What Ekushey meant back in 1972
As coordinator of Oxfam’s refugee relief program assisting about 600,000 Bangladeshis, I was sitting in my office near Park Circus, Kolkata, on February 21, 1972 when I was informed by a very alarmed office messenger that a few hundred men, women, and children were outside waiting for me and were shouting my name. Had they come from one of the camps to make a complaint, I wondered?
I went outside and the spokesman of the group of about 300 people told me that they had decided to start for home on an auspicious day, and proceeded to explain to me the historical importance of Ekushey and that year was the 20th anniversary of the day when, because of the Bangla mother language, people had lost their lives due to Pakistani police firing.
“Ekushey is one of the main reasons we have our own country now,” I was told. The refugees had come from a camp quite near Kolkata called Digberia. A Dhaka University professor, who was also with the group, briefly told me of the history behind the Bangla language movement which, he told me, had begun even before the formation of Pakistan in 1947.
He told me that in the first Pakistan Legislative Assembly, on February 23, 1948, Dhirendranath Datta had proposed that Bangla be an official language of the assembly along with Urdu and English, but this was rejected. I also learned that it was during the night of February 23, 1952, just two days after the police firing, that the first “Shaheed Minar” was made at the place where the students were killed. The police, however, demolished the memorial a few days later.
The organizers of this large group of refugees reminded me that they were all so grateful that, during the monsoon months of 1971, I had managed to arrange to provide harmoniums and tablas in all refugee camps which were supported by Oxfam. They said that this music had not only helped to improve the happiness and health of all inhabitants of the camps, especially the children, but also helped them keep the Bangla music, culture, and language very much alive all the time. With this they felt, I was told, that they were always going to have a better future when they were able to return to their homes.
They explained that they had come to say goodbye and to thank Oxfam for everything that had been done to assist them. One of them had carved a vase made of bamboo and some woolen flowers on wire stems had been placed in it. It is a gift that I have treasured for many years.
My visitors that February day in 1972 had heard that I had, a few weeks earlier, gone by road to Dhaka and so asked me to tell them in detail about my journey and what I had seen. While informing them of the great damage and destruction I had seen inside Bangladesh, I was therefore able to prepare them for the worst while hoping, against all odds, for the best. In my own mind, the spirit of Bangladeshis like the ones who came to see me on this day 49 years ago is how Bangladesh has progressed and developed so much since then. The sky is the limit and so much more is possible.
This is how I remember Ekushey 1972.
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.