Women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of 25th March 1971.Credit - Rashid Talukder. Courtesy of Drik and Autograph ABP.
Arifa Hafiz measures haunting images against her own memories of the war.
“I don’t know of a single family in Bangladesh that has not been affected by the war in 1971” says Shahidul Alam, director of Drik and curator, in partnership with Autograph ABP, of the photographic exhibition Bangladesh 1971 in Rivington Place. “Each time I come to this project I am always amazed how this war, this conflict, is never really referred to when we talk about issues of genocide - or in relation to the partition of 47 and how Bangladesh is forgotten in terms of the massive story of the legacy of imperialism” says Mark Sealy, director of Autograph.
On the day the Pakistani army cracked down on Dhaka City on 26th March, 1971, I was there. The soldiers broke in and took my grandfather and the young man who worked in our house. Somehow they managed to escape and returned in the curfew, but for our neighbours that was the last night they saw their father and sons. Since my father was studying here, my mother and I came to London. Many Bangladeshis here today, including Monica Ali, arrived because of the war in 1971.
Once here, the former East Pakistani residents campaigned for the recognition of the independent state of Bangladesh. In my memory the sea of people flooding into the massive rally in Trafalgar Square rivalled the anti-Iraq War protest in 2003. This exhibition, however, is about the war within Bangladesh taken by Bangladeshi photographers.
10th January 1972 - Mujibur Rehman (Bangladesh’s first president) returning from Pakistan. Credit - Rashid Talukder. Courtesy of Drik and Autograph ABP.
“This war was not about armies – this is a struggle where every civilian in Bangladesh was involved with in some way: farmers, everyday people, women, ” Alam reminds us. Some of the photographers were actual freedom fighters, like Mohammad Shafi, whose diaries, buried underground and recovered after the war, are the only non-photographic artefacts on display. Alam characterises these Bangladeshi photographers as freedom fighters for the huge personal risks they took to preserve the only “physical documentation of this war”.
While for Bangladeshis who remember, this exhibition can be intensely emotional, for others, this exhibition brings up other questions: “How come nothing came of the trial of the war crimes from this inhuman genocide?” asks a journalist and photographer from India. Alam wants the photographs from this exhibition and those that Drik have collected in their archive to provide a “platform for the seeking of justice, for the trial of the war criminals and collaborators from 71”.
While the exhibition documents the political story, the landslide election victory of Sheikh Mujib, the betrayals by collaborators, the massacre of intellectuals two days before the surrender of the Pakistani forces - it also portrays other stories that have been difficult to assimilate. Walking out in the newly liberated town of Mymensingh, the photographer Naib Uddin Ahmed came across woman who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army: his picture of a woman covering her face with her hair bears witness to the contradictory state policy regarding such women. As Antara Datta, cited on the walls of the exhibition, writes: “The new Bangladeshi state tried to incorporate these women into national life by calling them birangonas, or heroines, but simultaneously refused to grant citizenship to the children born of rape…the ambiguous figure of the birangona (the shamed one) cannot be easily contained within a generalised glorious narrative of the nation.”
Two boys stand among rocket bombs left by Pakistani army at the picnic corner in Jessore, Bangladesh. 11/12/1971. Credit - Abdul Hamid Raihan.Courtesy of Drik and Autograph ABP.
There is a season of films accompanying this exhibition, in association with local east London Rainbow Film Society, showing upstairs at Rivington Place and at the Rich Mix Centre. These films do some of the work in helping to reach out to those who have not had exposure to this history before. Perhaps more was needed in terms of text and explanation accompanying the photographs to bring the importance of this struggle home to Londoners. If you are not familiar with any of these images or do not have a version of this story already, if you do not recognise some of the faces, if you do not go with Bangladeshis who fill these pristine white walls of the Rivington Place exhibition space with emotion-racked memories which are also a celebration of the idealistic struggle for freedom, secular tolerance and democracy – then you will have to work a little harder.