Dr Abdul Mustafa
Question: Where were you before 1971? And how did you come to Birmingham? Tell me about yourself, and your journey before 71.
Answer: My name is Doctor Mustafa. I was in Pakistan from March 1964 to September 1966. I was working for the Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan.
I came to Britain on 26th September 1966 on a Colombo Plan Scholarship. From there I came to actually study master’s degree at Aston University, masters in nuclear power technology. Pakistan government sent a large number of students to learn about nuclear technology. So I landed a few days later, I can’t remember where exactly, in Birmingham. I stayed in student accommodation, YMCA in Birmingham city centre, and I studied for a master’s degree at Aston University for just one year. I think we were the first group in master’s degree at Aston University, and then I moved to Birmingham University for my doctorate degree. And I’ve spent all my life since then in Birmingham, nowhere else. For the rest of my life till today I lived in Birmingham.
During this study then of course the liberation war started.
Question: Before the liberation war, tell me about your family in Bangladesh.
I come from the Naogaon district. It was Rajshahi district at that time. I did my basic education at Shantahar, then I moved to Rajshahi Government College, and then I went to Dhaka University and studied physics. I got my honour’s degree, and did my master’s degree. Before the master’s degree results were out, our group of students was visited by the chairman of the Pakistan Atomic Commission, and we were offered a job if we got a first-class degree. The job was secured and then we had to go to Lahore. So I think March 1964 was the first time I travelled to Lahore to take a job in the Atomic Energy Commission. I am from just a basic family from a village, Naogaon district.
Question: Do you have brothers, or sisters?
Answer: I had six sisters just one is surviving now.
Question: How was life in Bangladesh? I can understand you are a academician, your study was your first priority, how was your other life? How was transport, economy, and communication? How was the society in Bangladesh at that time?
Answer: I think at that time society was very good. People were very honest. I lived in until 12 years old in a village area. Then I moved to Shantahar to study in a high school. People were very honest. The people were very nice. It was very simple. My life was very simple. The economic condition was pretty good at that time. But best of all things, people were honest at that time. We lived in a nice community. People knew each other in the villages. Then I moved to Rajshahi College and stayed in a hostel, life was very simple. Then I moved to Dhaka University, stayed in the Fazlul Haque Hall, again economic condition was very adjustable standard, with nothing extraordinary. My father had to give me money every month, he used to send money in two installments. He couldn’t afford any more than that, but I was very happy with whatever I had. Life was very simple indeed.
Then the first time I got my job in Pakistan was the first time I got a little bit of economic independence. The salary at that time was pretty good. Life in Lahore was very nice. Living in an officers’ accommodation, the food was very nice. The other worker’s looked after the officers very, very well indeed.
I got a scholarship in 1965, a Colombo scholarship, but because of the war between India and Pakistan, I could not be placed in Britain. I applied to Oxford and Cambridge University, and two other universities. I got a placement, but unfortunately, I couldn’t come because of the war. And the following year of course I got the Colombo Plan scholarship, so I came in 1966.
It was very sad. My father died in 1965, I left Naogaon, I can’t remember the exact date, I saw the Naogaon bridge last time in 1964, since then I moved to Lahore. There was a possibility every year that I would be coming abroad (UK) and so I couldn’t go and see my father. But unfortunately, he died in 1965, and the following year of course I came to Britain.
Question: So you came to Britain in 1966, how was Britain in 1966? How were Bangladeshi/Eastern Pakistani people in Birmingham at that time?
Answer: I think at that time there were lots of things, the social behaviour was beyond my imagination. I knew very few Bangladeshis at the time. First time I met somebody Mr Begh, Fazlur Begh. He was a technical staff at Aston University. I saw him at the first get-together. That was the first Bangladeshi I met.
Life was very difficult, the course was very difficult, very intense, so we had to study quite a lot, food was at all not for us, we were used to eating rice, curry, roti, but nothing . I lost a stone of weight or so in the first month because I could hardly eat anything.
At that time, I hardly met anybody in the community except Mr Begh. I couldn’t go anywhere, didn’t go anywhere, stayed in.
I had another student (Bangladeshi student) in the YMCA, and we were quite friendly. Most of the time we had to study, it was a very intense course, and we hardly knew anyone from any community. Life was very conservative, people were extremely racist, they would call you names to your face. I had encountered this many, many times. On the course, we had to travel to different nuclear power establishments, on the bus people used to call us coloured. In shops too, everywhere. They were friendly but you could see there was a very, very big difference between white people and people from other communities.
It was a very, very sad experience. These days when I think about it, it’s beyond imagination how much Britain has changed. It’s been a dramatic change since those days.
Question: Tell me a bit more about the political things that were happening in 1969, 1970, 1971? What was happening in East Pakistan? Where were you at the time? Had you finished the course at Aston at that time or what was your situation?
Answer: At the time I was in Birmingham. Since 1966 I spent most of my time in Birmingham, I went only to Bangladesh for a few months. I got an offer of a job so I came to take up the job. At that time I was doing a PhD degree at Birmingham University. By that time, we had quite a lot of Bangladeshi friends and families. I knew Mr Begh’s family, I knew Mr Goni, who has unfortunately passed away, and his family. At that time we had lots of students who had come with a family. So we had quite a nice environment at the Bangladeshi students’ union. But of course, then the war broke out. it was a very distressing time for all of us. We used to meet at a friend’s house almost every day, and wait to hear if anybody had news from Bangladesh. It was East Pakistan at the time. We would share the news with everybody. Every day we used to meet at one house or the other, or at the student’s union, and try to get the news from everybody. It was very distressing, everybody was afraid. We didn’t know what was happening. Not very much news came out of Bangladesh at that time. We used to listen to the BBC international news regularly, ITV News regularly to see if there was anything about Bangladesh. But it was a very, very distressing time.
Question: Were any of your family members affected in Bangladesh, or your wife’s family in 1971?
Answers: Very, very much so. We were all involved in the liberation war, in the sense that the freedom fighters used to come to our house almost every day. My very close friend, Abdul Jolil, used to come to our house asking for food. He used to call my mum, ‘Amma, Can I have some food please.’ At one time it so happened we used to feed lots of freedom fighters regularly we ran out of food in fact. My nephew, lots of villagers were also participating in feeding freedom fighters. I used to get letters sometimes, that this is what is happening. So there was quite a lot of participation from the village area.
Question: When the war started, the 7th March speech and the army started to kill ordinary people on the 25th March. At that time, there were lots of things happening in Birmingham, everybody came to Small Heath Park. Have you attended any of the meetings with Tony Haque, and the other people? Do you know them?
Answer: Before the war I had heard about the community leaders, but at that time we were very busy. We had very little time to socialise. Most of the students were socialising amongst themselves. But when the war broke out, I got seriously involved. I heard about the meeting, and it was the first time I saw Mrs Pasha. I knew Tony Haque because we come from Naogaon, I come from the village and he comes from the suburb of Naogaon. I heard about this meeting, and I attended it myself, I was there throughout the whole of the meeting. There were lots of people, a huge amount of people, maybe 10,000 or 15,000 people. In the meeting lots of issues were discussed, one of the issues was that freedom fighters needed arms and ammunition, and we talked about raising funds for arms and ammunition for the freedom fighters.
I came back from the meeting and the next day I contacted my friends. I took responsibility to raise funds, most of the students contributed a full month’s scholarship money, some gave a little bit more, and some a little bit less, at the end of the day I raised £375, and took it myself to Mr & Mrs Pasha, to the steering committee the following day. This money is equivalent to £5000 today. I contributed £50, my whole month’s scholarship money. Several of my friends contributed. From thereon we got involved in many, many other ways. The main aim of the meeting was to make everyone aware of what was going on in Bangladesh. We did a lot of things at Birmingham University. We organised shows about the culture of Bangladesh, another friend organised quite a big event with pictures to show what was happening in Bangladesh, some friends organised food events to raise money. There were many other meetings to make our people aware of what was happening to the freedom fighters in Bangladesh.
Question: There were lots of Bangladeshi students at Aston University, Birmingham University and other universities. Students were studying at that time, and studying needs lots of time. But you did a lot as a student at that time, and still managed to do something for the country, allocate time for the country, to raise funds.
Most of the students, of us did. I took time off to raise money; I went to some demonstrations; I used to go to meetings here and there; I used to go regularly myself to Mr and Mrs Pasha to see what the next action was going to be. I didn’t go myself to the demonstration in London, but some other students did from Birmingham.
We had lots of abuse from Pakistani students’ union, almost every day, ‘traitors, you traitors’ we ignored them, we tolerated it, what could we do? Behind the scene we tried to help the liberation movement. We broke away from the Pakistani students union and formed the Bangladeshi students’ Association.
Question: Can you remember the day or moments, 16th December, when you changed your identity from British Pakistani to British Bangladeshi?
It was one of the most memorable days of my life because, on 16th December, I got my confirmation that I got my PhD. Then I went running back to my house in Digbeth just to hear the news, then I got the news that India recognised Bangladesh. It is one of the most memorable memories of my life, I went to tell all my friends, it was a joy, we were hugging each other, we were all over the moon, it was the most joyful day, we didn’t know what was happening to a lot of our families, but at least we knew Bangladesh was an independent country, recognised first by India.
Question: After 1971, it was still a new country, you got your new identity British Bangladeshi, and you got your PhD, what was your plan at the time?
There was lots of pressure from the Pakistani Government to go back to Pakistan, They wrote to the professor and he came to talk to me. British government advised all Bangladeshi students not to go back to Pakistan, my professor also said Mustafa don’t go back, you stay here.
I was also very fortunate with something else, I had a gratis passport from the Pakistani government that had to be renewed every month. And one day, I appeared to renew it, and I spoke to the lady and explained my situation, I said look I am a poor student, this is the situation in Bangladesh, and we are heavily stressed and I have to come for the renewal of my passport every month. And I don’t know what she saw on my face, she looked at me and then she said I am going to revoke the condition on your passport, and she stamped my passport. I asked her what do you mean by revoked? So she explained you can stay in Britain as long you like, if you go outside this country but you must come back within 2 years and you can stay here as long as you like. It was unbelievable what happened.
At that time something else happened. I was supposed to go back to Bangladesh to get married but of course the war broke out, so we couldn’t go out from here. So before the war broke out, I was trying to organise before the war started that we get married by telephone. She was living at that time with her sister, and just after the war broke out I got a telegram from Bangladesh, from her, saying I miss you, my dear we got married yesterday. So I sent her a message back saying I got permission to stay here so that is something good news, and told her the good news
Question : Just out of curiosity, I know it’s your personal life, when did you meet your wife for the first time face to face?
Answer: 11 February 1972. When the country became independent, it was vastly destroyed, there was no communication, and there was no airline. I had to get a temporary pass from the Bangladeshi High Commission office. I got a ticket, and flew by Indian Airlines to Dhaka. I thought my wife would come to meet me at the airport, but nobody came to receive me at the airport except my friends. I was invited to a small ceremony at the apartment they (his wife) were living in, later in the afternoon on 11th February, and that’s the first time I saw her. I have a picture somewhere, we had a rusmat ceremony. I knew her, her sister was married to my friend.
It’s a wonderful story, when I was at school in Shantahar, and stayed with my maternal uncle’s son, cousin brother. When he moved away, a very fond and helpful teacher made an arrangement for me to stay with her brother-in-law, he was not married to her sister then. We became like 2 brothers, we studied together, we went to Rajshahi college together. We went to Dhaka University, and later on he married her elder sister, and about 10 years later, they made arrangement for us to get married. We used to be like brothers and we became brothers- in- law. I had a long, long association with Professor Rahman, unfortunately, he has passed away 4 years ago in Canada.
Question: Can you remember when your wife came to the UK?
Answer: 21 August 1972. We had very, very little money. I was working at that time in Bangladesh. Before I went back to Bangladesh in February 1972, I applied for a job in the hospital, I wanted to actually go into medical physics, the use of physics in medicine. I was working with somebody and her husband was the head of department of medical physics. I met him once and I expressed my willingness, and he said I might be able to help you. And when I was in Bangladesh, he sent me a letter confirming that a job was waiting for me in the hospital. At that time I was working in Bangladesh, so I tried to get permission from Wajid Miah. He was my friend, we were in the same student hall, I helped him to become vice president, I campaigned for him, we were very, very close friends. He was one year senior than me, he studied physics as well. He was the educational officer at the time and didn’t agree that I should come out of the country, so I explained to him, look I am going to get experience in medical physics. He reluctantly agreed to say maybe you can go for a couple of years and then come back. So I came with my wife to this country.
The traveling was very difficult.
We got an Indian airline ticket. Both of us had Bangladeshi passports. The Indian officials were very surprised to see the Bangladeshi passports. So we came to Britain on the 20/21st of August 1972. Since then I’ve been staying in Birmingham.
I used to stay with a British family. They were very nice, even with a conservative, racist society, the lady was progressive, they looked after us very well, we stayed with them for nearly 5 years. They helped us to buy a house in Solihull. And we stayed on and on from thereon.
Question: You said you knew Mr Wajid Miah, and he was a close friend of yours. Did you meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at that time as your friend’s wife?
Answer: Never, no. He married later on. When he became the Vice President, of Fazlul Hall, I was never interested in politics. He asked me to become sports secretary etc I told him Wajid I am not interested in politics. At that time I used to know he used to go and meet Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, we were all followers of the Awami League, somehow they met at that time and they got married, but I have never met her, although I said I was very close to him.
Question: You worked for Bangladesh Atomic Energy (BAE) commission?
Answer: Originally Pakistani Atomic Energy, then there was a BAE commission office in Dhaka (by the racecourse, it’s still there I think). When I went back I was allowed to join the BAE Commission, I was a principal scientific officer. I happily worked for about 6 months until I got a letter from Britain offering me a job. Wajid Miah asked me to go back to Bangladesh and share my experiences. But by that time, I was almost settled here and I had to ultimately resign from the post in Bangladesh.
Question: So today in August 2022, how do you feel about your journey? You are a true Brummie, Bangla Brummie. Our project name is Bangla Brummies. How do you feel about your life in Birmingham? How do you see your whole journey? How do you evaluate your pre 1971 and after 1971?
Answer: I became involved in lots of Bangladeshi events. We formed a Bangladeshi Cultural Society in the Midlands, I was a founder member. I became the vice president, then the general secretary, and then the president. I used to do dramas, I wrote the dramas, I acted, directed and wrote the dramas. I still have some copies. Since then I have always been with the Bangladeshi community. Only recently I have tried to move away from all the activities, truly retiring. I am still one of the trustees of the Bangladeshi Cultural Society, I still have quite a lot of input.
So my life has been really very good. I appreciate it. I’ve attended almost all of the meetings in the community organised by the Bangladeshi High Commissioner. I’ve always had a good relationship with Bangladeshi High Commissioner. I have been involved in discussing how to improve Bangladeshis lives in Birmingham. I’ve been involved with some projects like the health project, and another like Bangladesh employment project. We had funding and were able to employ quite a few people. I have spent all my life here helping the Bangladeshi community, with employment, betterment, translations, immigration services etc.
About the activities at Birmingham University, we had a rather sad experience. In 2011, on 28th March, there was an award ceremony, organised by Channel i. It was the first flag hoisting day celebration done by Channel i. It was a very big celebration in one of the large halls in Birmingham. I attended that, and it was a very nice celebration organised by Tanvir Ahmed. It was a recognition of people’s services. Unfortunately, not one person mentioned the activities the Birmingham University students did at that time. I came back and the next day I wrote a nice email to Tanvir Ahmed, explaining no one mentioned the services of the students. The email was circulated among the community leaders but unfortunately, no action was taken. Then in 2017, I got an email from Tanvir asking to speak to me. He then said I would like to record, I would like to make a program, I would like to make a documentary about the activities, the sacrifices of the Birmingham University students. I got involved totally and did this documentary. And it was recorded on 8th March 2017, and it was shown on 26th March 2017. So ultimately, at last, there was recognition of the activities of the Bangladeshi students at Birmingham University. And I am very, very happy that you have come over here to record and know of the activities of the students for the liberation of Bangladesh. I am very, very happy that you have come here.