“History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.”
~ Howard Zinn, American historian, social activist and political scientist
In the narrative of Bangladesh liberation war history, political and military ‘war’ gets the highlight compared to the protests and resistance movements organized by the local and expatriate Bengali people. As a consequence much of this understated history gets suppressed by the dominant history, but some of it survives – in photographs, archives or in the shelves of closets.
Such an event in the history of Bangladesh occurred in 1971, when the expatriate Bengali people in the United Kingdom organized protest rallies, demonstrations and resistance movements in favor of the independence of Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) and condemned (West) Pakistan’s brutal atrocity and genocide on Bengali people. During that time, the cities of Manchester, Luton, Birmingham, Oldham, Bristol, along with London – where Bengalis lived – burst into utter protest. The Bengali people occupied the streets of UK demanding the recognition of Bangladesh.
London became the diplomatic front of Bangladesh in 1971. Expatriate Bengalis accomplished a special role of raising awareness about the liberation-genocide-refugee issues of war-affected Bangladesh among the international community.
This event, London 1971, is a collection of those sparkling days that began in the early stages of the liberation war and ended with the homecoming of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman via London.
Though the role and activities of expatriate Bengalis in liberation war was not properly saved, archived and documented by us, some creative writers used this historical event in their writing with great affection. Indian writer Sunil Gangopadhyay used in his colossal novel Purbo-Poshchim, the events of 1 August 1971 – the gathering of more than four to five thousand Bengali and non-Bengali people at Trafalgar square, the largest gathering for Independence and recognition for Bangladesh at that time.
1 August 1971 is important for Bangladesh for another event – Concert for Bangladesh in Madison Square Garden, New York. Both events imply no sentient people regardless of where they lived or what they believed in could accept the heinous acts of Pakistan.
One of the main powers of this fight was the power of Bengali cultural self-identity.
From the images of this exhibition we get an understanding that in that movement the Bengali females took part equally. They worked for raising funds and awareness, they became embodied symbols of Bengali culture. They picked Saree as their outfit, they brought their children in the procession and put in their hands placards of protest.
Another thing that catches our eyes is the language of the placards, banners and festoons. The angry and powerful vibe of them is still so vibrant as if they want to come out of the frame of the photographs. From the silent photographs the slogans scream ‘not a penny, not a gun, Yahya-Bhutto-Tikka Khan’, ‘World power, act for humanity’, ‘Stop genocide, recognize Bangladesh’ and imply indignation towards imperialist aggression.
Most of the photographs of this exhibition were taken by Roger Goyen. Many of his rare photographs bear the testimony of the unseen moments of protest and demonstration. Roger Goyen was familiar with Bangladesh even before 1971. He visited Bangladesh in the late sixties as a volunteer, toured various places there, and in the end got entangled in a passionate relationship with Bangladesh. The photographs of British-born Bangladeshi Yusuf Chowdhury should also be recognized. He not only took moments but also preserved them for future generations.
Photographs of this exhibition take us to the unseen tiles of time, and remind us how liberation war means people’s war. Now a day, we see a lot of personal achievements but we do not find any collective wins. The collective achievements of the expatriate Bengalis invoke us to take a look at our self-consciences. And reminds us- past is not a waste, rather it is an oath to go on living tomorrow.
***This text was written as an exhibition text for লন্ডন ১৯৭১: আলোকচিত্র প্রদর্শনী – London 1971: Photography Exhibition