with their guns at the ready. The images of the Partition are of the massacres in the Punjab and along the borders of what became India and West Pakistan. I do not remember ever seeing an account of what happened along the borders of India and East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known. I assume, possibly wrongly, that there were massacres here as well.
There were certainly massacres in 1971 when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the campaign for the independence of Bangladesh. In 1971, the Pakistani military dictatorship had just collapsed and there had been elections. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the Prime Minister and Sheikh Mujibur’s independence party swept the board in East Pakistan. The Pakistani army responded to this by unleashing their might against those who called for independence. Sheikh Mujibur and thousands of his supporters were murdered. There were massacres. Millions fled across the borders, such as the one that I visited, into India. There was a humanitarian crisis.
The response from the West was not led by President Nixon nor the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath. It needed two musicians, Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, to organise a Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Gardens, New York. The record sales raised millions of dollars for the relief of the refugees. Such is the power of music.
There was one response to the brutality of the Pakistani army that was hardly reported in the West. The people of Bangladesh, especially here in Lalmonirhat District, took up arms. It was then that the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, decided to send the Indian army across the border in support of their rebellion. And the Indian army crossed the border at places like those that I visited. So it was that, 45 years ago, Bangladesh became a nation.
There is a coda to this story. One of our students at UttarBangla University College is writing a doctoral thesis on the freedom fighters of Lalmonirhat. The Guru Nanak Library has been trying to assist him in his research, but there is no source material He is going to have to go out and interview people. There is an urgency about this because the youngest of the freedom fighters are now in their late sixties. If these stories are not recorded, they will be lost, and if they are lost a part of the history of Bangladesh will be lost with them.
It is remarkable that a few days ago, I was able to cross that border without a passport, drink coffee, chat with the guards, and take photographs. Yet 45 years ago, this was a place that witnessed a humanitarian crisis and the birth pangs of a nation.