Book: Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom
Author: Raghu Rai
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 1495
Millions of souls nineteenseventyone
homeless on Jessore Road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
Allen Ginsberg, "September on Jessore Road"
In Bangladesh, the ghosts of the 1971 Liberation War are afoot again. Dhaka's Shahbag Square has become the Tahrir Square of the east, jam-packed with protesters demanding the death penalty for all war criminals. But on Thursday, when a senior Jamaat-e-Islami leader was sentenced to hang, the countryside erupted in clashes in which 42 people died. Ignoring the streetfighting, the courts are inexorably writing the final chapter of the story which Islamabad wants to forget and which Dhaka memorialises as resistance in the face of genocide.
Documents presumed lost are resurfacing, which flesh out this story which has remained incomplete for too long. Last year, Penguin Viking published the unfinished memoirs of Mujibur Rahman, which were discovered in the original Bengali in 2011. And now Raghu Rai has found his lost negatives from the Liberation War, when he went down Jessore Road to Dhaka with the Indian Army.
He writes of flying into Dum Dum in August 1971 and driving "straight to Jessore Road". For the convenience of war correspondents and cameramen, it begins right outside the airport. Turn left for Calcutta, right for Bangladesh. Allen Ginsberg, who wrote his song a month later, was taking poetic licence because by September 1971, towards the end of the conflict, 10 million East Pakistani refugees were marching up that road to Calcutta.
On the eve of its birth, the world saw Bangladesh in impersonal, numerical terms. Global culture untiringly memorialises the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia. How many Vietnam films are there, anyway? Bangladesh, born in blood and terror, got one lousy song each from Joan Baez and Allen Ginsberg, and a concert organised by Ravi Shankar and George Harrison in Madison Square Garden.
There was nothing for Hollywood to celebrate. Blindly backing West Pakistan, to the extent of sending the USS Enterprise into the Indian Ocean, had been embarrassingly stupid. So embarrassing that Archer Kent Blood, US consul general in Dhaka, felt impelled to send out the 'Blood telegram', formally known as 'Dacca 1138', registering dissent against US policy not to denounce Operation Searchlight, the March 1971 campaign of torture, rape and genocide by the Pakistan Army to erase Bengali resistance.
This book, introduced by Bangladeshi activist and photographer Shahidul Alam, backs up Raghu Rai's photographs with forgotten material like a facsimile of the Blood telegram and the instrument of surrender signed by Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora and Lt Gen AAK Niazi. In a highly readable essay, Lt Gen JFR Jacob recalls pounding it out on his own typewriter and brazening it out with Niazi for a public, unconditional surrender, though his forces were tactically weaker. And he describes how he concluded the war in just 12 days — by instructing his commanders to ignore orders from Delhi. The political leadership favoured incremental containment by taking district towns, while Jacob wanted to go straight for Dhaka, the eye of the storm.
Rai's subject in this book is eyes. The wild gaze of a wounded Sikh soldier being given water by a comrade, the baffled, angry eyes of a starving child, the eerily calm eyes of sick and dying refugees on Jessore Road. They speak of hopelessness and, amazingly, hope. To look at them is to look into the soul of a nation about to be born.
Indian Express, 2 March 2013