Remembering Ziauddin Tariq Ali and his contribution towards preserving the memories of our liberation
I first met Tariq Ali in August of 2007 at the Liberation War Museum in Segun Bagicha, when I had gone with a friend to see an exhibition set up in memory of Tajuddin Ahmed, the 1971 prime minister-in-exile.
As we were looking at the exhibits which included Tajuddin’s beautiful fountain-pen handwriting in pages of his diaries of 1971, I mentioned to my friend that in 1971 I had met Tajuddin a few times to discuss ways in which to move relief supplies over the border into areas of Bangladesh -- then still, officially, East Pakistan -- which were said to have been liberated.
As we left the exhibition, Tariq Ali came to me and said that he had overheard me talking about my days in Kolkata and asked if we would have time to chat over a cup of tea. It was at that meeting, or one soon after, I also talked things over with Mofidul Hoque, another trustee of the museum.
On knowing that I had lived and worked in Bangladesh for many years, Tariq Ali expressed his surprise that the museum was unaware of my existence and my connection to the Liberation War.
I told him, at one time with tears running down my cheeks, that I had, for many years, blocked out the memories of horror and death of 1971, and only occasionally referred to my work with Oxfam in the refugee camps in India in 1971.
I remember that at one meeting Tariq Ali surprised me by hugging me, and said how important it was for my own health to open up and speak and write about 1971. In a way, he “jump-started” my memories and emotions. He very gently teased out many memories, however painful they were.
I spoke about many things. I covered all aspects of aid to the refugees of 1971, our relations with the government of India and, of course, coming to hear about a motley group of singers and musicians who were breathing life into some of the over 900 refugee camps.
It was then that I learned of Tariq Ali’s association with the Bangladesh Mukti Shangrami Shilpi Shangstha, a troupe which moved around encouraging both the refugees in the camps, but more importantly, the freedom fighters in Bangladesh.
I told Tariq Ali that their singing in the refugee camps had changed the mood of the refugees, and the medical staff working for Oxfam asked us to obtain harmoniums and tablas for the camps. I had immediately arranged for the purchase of many sets.
Later, when I visited a camp near Kolkata at a place called Gobardanga, an old man who had come as a refugee from Munshiganj said that when the music was played for the first time, he had closed his eyes and had remembered the smell of cooking from his wife’s kitchen and had heard the noise made by his goats and chickens. The melodies and the songs encouraged him, he said, that he and his family would soon go home.
In the course of a number of discussions and interactions over the years with Tariq Ali, he was very interested to learn about Oxfam’s and my links, at that time, with Gandhian organizations in India and leading Gandhians such as Jayaprakash Narayan, Narayan Desai, and Vinoba Bhave.
We covered a lot of ground in our discussions, and he was fascinated when I told him that I had met the “Frontier Gandhi” Abdul Ghaffar Khan, in Bihar in India during 1969, Gandhi Centenary Year.
We also spoke about my name being on the government of India’s black list during the Emergency of 1975-77, because of my connection with Gandhian leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan.
In recent years, whenever we met at functions at the new Liberation War Museum, which he cared for so much, he would say to me, with that wonderful, mischievous smile on his face: “Julian bhai, I am getting increasingly angry and frustrated that you are not putting your writing into books. By not writing, you are cheating the younger generation from learning so much valuable history.”
Only about two months ago, when he phoned me to ask how I was faring during Covid-19, he reminded me that now is the time, in lockdown, to write. “Julian bhai, we are both 75 years young, we have seen different aspects of the Liberation War and the progress of Bangladesh, so please write …”
It goes without saying that my first book of memoirs will be dedicated to him.
When the government of Bangladesh honoured me with full citizenship in 2018, one of the first generous text messages that I received -- still in my phone -- was from Tariq Ali: “Julian, as your friend and admirer, let me wish you a very warm welcome as a Bengali.”
On future visits to the Liberation War Museum or at the annual get-togethers of freedom fighters, I know I will miss his warm welcoming smile as well as his ability to tease me. And everyone will miss his singing.
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.