1971 – A fateful year for the family

My mothers passport showing clearing the dates of our fateful trip

We left to settle down before the Dec 1970 General Elections in East Pakistan and had to come running back to the UK during the Bangladesh liberation War for our own security.

My family were living a very prosperous life in London during the sixties with a house in the surburbs and a restaurant business in the West End, before my parents felt the urge to “go back home” in 1970, home being Sylhet, East Pakistan. My father had by then been in the UK since the mid-1950’s and it was clear his heart and mind were still in Bengal. As a small child, the thing l remember best about this departure was filling the huge trunks with all our worldly possessions before being sent off by ship to a destination on the other side of the world. 

As soon as we set foot there, we entered into the turmoil of the Pakistani General Election of 1970. As a result of national disasters in East Pakistan the election was moved to December and the lack of response by the public authorities meant this was a key issue. During the election campaign l can well remember learning the first political slogan l learnt  “Joi Bangla – amar Desh, tomar Desh” as the Awami League had a stomping victory in the East, giving them a mandate to run the whole of Pakistan, in an election considered by all to have been free and fair. 

Amidst the stand of between the military authorities and political parties, on the 7th of March, the family were in Dhaka for a wedding, when word broke out that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib was going to be making a speech that day at the Dhaka Race Course. On immediately hearing this my parents like many others duly left us at the wedding to go and hear the momentous speech that was about to be made. I felt very sorry for the bride at the wedding as the guest all left except for us kids. Ever since whenever l’ve been at a wedding, l have always wondered what else l may be missing! 

On the fateful night of the 25th of March, we heard the first of our relatives had been killed in Chittagong – Lt Col M R Choudhury – and this brought immediate panic in the extended family. He left his wife and children in Sylhet after the Eid festivities, clearly aware something was going to happen when he went back.  We were immediately moved to the villages by foot and were put up by relatives there as we all fled the town and cities, in response to the Pakistan Army “Operation Searchlight” crackdown on Bengali nationalists. Other relatives made their way to India and tea plantations, as it was only 60 miles away. With no cars and rickshaws available we moved by foot, on journeys which seemed to take days to get away from Pakistani military persence in the cities and towns. 

We later had another family member brutally killed in Chittagong in the second week of April, Shafi Ahmed Choudhury who had been the Chief Planning Officer of East Pakistan Railway, for giving logistic support to the Bengali resistance. The next few months were the most dangerous months for our immediate and extended family when we lived on a diet of rice and jackfruit something l grew to hate as an adult because of its smell! 

As we had UK passports, we were sent back to the UK during the end of Bangladesh liberation War for our own security. And l can remember well hearing on the Radio, George Harrison’s Bangla Desh song! He had just held the first ever relief concert in New York’s Maddison Square Gardens to raise monies for the millions of Bengali refugees going into India in response to his friend Ravi Shankar cry for help. So l really could not get away from it all even when l was back in the UK! 

There was of course turmoil on the streets of London as well as we were put up by our uncle near Westbourne Park tube station, not far from the Mangrove. The issue on the streets of this part of West London was the police repeatedly raiding the Mangrove, on grounds of drug possession, despite a lack of evidence. An issue that was going to dominate the nature of the relationship between Black Londoners and the Met for decades to come. 

So you can see 1971 was a very fateful year for my family. And whilst the family does make annual journeys back to Bangladesh, we don’t ever now bring up the topic of attempting to settle there again. After the first experience it is not surprising really!

Myself and my younger brother & sister in Dhaka 1971