In March 1971, I was working as an agricultural volunteer on a Gandhian related poverty alleviation project in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, in the villages worst hit by the Bihar Famine of the late 1960s.
I had been in India for 3 years as an agricultural volunteer. I know that I should/could have contributed more, but I was happy that the ‘dairy farm’, with dairy cows that I organised at a Gandhian children’s school in 1968/69 was going on well (and it is still going well in 2015).
Whenever I was at my 1st floor flat in Gaya –the hottest (up to 50° C) and dirtiest town in India in 1971- in the evening, I went on to the roof of the building to try to get the best reception on my transistor radio, which could work on mains electricity and batteries, which was just as well as the electricity was a rare commodity in Gaya. And on March 7th or 8th 1971, I heard about Bangabandhu’s call to the Bangladeshis. The radio reception was not good, so I headed down to the centre of the town (Gaya) where a number of Bengali businesses and families were situated and they always tuned into the BBC Bengali language news. Different Bengali families, some with East Bengal/Bangladesh connections were very concerned. And I got the full English translation from my Bengali friends who were very emotional and at the same time being very clear that a new country, Bangladesh, was about to be born.
As a ‘bideshi’ of only 25 yrs of age, I was amazed with what I had heard and the content of everything about the expected independence of Bangladesh being anticipated and my Bengali friends explained about the importance of Ekushey and how badly treated the Bengalis of East Pakistan had been by the Urdu speaking West Pakistanis. Some days later, through the airmail post, I received the Guardian Weekly from the U.K. which also detailed the tension which was taking place, particularly in Dhaka. I also spent some hours on successive days discussing the possible future scenario on Bangladesh with my next door neighbour, a retired civil engineer, who, more than a year later was to become my father-in-law! My future father-in-law had been born in Patna, his father having migrated from Munshiganj in the early 1900s.
Little did I know at the time that within a couple of months I would be part of a huge humanitarian operation caring for people in refugee camps who fled over the borders from Bangladesh fleeing from the brutal genocide perpetrated by the Pakistan Army, their civilian officers and local collaborators. And, of course, in March 1971 in Bihar, India, I had no idea I would be meeting – in January 1972 – the man who made that amazing March 7th speech, Bangabandhu.
All these events and activities all those years ago significantly shaped my life which has been most fascinating, interesting and rewarding.
Julian Francis has had an association with Bangladesh since 1971, and the Government of Bangladesh awarded him with “The Friends of Liberation War Honour” in 2012 in recognition of his role in the country’s War of Liberation in 1971.