Faiz Chowdhury MBE
Question: How did you come to Birmingham and what was your journey before 1971?
Answer: Thank you. I came to this country in 1970. Before I came I was in year nine in Bangladesh. I was a candidate for the Matriculation exam in 1971 in Bangladesh. Since I had come to this country I could not do the exam. We had a house in the Aston area of Birmingham and I came with my parents and stayed with my parents at our house. I came here in March and enrolled to do a Business Studies Course at college in September. I graduated with Business Studies. Then came 1971. I thought I would be having a nice time called ‘Adda,’ but soon I realised this was not the case, it was about something very difficult. They were killing our people and this is something really serious. I realised I needed to do something. I initiated an organisation at our college called it ‘Support Bangladesh’ and our secretary was Abdur Rashid Shaheb. He is still in the Aston area. And treasurer was Syed Makbul Ali. He was my friend and now living in Newcastle. There were more people. What we did is try to raise a fund. I raised approximately £100 at that time. I have not got all the receipts. At that time I did not realise that…. We gave this money to the ‘Action Committee.’ The Action Committee consisted of so many people. Action Committee was led by Afroz Mia Shaheb, Sobur Chowdhury Shaheb, Tony Haq Shaheb, Mr. and Mrs. Pasha, and lots of others. We were with them as a youth. To support them. As Youth, we did what we could do. We were leafleting door to door with them, and raised funds as part of the Action Committee. When Justice Chowdhury Saheb came, there was a big meeting at Coventry which was led by Shetu Mia Shaheb. We handed in all the funds to Justice Chowdhury. It was mentioned that we raised the fund for the temporary Government of Bangladesh at Mujib Nogor. The fund was for the freedom fighters: for their warm clothes, arms, and ammunition. As our General Osmani Shaheb said to us, ‘You need to be here but we need your support’. As a youth, we wanted to do that. Journalist Yusuf Chowdhury was leading as well. I was supposed to go with Yousuf Chowdhury with others via India. But our general Osmani told us not to go. He was saying it is better you stay there (UK) and work for us. You can try to get public support for us worldwide. But Yousuf Chowdhury went over there. His family was over there. He went via India and came back again via India as well. He updated us with all the information. He was a nice person and a photojournalist as well. He used to be quiet and usually did not show-off himself.
Mr. and Mrs. Pasha, used to live in Small Heath Area, Wordsworth Road. We used to go to their house like other people in the evenings. I was young, 16 or 17 at that time, and used to sit at the back. It was fun, in that sense if we could do anything as young people for the country. We cannot go to the battlefield, but our brothers are going, fighting for the country. They are fighting for our independence.
We heard the speech of our father of the nation Bongo Bondhu Sheik Mujibur Rahman on the 7th of March. He clearly said that it was ‘a battle for our freedom, a battle for our independence.’ We are getting away from the corrupt government of Pakistan. I would not say all the Pakistanis were against us. Pakistani people used to say that they were deprived as well, for example, Sindh Province and other areas as well. They gave us moral support. On the other hand there were people, who were against this movement and freedom fight. They used to act like ‘Big Brothers.’ They were against our freedom. They used to hate us and see us as an inferior group of people. They used to criticise us on our height, colour etc. There was discrimination in different areas and it was from the top. Most of the money and investment was in West Pakistan. East Pakistan was neglected. Media was not free, We did not have voting rights. I have seen the movement in 1969 when I was back home in our country, at that time. There was a big cyclone, they did not support us. We received support from neighbouring countries and from United Nations but West Pakistan did not do anything. When they said we are two brothers and opposed our right to autonomy, it did not make any sense to us. We were not happy about the role of West Pakistani rulers at that time. When the general election came in 1970, Bangabandhu and Awami League secured 97% of the votes from East Pakistan and became the majority of the vote in both East and West Pakistan. His right to form the government was denied.
They did not trust us. They did not respect the people’s vote. There were lots of meetings but there was no agreement. Bangabandhu did not want to break the country up, but they refused to share power. Before Bangabandhu, there was another leader called Moulana Vashani, and he argued to make the country independent as well. When the negotiation was happening, the Pakistan army started to kill ordinary people on the 26th of March. 1st hour of the 26th of March our Bangabandhu declared independence.
Question: How did you use to get all the information?
Answer: We used to get information from BBC News, we used to watch the 6 o’clock news, and the 10 o’clock news. Mark Telly was a good reporter. Lots of people used to come to our house in Aston. TV was not available to all the houses. It was Black and white TV at that time. Colour TV started to become available around 1978. I used to treat them to Tea.
Then when Bangabandhu was arrested, Our General Osmani led the war. Everybody was happy about it. He was the youngest Major at that time. People used to listen to him. He took the responsibility of leading the liberation war. He divided the country into different sectors and there was a sector commander for each sector to carry out the liberation war.
Question: General Osmani was from Sylhet as well, and he was leading the war. How was this message reacted to here in Birmingham?
Answer: Everybody knew about it and appreciated it, but he was not from any political party or he was not a political activist, some people undermined his role just because of that. If you ask me how my answer would be to look at the surrender event. When the Pakistan army surrendered they surrendered to the Indian army, not to Bangladeshi freedom fighters. Osmany was not present there. General Osmani was the commander-in-chief of our freedom fighters and I think he was ignored by the politicians and was removed from the surrender event which was a shame. We freedom fighters and a nation missed the opportunity to claim the full credit that we deserve. It was political and I am not going to say in detail about it. The crime the Pakistani army committed we could not address this and still now we could not address this to Pakistan.
Question: Does it still hurt you?
Answer: Yes, it does.
Question: How was this received in the Birmingham community? How were other people feeling about it? What other activities were you doing in Birmingham?
Answer: Birmingham was not like the way it is now. We had a Welfare association. Afroz Mia was president. We used to have a yearly event. As a youth I was the organisational secretary, Nasir Ahmed was Secretary, Sha Abid Ali shaheb was Asst. Secretary. We used to express and share issues that our community was facing with the wider audience including Local councilors. We also used to have cultural activities: our songs, music etc. People used to have about £20 per week at that time. People used to save money after basic expenditures to send back to Desh to their wider family. Everybody thought that they were going to go back to Desh after 10 or 15 years. Our first generation, even we used to think like this. Education was not our priority. Focus was to save some money and go back to Desh. That did not happen. A few from our first generation went back. My dad was in the British Army and he went back. But he was not happy in his old age and I had to bring him back. What I was saying about 1971 and our liberation movement, we used to gather. Our leaders used to take decisions and we were with them. I am 70 now. Still, we have got a few of our leaders. Nasir Ahmed Shaheb, Tony Haq, Mrs. Pasha. But we missed Afroz Mia Shaheb, Jamshed Mia Shaheb, Sobur Chowdhury, and lots of them who contributed a lot at that time. There are few people who don’t come to the public anymore like our Dipu Rahman. He was active and an accountant. Nuruzzaman Khan was another gentleman, he does not come to the public anymore. They contributed a lot at that time. They did it as they thought it was their duty. They did not wait for Bangladesh Government recognition.
Now I am coming on 28th March. It was a big meeting at Small Heath Park in Birmingham. During that time Birmingham was convenient for all living in the UK to meet and easy to travel to as well. We raised our Independent Bangladesh Flag at that meeting. This meeting was recorded in the Bangladesh Liberation History book by Hasn Hafizur Rahman. The history book consists of 16 books and I think our meeting was recorded on the 14th. There were a few clashes as well with Pakistani people. A few people were arrested as well, but they were released the next day without any condition. These meetings were not only for our community people but for the mainstream British people. British media: Times, Observer, Guardian, and local evening mail used to cover our programmes. We went to attend meetings in London 10 to 12 times. We used to hire 20 /25 coaches to go to London. Hyde Park Corner, Trafalgar Square meetings were among them. Still, I can remember Tony Haq’s speeches. He was good at it. Tony Ben, leftist Labour Party, His speeches as well. Our meetings were usually between 2 pm to 5 pm. White British people used to support us as well. About one-third of the people at the meetings were British. They used to give us sandwiches. It was a very positive thing that we earned their support. This support boosted our movement. We went to France as well. I could not go, but my fellow activists went to France. There was an IMF meeting to fund Pakistan. We campaigned so that we can stop this funding. Pakistani Cricket team came to Edgbaston. Our people staged a hunger strike in protest. I was there as well. Police protected both sides. We had media attention and we wanted to promote our movement and gain support. We used to have sandwiches, not our Asian foods. There were only a few restaurants at that time.
Questions: What did you use to do for a living at that time?
Answer: I was a student at that time and did not work during the movement time. Staying at my own house and I used to get pocket money from Dad. He used to work for an engineering firm. I used to get pocket money. I was his only son. I used to use the bus to travel with my friends. There were only a few cars in our whole community. Only a few people in our community had a TV, and even only a few people had telephones. Nowadays we have a television in every room. The living standard was not good at that time. I am talking about 1970. It was the recession. We used to have coal-burning heating.
Questions: There was a movement to leave Pakistani passport, were you involved in this?
Answer: Yes, as a youth I was leading this with others. Bari Chowdhury, Mrs Pasha, and other people were with us. As a youth, we decided to burn our Pakistani passports. I did not want to use a Pakistani passport anymore. We knew that we would. l have our country sooner or later. We will get independence. We had a passport-burning event but unfortunately, I have not got any evidence of media coverage or any photos of that event.
Question: How did you do that event? Can give us some details?
Answer: Yes, we called people and requested them to come earlier. Invited people attended, People came to burn passports. We agreed that we are not going home until we get freedom and independence. We tore up our Pakistani passports as a symbol that we are not going back to Pakistan. We did not realise, our independence would come that quickly within nine months. We thought it may take five, seven, or ten years. The event was at Small Heath Park but not during the 28th March event. On the 28th of March, we were young. Misir Ali was young as well. There were few incidents and a bit of chaos and I can remember Misir Ali holding our flag. It was the first time outside Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi flag was raised. There was a map on the flag. A few of us were arrested and they were taken to Digbeth police station. The next day they were released. We need not give any security. That was the 28th of March. If you ask me how all the people came to Birmingham, the fact was the majority of the people used to live in Birmingham and its surrounding areas. A big number of East Pakistani people used to live in Walsall, Wednesbury, Wolverhampton Tipton and Smethwick areas of Sandwell. Aston, Lozells, Small Heath areas were Bangali-dominated areas. When factories began to close in these areas, our people started to move to other areas and spread wherever they found opportunities. But at that time lots of people were in Birmingham and its surrounding areas. Prominent figures like M A Matin Shaheb from Manchester, Taibur Rahman Shaheb from London, Hafiz Mojirudding saheb, Ahmed Kutub saheb from Newcastle, played a significant role as well. Our Afroz Mia shaheb was known as Hati Tai (generous & kind person), because all the evening meetings used to be at Mr & Mrs Pasha’s house, but all the big meetings were hosted by Afroz Mia Shaheb’s Taj Mahal restaurant. He was very friendly and generous and his hospitality was known to all. He used to financially support needy people. He contributed a lot to the formation of Coventry Road Mosque. I am one of the founder trustees as well.
Question: Birmingham played an important role in 1971? How do you feel about the events that happened in Birmingham? it was your city?
Answer: Birmingham people played a great role. When I think back, I feel it was an amazing story. Ten thousand people gathered and we hoisted a flag. Sometimes we here that outside of Birmingham, another Bangladeshi flag was hoisted on 18th April in the Assistant High Commission’s Office in Calcutta.