Bangabandhu was heard across the border, in Bihar, India
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.
Whenever I was at my first floor flat in Gaya — the hottest (up to 50°C) and, allegedly, the dirtiest town in India in 1971– in the evening, I would go on to the roof of the building to try to get the best reception on my transistor radio, which could work on both mains electricity and batteries, which was just as well as the electricity was a rare commodity in Gaya.
And so, late on March 7, 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 they were very clear that a new country, Bangladesh, was about to be born.
As a bideshi of only 25 years 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 UK 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 of Bangladesh with my next door neighbour, a retired government 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 Kamarkhara in 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 nearly 10 million women, men, and children in over 1,100 refugee camps.
They had 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 7 speech, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
All these events and activities, all those years ago, significantly changed and shaped my life which has been most fascinating, interesting and rewarding.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.’
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