‘Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero’ review: A ringside view of the Bangladesh liberation warJanuary 29, 2022 16:39 IST
A veteran journalist, who reported on the 1971 conflict, writes a vivid account of the happenings in East Pakistan and Calcutta
With a ringside view of events in the run-up to Bangladesh’s liberation war as a cub reporter of the Calcutta newspaper, The Statesman , Manash Ghosh’s book Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero is a page-turner. It turned out to be a serendipitous assignment when Ghosh was sent to cover the Second Asian Highway Car Rally (November 15, 1970), to the India-East Pakistan border at Petrapole-Benapole, where he ran into people willing to disclose what was happening in then East Pakistan.
From them, he gleaned information on reasons that led to Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s downfall, caused mostly by a mass upheaval in East Pakistan, General Yahya Khan’s rise to power, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s six-point autonomy movement. They also foretold the tumult ahead. Ghosh’s article about the gathering storm in East Pakistan was titled ‘When Brother meets Brother’ and aroused a lot of interest.
With Bengalis “yearning for a Bengali nation,” Pakistan began to prepare a military blueprint to “break the back of [the] Mujib-led secessionist movement.” Led by Lt Gen. Khadim Hussain Raza and Lt Gen. Tikka Khan, Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971, a military action to curb the Bengali nationalist movement which left lakhs of people dead and resulted in nearly 10 million fleeing the country as refugees. It was a pity, the author notes, that initially neither the Indian nor the international media took reports of the killings or the exodus seriously, even as UNI journalists began filing reports of refugees fleeing East Pakistan, the blasting of the Bengali language martyr memorial Shahid Minar and other atrocities.
Ghosh, first acting on his own and then teaming up with a senior colleague, went to the border to find out details, and got to knowGolak Bihari Majumdar(then DG BSF Eastern Command who played a key role in leading many of Sheikh Mujib government’s men to safety to Calcutta)and Petrapole Commandant K.B. Singh. Singhhad once asked Ghosh to accompany an Italian company official to Calcutta and put him up at a hotel. The Italian had somehow managed to escape the carnage in Dhaka to reach the border. The Italian’s story too would make the front page, and earn him a pat from his editor who asked Ghosh officially to report on East Pakistan.
Ghosh narrates stories of tacit assistance to the struggle by India and the diplomatic coup when it was revealed to the world that a Bangladesh government-in-exile was working out of Calcutta. He writes that when Tajuddin Ahmed, appointed Prime Minister by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, (after unilateral declaration of Bangladesh’s Independence in March, 1971) met Prime MinisterIndira Gandhi, seeking military intervention by India, she informed him that India would help when the time was appropriate. Ghosh also explains how the Indian Armyraised and trained the Mukti Bahini, “a force composed wholly of Bengali youth, who had sought shelter in India.”
The External Affairs Ministry had opened its branch secretariat in Calcutta, headed by a seasoned Bengali diplomat, Ashoke Roy who became Ghosh’s news source. Ghosh came to know, for instance, how RAW’s (Research and Analysis Wing) vigil frustrated a counter plan to thwart Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Gen. Yahya had been able to identify those in the Awami League-led “provisional government” who could play the role of a Trojan horse in future and help him derail the “so-called liberation war.” Although Gen. Yahya’s moves did not succeed then, recalls Ghosh, “it marked the beginning of the process to take Bangladesh in the reverse direction. Four years later, it culminated in the assassination of Sheikh Mujib and almost his entire family.” Ghosh’s account of his adventurous trip across the Padma river in a small boat to cover a daring raid on the Sarda Police Academy by the muktijoddhas (Mukti Bahini) and other details make for remarkable reading.
Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero; Manash Ghosh, Niyogi Books, ₹695.
The reviewer was with the Indian Navy during the Bangladesh liberation war.