Background to the war:
In August 1947, the Partition (division) of British India gave birth to two new states; a secular (non-religious) state named India and an Islamic state named Pakistan. But Pakistan was made up of two geographically and culturally separate areas to the east and the west of India. The western zone was popularly (and for a period of time, also officially) called 'West Pakistan' and the eastern zone (modern-day Bangladesh) was initially termed 'East Bengal' and later, 'East Pakistan'. Although the population of the two zones was close to equal, political power was concentrated in West Pakistan with East Pakistan being exploited economically, and discriminated against politically, linguistically and culturally.
In East Pakistan, there was growing tension between the local Bengali-speakers and the Urdu-speaking migrants, who were seen as being the collaborators (allies) of the increasingly unpopular Pakistani regime. In February 1952, students protesting against Urdu becoming the national language of Pakistan were gunned down. After that, language became an increasingly important battle-ground and Urdu-speakers were looked on with growing suspicion by Bengali-speakers. On 25 March 1971, rising political discontent in East Pakistan was met by brutal force from the rules of West Pakistan in what came to be known as 'Operation Searchlight'.
The violent crackdown by West Pakistan forces led to East Pakistan declaring its independence as the state of Bangladesh and the start of a civil war. During the civil war, Urdu-speakers were caught up in the conflict and were among the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives in that incredibly brutal war. The war led to a sea of refugees (estimated at the time to be about 10 million) flooding into the eastern provinces of India. Facing a mounting humanitarian and economic crisis, India started actively aiding and organizing the Bangladeshi resistance army known as the Mukti Bahini.
Outbreak of War
The most important war the Bengal region has known is the Bangladesh Liberation War which was an armed conflict between West Pakistan and East Pakistan and India, that resulted in the separation of East Pakistan as the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.
The war broke out on 26 March 1971 as army units directed by West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel (together also called the Mukti Bahini or 'liberation brigade') who were demanding separation from West Pakistan. The Mukti Bahini used guerrilla warfare tactics to fight against the West Pakistan army. India provided economic, military and diplomatic support to the Mukti Bahini rebels leading Pakistan to launch Operation Chengiz Khan, a pre-emptive attack on the western border of India which started the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
On 16 December 1971, the allied forces of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini decisively defeated the West Pakistani forces deployed in the East, resulting in the largest surrender, in terms of the number of prisoners of war, since World War II.
Majid Iqbal: changing professions after 1971
Majid Iqbal works as a school teacher in the Chamra Godown Camp of Syedpur.
My father became a teacher in 1971 after he had lost his job as a head clerk at the Adamjee Jute Mills. Initially he used to teach English and Urdu privately to students; he did not know any Bengali.
In 1971 my father fled to Rangpur and later returned when his Bengali friends from Rangpur came to fetch him. They had protected his house too. He was well respected, was known for his gentle disposition and good behaviour and used to command a lot of respect.
My father's three brothers left for Pakistan after independence. We have never visited them. We have no means to go. Our whole family left, one of my father's sisters eldest daughter got married to my father's second brother Nizamussin's son but we couldn't go.
Hasan Mahroof: second generation migrant
Hasan is the TNO (Thana Nirbahi Officer) of Birganj. He is very well read and takes a keen interest in the history of the region and the current political Indo-Bangla relations – especially around the sharing of waters.
You know, my mother's side is from Ziaganj in Murshidabad. When '47 happened, the Pakistani flag flew for two or three days in their area as they were convinced they had been put in Pakistan. When they realised it was not so they pulled down the flags and rushed to Pakistan. They were fearful for their lives.
Laila Begum: 1971 killings also linked to jealousy over land ownership
About 65, Laila Begum is a Maldoiya land-owner’s wife, originally from the Rajshahi region. She lives in Shahapara of Mukundapur, not too far from the Kantaji temple. Her family is part of those families who settled on Adivasi land (the whole of Mukundapur belonged to the Adivasis).
There were practically no killings here [in 1971].
But there were in Iswargram, quite a few of your people were killed…
That's because people are jealous.
The local leaders were criminal types. They were the ones who killed. They were envious and did not like the people from outside, from Rajshahi. Even here in Shahapara there are no shahas [rich people] left; it has become a 'labour-para' [labourers' neighbourhood]. The local people here were Hindus and rich, they all still live here but because they were lazy they lost their lands to us. In Iswargram the locals tied the men's hands and lined them up and then shot them dead. Later, the military gave them [the Chapai people of Iswargram] protection. People used to fear those from Rajshahi but not after 1971. This was because many of them had supported the Pakistani regime.
Poritosh Das: leather-working low caste Hindu who had to hide in India in 1971
Poritosh Das is about 45, lives in Koikhali, is a leather worker and is considered inferior by his Muslim neighbours who refuse to share his food.
We used to live in Banshtola, Bishtupur in Kaliganj thana [in Bangladesh]. From there we went to India in 1971 as we were treated miserably under the Khan [Pakistanis]. Joyakhali, Bosekhali, Kantamari were places which used to get relief under the Khan – these were places inhabited by the recently arrived refugees from India. The Khans were very condemning of Hindus and intelligent Muslims and they used to use one bullet to kill 4 or 5 people at a time.
Razakars ['traitors', 'collaborators'] were forgiven by Mujib [the first leader of Bangladesh], but they're all here. Some razakars were killed like Musa Master, his house was burned down by the mukti bahini/joddhas ['freedom fighters'] who also threw a bomb in his pond to kill the fish.
Anonymous landowner: fear of the violences and their reprisals
About 57 years old, this landowner refused to give his name because of fear that his relatives in India might be harassed. He settled in Ishanpur in Bangladesh.
I came here in 1966 because the village where I was born, Mahurkishmot [Gangarampur thana in South Dinajpur] suddenly became unsafe for us.
My forefathers decided to come here because this was Pakistan. The main fact was that Hindusthan was for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. Around 1965 some Muslims from our village exchanged land and hearth to come over to this part. There was a riot before that, we heard about it but it did not happen in our area. It happened outside, in some other area.
We heard horror stories – Hindus throwing Muslim babies into huge pyres and burning down homes. After that Muslims wanted to leave for a place where they could be safe. So we exchanged land and came over. I was a student then –in class 8. Our village got divided with some people coming over to this part. All my teachers were Hindus – I was studying at the padre [missionary] school, St Joseph High School of Rajibpur. Then the war between Hindus and Muslims broke out.
You mean the riots?
Yes. My teachers started insulting me. One of then told me, 'Pray god [as in a Hindu one] that we may take over Lahore' [ishwarer kache prarthona karo je amra Lahore dokhol kore nite pari]. The taunts persisted and after a while we Muslims decided it wouldn't be safe for us to stay on and that we should follow our families to this part. My parents and brothers all wanted to stay behind but finally, after putting in context the bleak future that we, as young men, would have to face in India, we came over. We'll be able to claim our rights in Pakistan, we argued.
The Bangladesh Liberation War took place from March to December 1971. After Partition in 1947, there had been growing unhappiness about the domination of East Pakistan (previously East Bengal) by West Pakistan. There was also resistance to West Pakistan's linguistic and cultural domination in the Language Movement after the deaths of the Bengali Language Martyrs in 1952 (see Shahid Minar). So on 25 March 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the first President of Bangladesh) declared the Independence of Bangladesh. The Pakistani army responded with great force but with the support of the Indian army, the Bengali freedom fighters, the Mukti Bahini, defeated the Pakistanis and on 16 December 1971 the state of Bangladesh came into being. It is estimated that somewhere between 200,000 and 3,000,000 Bengalis were killed during the liberation struggle, while another 8-10,000,000 fled across the border to India. After the Liberation War and the decade of political and economic struggle that followed, many British Bengalis decided to bring their families to Britain (see, for example, Husna Ara Begum Matin’s story).
Abul Hashem (Newham): the impact of the War
Abul Hashem, now in his early 40s, came to Britain in 1994, seeking asylum from political ill treatment in Bangladesh because of his work as a journalist. He told us of his family who were involved in the Liberation War:
When I was four or five, my father and second eldest brother died during the Liberation War in 1971. The Pakistani military, with the help of rajakars [collaborators – people who secretly work with the enemy] killed my father and brother because they supported the war… My eldest brother was a freedom fighter. He was in India. After they killed my father, we left our house secretly with the help of my grandmother. We took shelter in India and after the Liberation War, probably in 1972, we came back to our house.
Ashim Sen (Bradford): the war experience of Hindus
About 9% of Bangladesh's population is Hindu. During the Liberation War, Bengali Hindus were a particular target for the Pakistani military, and thousands were killed or forced to leave their homes. Ashim Sen, who came to Britain through marriage in 1992 and lives in Bradford, recalled the War:
What about my story? I have only one story to tell – the great story, the Liberation War… I was around eight years old. I can remember the story of shangram [struggle]. People used to say, 'The Punjabis [Pakistanis] are coming.' We would hide behind the bushes so many times. Whenever anyone said, 'They are coming,' we would start running, although the Punjabis were 10 miles away. What we heard was probably the sound of a bomb blast. We would think they were coming to kill us all, so we had to do something. We would hide in the jungle, we hid our utensils and valuables in a hole covered with mud; we gave our domestic animals to reliable people in case we could come back… Our boat was on a nearby river bank, we would go to camp because we couldn't live there.
Korimunnessa Begum (Shaw): hatred of Pakistanis because of the War
Korimunnessa Begum came to Britain in 1975. She told us of her continuing hatred of Pakistanis because of her experiences in the Liberation War:
There's only one community that I hate, which I will not name - those who opposed us in the Liberation War. I do not like them… During the Liberation War, I was only 13 but I can remember everything. My mother used to cook dal [lentils] in a huge pot for the Freedom Fighters; they hid in our house. Some Hindu families also took shelter in our house. One of my nieces' husband was a leader of the Freedom Fighters… We didn't eat fish. There was plenty of fish, but as the Pakistani army would kill people and throw them into the water, we would not eat fish because of our hatred.
Shanu Miah (Tower Hamlets) and Tasarul Ali (Oldham): Supporting the Liberation War from Britain
Shanu Miah came to Britain in 1967, as a teenager. He recalls how the Bengali community in Britain was involved with the Liberation War, particularly in fundraising for the freedom fighters:
During the Liberation War, we organised fundraising programmes. That was a great time. I feel proud of that time… Bengalis were all united during the Liberation War. I was a schoolboy then but I worked hard for Bangladesh… I was young but I followed all the news.
Tasarul Ali also migrated to Britain in 1967 and moved to Oldham to work in the textile mills. He also recalls fundraising by the local community:
At that time, very few Bengalis lived here – only five or six families… We would go to people to make them understand the situation. 'If our country does not exist, where will you call home? We won't be able to go home. We need money to buy weapons and other things. I alone collected £1,500… and my four or five friends also collected money and handed it over.
Nurunnobi Miah (Bradford): The Liberation War from the UK
Nurunnobi Miah arrived in Britain in 1963 and has lived and worked in Bradford since that time. He told us of his memories of watching the Liberation War from Britain. At the time his family were still in Bangladesh:
The Liberation War started. For nine months, from 25 March to 16 December, we were worried… There was no news about the country; we didn't know what was happening in our village - no letters, nothing. There was a boy who was a student, he was my nephew… Sometimes he would give us news. He would go to our village and tell us, 'Don’t worry, everybody is OK.'
Nurunnobi Miah spoke of the importance of the British media in giving the community information about events in East Pakistan:
The British media gave good coverage of our Liberation War. They highlighted all the logical reasons for liberation, all the justified causes. Through their coverage, we saw on TV the Pakistani army torturing the people of Bangladesh. They set fire to the houses of Bengalis. At that time, coming home from work, we would sit and watch the TV to see what we can learn from the BBC or Indian news.
Nurunnobi Miah recalled how Bengalis in Britain supported the freedom fighters:
We, the probashira [expatriates] tried to support the Liberation War… 95% of the community were concerned about Bangladesh. After two or three months, we called a meeting about Bangladesh and formed committees to help the country. We gave money to the Liberation War. We protested against the Pakistanis. We marched to Hyde Park in London. We went to different embassies and demonstrated. For nine months we were very worried. There were a few people in favour of Pakistan, but they were very few – 2% or 3%. They would talk about religion – Pakistanis and we are Muslims and India and their collaborators were trying to destroy Pakistan… Anyway, the Liberation War ended. I left my Pakistani passport and took a British passport.
He told us too that the next generation of British Bengalis don't really remember these events:
At last on 16 December  Bangladesh was liberated. The Pakistan army tortured people, killed many people. They killed many people in my own village. Many of our relatives were killed… Now there is a new generation. Almost 37 years have passed. Those Bengalis who saw the Liberation War and were in favour of Pakistan are mostly dying. Their children who haven't seen this don't think about it. Most of them don't know the history, don't read the history and don't want to know about it.
Shamuz Miah (Burnley): relations with the Pakistani community in Britain
Shamuz Miah is now in his late 70s and has lived in Burnley since 1964. He told us of the tensions between Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities around the time of the Liberation War:
We had a Pakistani Association. In our area we had built a mosque with the Pakistanis. I saw the Bengalis walk out of the mosque; they wouldn't pray there… Immediately after Liberation things were a little bit hot. Particularly those who lost their relatives in the war hated them. They would start arguments, fight with them.
After Independence, the Bengali community demanded separate mosques and community centres:
If we wanted our own flag flying over the mosque, we needed another mosque. We went to the council. They said, 'But you are all Muslims, why do you need another mosque?' We said, 'It is true that we are all Muslims, but we have two languages. That is why we fought with them… We are two different nations'. Then the council gave us permission to build another mosque. The Shahjalal Mosque was built. Our flag was flown over it.
He notes, though, that in Britain the tensions did not last:
My logic is that we lived with the Pakistanis before, so we can live together with them again. The British do not see any difference between us – they call us all 'Pakis'. Here in Burnley the relationship is good. We're on good terms with them.