Question: We know that you played a role in 1971 in Birmingham. Tell me something about yourself, your family, how you were brought up? Tell me about your journey to the UK.
Answer: I come from Kishorganj, at that time it was in the district Mymensing, now it’s a district itself. I had my secondary education from Ajim Uddin High School, and I graduated from Guruduara College. After that I went into teaching. Before coming here I was a teacher at Bajitpur High School.
Now why I came here? It had been my intention to always study chartered accountancy, so when an opportunity came, I came to this country. It was not easy to find an articles, it was so difficult at that time. But people who came before me from Bangladesh, particularly from the district of Sylhet were wonderful help. I used to go to night college in London, then I came to Leicester.
Question: When was that?
Answer: It was in 64, at that time people were just coming, but there were people who came before. When I came here, I met some people and Azizul Haq Bhuya, who I shall refer to later. I met him in London. I had no relatives here, and I was not rich enough to stay in a hotel all the time. But the education, the graduation I had, I felt just to bring myself up to date with the culture and some things I didn’t know, I went to night college. But I somehow I had to maintain myself so I got a job in factories. I used to work during daytime, and in the evening I went to night college. But the people I was talking about were so helpful, they used to say Mastersaab, you’ve had a long day, here is our curry and rice, you don’t have to cook, let’s share whatever we have cooked. It was such a wonderful time. And without their help, I mean it probably wasn’t just me, there were probably hundreds, thousands, it was the generosity of the people who came before me that was fantastic and unforgettable. However, In London, the amount of money I was offered for my articles, was almost negligible. I could pay my rent, but that’s all. But with the other things (living costs) it would have been impossible.
By that time, Azizul Haq Bhuya was in Leicester, he said why don’t you try Leicester instead? I’m here, so you can stay with me. So I said okay and so I came to Leicester. Yes, it’s a nice city, and there is a prospect of getting a place here. That was a struggle as well. I continued with my night college. I thought articleship won’t be available I will go into some other branch of accountancy, and I will go into costing. When I passed the first two parts, I was offered an articleship in a firm of chartered accountancy in Leicester. At that time I also met Jaglu Pasha who became a very good friend.
By then it had taken me two years just to get into the course I wanted to do. By that time, Mr Pasha and Azizul Haq Bhuya left Leicester and came to Birmingham. So my two best friends left Leicester, practically every weekend, I got onto the bus on Friday and went back on Sunday night. At that time there was a bus from Birmingham to Coventry, then Coventry to Leicester. It would take about one hour and a half. I used to do that every weekend.
From there, when things went very wrong in the country (Bangladesh) I got involved in the liberation struggle, because I could not contact my family.
Question: Which year did you move to Birmingham from Leicester?
Answer: It was 1970, when I started coming to Birmingham. Because I was doing my articles in Leicester, I came on the weekend, just spent the weekend, and went back every weekend. That was my first connection with Birmingham. In the process, I came to know many people.
Question: By now we know you are from Mymensing, you moved to London first, you were trying to study then you moved to Leicester. Then in 1970, you came to Birmingham? How was 1970? What was happening in Birmingham, Mymensing, East Pakistan at that time? How were people reacting? How were you reacting?
Answer: Is it in connection with the liberation? Yes, Azizul Bhuya, Jaglu Pasha and a few other people, but these two people I had very close contact with. Particularly Jaglu Pasha, was the only married person. He had a house, and both Aziz and myself we used to live in rented accommodation. At the weekend, we used to actually stay in their (Jaglu Pasha) house. Initially, our main discussion/conversation, when we met in 64, was about common interests in politics here, about what was happening in Bangladesh (at that time East Pakistan) or Pakistan, in general politics. Jaglu Pasha was studying law, so naturally, there was some interest in this field. This common interest turned us into close friends.
At that time, and also when I was back in Bangladesh, we felt a sense of being exploited by Pakistan. You wouldn’t be able to imagine, when I was in college there was a shortage of paper, just blank white paper. Then a factory was built, Kornopuli Paper Mills. The paper used to go to Karachi first, and they exported it. Anything we produced in Bangladesh, then it used to go to Karachi, they exported it to us, and then it became available to us. There was so much scarcity of writing paper. This is just an example. This is just one example. They exported lots of things, in education, in industrial development everything was happening in Pakistan. We, as students, felt very aggrieved about it, but we couldn’t do anything. So amongst us, it gradually crystallised, and things were getting from bad to worse. Then towards the end of 1968 Bhongobondu was arrested for Agarthola Conspiracy Case. That actually came as a shock to us, we didn’t expect that to happen. Not only that, along with him, 34/35 people were put to prison. And we also knew from 1968 to early February/March 1969 more than 1500 people were arrested, only for political reasons. And I think one of them amongst the 34/35 people, who was arrested along with Bhonbondu, he was shot dead in prison by a Pakistani officer. It infuriated all the people in Bangladesh I would say. We were also practically very upset, when I think about what happened it makes me very sad indeed.
So we thought we can’t just sit here. One thing we could do (without breaking the law) was to cripple Pakistan from the monetary side. The Bengalis here worked hard and sent the money to Pakistan, and the money the foreign exchange got was spent in West Pakistan. In Bangladesh every year there were floods but not very much was done about the flood control, or the improvement of the agriculture.
From the political side, that was the limit we thought we could tolerate. We formed an organisation secretly. It was not only us, at that time in every city, in Manchester, London in particular, Birmingham, Leicester, people who felt like us started to form an organisation, just to do something about the country. So in Birmingham, under the chairmanship of Sobur Choudhury we formed a secret organisation called the East Pakistan Liberation Front. We were doing that with the full knowledge that if Pakistan got to know any of our names, we may never be able to go back to our country, or even if we do (go back) we might be put into prison,
We started to work secretly. What did we do? We used to write a small, fortnightly newspaper, ‘Bidruhi Bangla,’ and distribute it to everybody, telling of all the events that were happening in the country. We used to advertise that if you have to send money to support your family, then don’t use Pakistani bank. But at that time there was no other bank that would handle the money (exchange), so if possible don’t send any money at all, but if you do have to – find another way to do it. There was lots of ‘hoondi’ at that time. Unfortunately yes we did advise but that was so that the Pakistan government would not get as much foreign exchange from the Bengali’s hard labour. So that was our activities, gathering information and spreading it in our community.
In 1969, Sheikh Mujib also got released because of the uprising in Bangladesh. The uprising happened because of the shooting in the prison. [Talks about the political history of what happened in Bangladesh.] The Agorthola Conspiracy Case was dropped and Sheikh Mujib was released. So that was a relief. The release of Sheikh Mujib bolted our aspiration.
Unfortunately, at that time there was also a severe cyclone, in which thousands and thousands of people died. The Pakistani government did practically nothing to help the people at the time. That was a time when we decided crippling Pakistan financially was not good enough. Let’s do something more that will help the country become independent. That was our motive. So we talked to people in small gatherings, and friends’ cycles just to spread the idea. Towards the end of 1970, November-December, Sheikh Mujib came to visit London. And at this time we came out in the open, and East Pakistan Liberation Front was no longer an underground organisation. We used to hold meetings and gatherings where we were clearly sharing our grievances against Pakistan. People were sympathetic towards us, or they ignored us, as the British always do, as long as we didn’t take the law into our own hands. As long as we didn’t physically attack you they wouldn’t say anything.
We organised a meeting at Digbeth Civic Hall and invited Sheikh Mujib to come, and he agreed. We told him what we were doing, and he just listened. He did not say yes, well done, or he did not say don’t. He kept smoking his pipe and listening to us. But the fact that he listened to us, and he came to the meeting we organised, was good enough as his consent, we took it. At the end of November, he (Sheikh Mujib) went back to (Bangladesh), and then there was an election. The election swiped the entire (other party), and almost all of the seats were actually won by Awami League.
Things developed quite fast in Bangladesh, and many incidents occurred. From the 5th of March things were a bit tense, a meeting was called in the racecourse Dhaka on 7th March. And we hoped in view of all that was happening, Sheikh Mujib would declare independence. One important thing to remember, since the election, before the start of the war and the atrocities, the Pakistanis had been importing ammunition. They knew what they were doing, or what they would be doing. So we thought to prevent further build-up of Pakistani forces, Sheikh Mujib would declare independence on the 7th of March, but he did not. [continues to talk about political history, and incidents of Bangladesh.
Question: This was a big milestone. But I would request you to focus more on Birmingham.
Answer: The East Pakistan Liberation Front was circulating all these news to others. At that time, the only source (of information) was BBC, which was also scarce, Akash Vani Delhi, Calcutta, Doordarshan. We bought a radio with a short wavelength. We used to sit down in the middle of the night, get the news that was coming, next morning write it down and distribute it to other people.
Question: Who was doing it?
Answer: There were a number of people. I used to collect information. But my involvement, until 25th March, was only during the weekends. There were a number of other people, Mustafizur Rahman (Dipu), Azizul Haq Bhuya, Sobur Choudhury and Israel Shaheb (Question: Israel Miah? Next to Small Heath Park?) Waverley Road. Another person was a housing officer called Khan. We used to pass the information on the phone, then Dipu used to write some of the papers, and I did as well. It was fortnightly. I had to bring in Bangladesh (history), because all of these events were going to have a tremendous effect on what was going to happen in the UK.
From 5th /7th March until 25th March, it was a time of, I can’t describe it. If you feel very happy about something that is going to happen, it’s anticipation and trepidation, fear. Anticipation that Sheikh Shaheb is going to declare independence, so that‘s it, it will be done. And the trepidation, what will happen? What are the consequences? What bloodshed it may lead to. The Pakistanis are not going to (let it go), because they were building up, we knew from here what they were doing. Whether people in Bangladesh knew or not I don’t know. I don’t know about the government circle or the parties. The leadership knew I’m sure. That’s why I had to mention what happened. It was a terrible 2 weeks, the way we passed it.
On the 26th of March, there was a small reference to what happened in the morning in Dhaka, the massacre that was caused. It was absolutely shattering. I came from Leicester to Birmingham, and by the evening all the papers in this country, and the radios and television were saying about the atrocities which had been committed in Bangladesh. All who were involved in EPLF sat down and were saying we have got to do something. By that time few other people also came and joined. Mr Pasha’s house has always been a visiting place for many people. As a would-be lawyer, and because of his personality, he had a very good relationship with everybody. He was a friend of everybody and an enemy of none, he was that sort of person. Some people came, particularly Afruz Miah, he phoned and said, ‘What do we do?’ We have to do something. People started to gather at Mr Pasha’s house. Soon we felt it was an inadequate place, so Afruz Miah said, ‘Why don’t we go to mine?’ He was the chairman of East Pakistan’s Workers’ Federation, it was on 93 Stratford Road I think. So we moved over there. At that time there were organisations on every street almost. Many people came, they wanted to do something. Everybody got to know because everybody had families (back in Bangladesh).
After discussion, in the late morning, of the 26th (March) we came to an agreement that we had to form an action committee. So the Birmingham Action Committee was formed. With the unanimous consent of everybody, Joglu Pasha was elected president, Azizul Haq Bhuya also as secretary of the organisation. Now what do we do? We didn’t have any program. We used to work on the basis that when a problem came we used to discuss it and beyond that, we didn’t do very much. So we said at least we can hold a public meeting. So that was the single, first job we decided to do. But we couldn’t hold a public meeting without a place, and also without the permission of the police. So we said let’s do it. Our objective as East Pakistan Liberation Front, we said enough talk, enough condemnation has been done. This time we are going to say we are an independent nation. We are going to raise a flag and we are going to hold a public meeting and declare independence -that Bangladesh is an independent country and here is our flag. Top of the realm will be our Sheikh Shaheb. That was our agreement.
On 27th March, we went to see the police commissioner in Digbeth, and asked for their permission to hold a meeting at Small Heath Park other than that we couldn’t see any other convenient place for us to go. First of all, they hesitated and said we need to investigate further before we can give permission. Come tomorrow, that is the 28th. March. We thought permission would come, we’re sure. We started to publicise, without even getting permission, we said that there will be a meeting at Small Heath Park at 4 0’clock, to discuss the present situation, please come. We did not have mobile phones, those who had phones in their homes rang around one to another, others verbally. These were the only methods of communication. We didn’t have time to prepare or publish a newspaper about the meeting. By word of mouth and by telephone, it spread like fire throughout Birmingham and also to the towns nearby. To our astonishment, we got permission the next day (from the police).
The next day, as we planned everything, we didn’t ask for any police protection because we didn’t expect any (incidents). But the police looked at it differently. However, we held the meeting. They were many people who gave speeches. The first thing we said is Bangladesh is no more dependent, it is independent. We prepared a flag, we gave the ladies an outline, more or less like the flag that came out, with a map of Bangladesh in the middle and green background. The ladies were working at Mr Pasha’s house overnight preparing it, sewing up the pieces. Now how do you involve everybody? It has to be a struggle of men, women and children. We said, let the ladies go and raise the flag. And who was going to hold it? Misir Ali, he was the youngest lad and always very eager to do something. We asked him to hold the flag, he came willing and held the flag, and that is on the 28th March in Birmingham. And most probably it transpired, because lots of activities were going on in London as well, we didn’t realise that we would be the first city to raise the Bangladeshi flag openly.
Question: Outside Bangladesh?
Answer: of course, outside Bangladesh. That was our first activity. In that meeting, there were some speeches that were quite heated. There were some Pakistani’s who started creating trouble. When people went to stop them, Dr Khalique was actually stabbed in his hand. Immediately the police, who we did not know were going to be there, dispersed those people. I think one or two people were arrested and taken away. Apart from that there were no other incidents in that meeting. People donated money. Mrs Pasha gave away jewellery (gold) she was wearing at that time for the cause. In following meetings, we discussed the publicity of what was happening in Bangladesh to make the British people aware, because without their support we could do nothing. We needed money. Everybody didn’t take into account how difficult or how impractical it would be. But our motto was to raise money and help the freedom fighters in Bangladesh. We had to create a fund, open a bank account, and somebody had to look after it. I used to come and go from Leicester, but at that time I took two weeks leave from the office. They were quite sympathetic. So I volunteered to oversee the fundraising and the money, but somebody has to take the cash, and I can’t do that. So Ismail Ajad, he used to live at Lloyds Street, he was quite near to 52 Wordsworth Road as well, and he was interested, he would do the collection and keep a record of what was happening, and myself, I will oversee it. Everybody was happy with that.
We started raising funds. From morning to midnight, because people used to work shifts, there were streams of people at 52 Wordsworth Road. After finishing work, they used to ask what was happening in Bangladesh. Is there any news? So we had to give all the bad news of what has happening, whatever we could gather using our shortwave radio. On Fridays, when people used to get their wage packets, not like nowadays you get it in the bank, we used to get it in an envelope. People used to open it and say here is some money. At that time, £10, £12 was the average earnings with overtime. Out of that, even if somebody paid £1 you have to remember that it is 10% of his weekly wages. It was a huge contribution. The amount we collected in Birmingham was not adequate to help the freedom fighters.
With our objective in mind, we had to do something else. At that time on 25th March, after hearing about what happened in Bangladesh, Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, was in Geneva for a human rights meeting, he came straight to London. We approached him because a man of his status could do something, and we needed his help. About a month later, about 23/24th April 1971, it took us about a month to organise ourselves and contact all the other organisations and Justice Chowdhury. In that meeting in Coventry, we agreed to form an action committee to bring all the organisations in the UK to come together and work under one leadership, and also to form one single federated organisation, so that we could have one single fund for Bangladesh. Also instead of following various programs over the country, we believed we should have one single leadership, Justice Chowdhury, to advise us. So we had a steering committee formed, Justice Chowdhury became the advisor, Azizul Haq Bhuya became the secretary and we had 4 other members, Abdul Mannan, and I forgot the other 3 names in the steering committee. Two of them did not come to the steering committee office very much because they used to live outside. So mostly it was Mr Mannan and Aziz who were involved mainly.
There were 3 objectives. One was to form a single organisation, the second was to form a strategy and to assist the fighting forces in Bangladesh. As far as I was concerned, I took more time off work as there was lots of travelling to do between Birmingham and London. Aziz became secretary of the Action Committee in Birmingham and was involved in the steering committee in London.
In the meantime, instead of having many funds, the steering company formed one Bangladesh fund. We opened an account and whatever work was needed to be done I did it. After that, we were going to ask people to donate, but the most important thing was publicity. We had to take the British people with us. And not only the British people and the government but also international organisations. From Birmingham Action Committee, under the chairmanship of Joglu Pasha, we wrote to various embassies, the Secretary General at that time. And then the sympathetic politician like Robert Kennedy, we wrote to them. They replied supporting our cause. Many embassies actually did the same, except of course, or the most opposition came from the United States. They were very contentious whenever we went into meet someone in their embassy, simply contentious about many, many things. They said they didn’t want to create another ‘beggar’s bowl’ by supporting Bangladesh. However we went on undaunted. In Birmingham, also we organised different meetings.
Through the steering committee in London, and working with other organisations, we organised marches in Trafalgar Square, in Hyde Park. We had several demonstrations and marches both in Birmingham and London, and other organisations around UK did the same. At one time from Birmingham, we heard about the IMF meeting in Paris to discuss the financial aid to Pakistan. Of course our original intention was to cripple Pakistan financially, so that they do not buy arms and ammunitions, or if we could stop those that donate arms and ammunitions that would be a big help. So we organised a demonstration in Paris, some of us went there and demonstrated. They were quite sympathetic, a couple of us went (I was not there) to give and discuss the memorandum we prepared. We asked them not to grant them money in view of the atrocities that were being committed in Bangladesh. Beyond our expectations, the British supported us, they postponed it for further discussion. It was referred to in London. And subsequently to our delight, they suspended it. They cancelled the aid program to Pakistan, so that was a great big help from our point of view.
Our activities also involved lobbying the MPs and trying to influence the parliament.
Question: You did all this campaigning, lobbying, fundraising and the demonstration event in Paris. You took time off work as well. Can you remember what was happening to your family in Mymensingh? How were you reacting about your family?
Answer: For months I did not have any contact with my family at all. I didn’t know whether they were alive. I knew the army was at Kishoreganj. Sometimes we did hear about what was happening there, to some extent but not everything. Personally, (not as an organisation) some people were stuck in Pakistan because they were there to work. Some people were even in the army at that time in Pakistan. They used to write letters to me in an envelope, and include other letters for their relatives, requesting me to send it to Pakistan. So I used to open them, put them into new envelopes and send them to Pakistan. They used to write it as though they were writing to me, without mentioning anything about the war, just about their wellbeing. So the letters that were replied from Pakistan, I used to post it to Bangladesh. It took quite a while for each one to get a reply for the other one. This is something personally I used to do.
The number of refugees that were going onto India was increasing. My youngest sister, she lived only about a quarter of a mile from our house. She was married to someone who lived near our house. When my father saw the houses in the village were being burnt down, there was fire and smoke, he said enough is enough, let’s leave. So they went to my younger sister’s house, who was heavily pregnant. But by the time my mother, youngest brother and father went to her house she had given birth to a daughter. They said they couldn’t wait, so within half an hour of giving birth, my sister including my family had to flee. They got stuck in a bush, and spent the rest of the day there. Then at night, they started to walk from Kishorganj to Meghaloy. The whole way they just walked and walked. In the daytime they used to hide in strangers’ houses, people were risking their lives in doing that. And not all of them were Hindus. So in this respect you have to salute those people. It was not only the army, it was the ordinary people that actually got involved in the struggle and they tried to share the pain and the suffering. It was tremendous. It was tremendous. So at that time they went to Meghaloy after days of walking at night and stayed there in refugee camps for a few days. My eldest sister migrated to India a long time ago. Instead of waiting at the camp, they went to India and stayed with my elder sister. And that was the personal story of my family.
But I didn’t know any of this until I heard from them. It took months. I am thankful that everyone was alive. I went to visit Kishorganj after the war, I heard the extent of the atrocities. There is a river dividing two parts of the town, people were taken on the bridge, shot and thrown in the river. This is what they did. There was a school, Ajibondhi High School, Mr Motiur Rahman was the best and kindest person I can recall. Because the liberation army built a tent on the school football ground, where we used to play, the army came to his house and brought out his son, and shot him in front of my headmaster, Mr Motiur Rahman. It was really terrible. This sort of thing happened. It hurt me very much because he was such a good man.
Question: The army set up a camp in your old school. If you can repeat that again, please.
Answer: Yes, they set up a camp, but it was soon taken over by the Pakistani army because of resistance. They didn’t have the proper equipment to fight the army so soon it was taken. The fact that they built the camp on the school grounds, was a way of punishing the headmaster by bringing him (son) out of his house and shooting him in front of his father. I mean who can do this? What sort of mind does this? What could the headmaster do? He had been a member of the Muslim League throughout his life, not even an Awami League member. But they didn’t take anything into consideration. This is the type of atrocities committed by the Pakistanis.
Another sad thing that happened, he was also known to me, a zamindar, he was quite a wealthy person of Gangatiya. The army went there. He was not the type of man to go into politics either. He was not anything to do with anybody sort of man. The army went there and said we have come for a special purpose. What? We have to shoot you because you have been a bad influence on people. He said I have done nothing. They said that’s not the case. We will carry out what we have been asked to do. He asked if they will let him say his prayer. Then he sat down and prayed, and said okay I’m ready. He was then shot blank. The purpose was nothing else, it was just to terrorise the people so that they don’t engage in any activity against the state.
Question: I am coming to the 16th of December. When you heard Bangladesh’s independence, can you remember where you were at the time? And how did you react personally?
Answer: I will take you a little bit earlier. As I said, our objective was to raise money and help the fighting forces in Bangladesh. I remember a day with Zaffur Ullah Choudhury, we went to buy one ambulance. It was £40,000 for a second-hand one. We thought this was impossible, one ambulance and it could break down, then what? There has to be some other way to transport arms and ammunition. Without Justice Chowdhury, we will organise it and then will obtain Justice Chowdhury’s approval afterwards. So we approached a neighbouring country through which arms had to go. We had a meeting with a high official of India, we had a meeting one evening, in an unrelated street/location in London. He gave us one important piece of information, by that time Mrs Gandhi was travelling around the world, telling people it was impossible to support 10 million refugees. That was the message she was spreading all over. We did not realise that she was planning to provide military help or attack Pakistan. In that meeting, me, Aziz and one other person (forgets name) he gave us a clue. He said think rationally, how much money have you raised altogether? It was £250, 000, but subsequently, it went up when the other organisations deposited their money. He smiled and said it will go in 2 minutes. Suppose we give you permission to send something from abroad, this will go in 2 minutes. Rather carry on doing what you are doing – publicise. Create public opinion. If you can mobilise public opinion and can influence the MPs and the government, that will be the biggest thing you can do. And I cannot, he said, share everything with you, but soon something is going to happen. Be assured we are trying to help as much as possible. But please do not send arms and ammunition it will be of no use. Then we got the message and we didn’t discuss it further with Justice Chowdhury. Within 7 days, the news came that the war had started. There was jubilation. Everybody was so overwhelmed and everybody was so anxious to know what was going on. We tried to gather as much information as possible through the sources I mentioned, the British press, television, and radios – at that time it was full of what was happening in Bangladesh. It was the happiest moment for everyone – not only for those people who were involved in the struggle - every Bengali. We had other support as well – the Birmingham MP, Roy Attachly, Peter Shaw and John … and many MPs. We walked through the streets of London, Birmingham. You may find some photos. I saw one in Mr Pasha’s house – he is at the front with a big garland, Azizul Bhuya and myself, we were walking. It was a day of celebration indeed. It was the happiest moment for everyone.
Question: My last question. You have gone through this movement of 1971 and before 1971. Now 2022, how do you feel now about what you have done and gone through?
Answer: It is a feeling of hope and also a feeling of jubilation. I still study – the first thing I look at is the exchange rate to see what the money is doing. When I see Pakistan is over 200+ rupees to a pound, and Bangladesh is 140 taka, I feel very happy. The economy is where the strength lies. It is where the respect from other nations is. If you are financially strong as a nation then you have got everything. When I see Bangladesh doing well in the field job, finance, industry, that is brilliant. I follow everything. It is a feeling of hope. The corruption and the lawlessness that the people say there is makes me very despondent as well, very sad. But I hope like many developing nations, in many countries in the world, democracy, law and order follow wealth and education. When people start thinking what is going on is wrong, and the government is allowed to concentrate on the development side of people that will be a day for Bangladesh. But I’m very hopeful, the dream we had will be fulfilled one day. It is on its way.