Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero, MANASH GHOSH, Niyogi Books Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, INR-695, ISBN No- 978-93-91125-37-0, 2021, Pages- 220
Dhritiman Mukherjee

Manash Ghosh’s Bangladesh War: Report From Ground Zero offers a gripping narrative of the events that occurred during the liberation war of Bangladesh or Muktijuddho in 1971. The book written in lucid language is one of its kinds when it comes to providing first hand information of the liberation war from the frontlines in East Pakistan. The author, a cub reporter at the time of the war in Statesman a renowned English daily, showed immense courage and determination to go deep inside East Pakistan for covering the battle being fought by the Muktijoddhas against the Pakistan Army. The book discusses several angles of the Bangladesh war- starting with the alienation and growing disillusionment among the residents of East Pakistan with the military rule of Yahya Khan and ending with the victory of all those forces fighting to realize the dream of an independent Bangladesh.

Ghosh got a chance meeting with three residents of East Pakistan near Petropole-Benapole border while covering the Second Asian Highway Car Rally in November, 1970. From his conversation with these three individuals, he got to know about the injustices that were being meted out to the Bengalis in East Pakistan by the ruling Yahya regime. He gives an account of how the ruling dispensation in West Pakistan turned a blind eye to the devastation that was caused by super cyclone Bhola in many parts of East Pakistan and the apathy was reflected in the relief operations. A glimpse of the gathering storm in the eastern province of Pakistan was evident in the words of these three individuals. Ghosh awaited the outcome of the election that was due to be held on 7th December 1970. After getting it confirmed from several sources, he was assured that the election results will give way to “earth shaking” events that will change the history of Pakistan. Writing a report on the contemporary situation in East Pakistan proved to be a challenging task for Ghosh as most of the Indian and Bengali newspapers preferred to ignore what was happening in the Eastern province of Pakistan. His first report on the condition of people in East Pakistan won him a lot of accolades.

Ghosh depicts how Yahya Khan was reluctant to transfer the reins of power to Sheikh Mujib Ur Rehman, the leader of the party Awami League that had secured victory in 162 out of 164 seats in East Pakistan. Both Yahya and Bhutto had conspired not to let Mujib rule Pakistan by any means. This was due to the long drawn prejudice they held towards the Bengalis, whom the Pujabis and the Pathans of West Pakistan considered to be racially inferior. The ruling elite in West Pakistan were of the opinion that the Bengalis were treacherous and close to India, especially the Hindus. Throughout the period between December 1970 and 25th March 1971, when the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight in Dacca, Yahya was dilly-dallying and buying time to launch a brutal military operation in East Pakistan to quell the growing popular discontentment against his rule. He tried on a number of occasions to draw Mujib into a power sharing deal with Bhutto. After realizing the evil intentions of Yahya, Mujib was convinced that he will never be allowed to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan even after being elected as the leader of the majority party of Pakistan. This led him to give the clarion call of independence from the colonial yoke of Pakistan in his much famous speech on 7th March in Dacca Race Course Maidan.

Ghosh clarifies how news of the brutalities committed by the Pakistan army on the night of 25th March 1971 never came to India and the whole world, until the report made by S. Handa of UNI. Despite facing rebuke from his seniors in office, the author took the risk of travelling to the border areas to find out the exact nature of the mass killing done by the Pakistan army and report on it. It was due to his unflinching energy and determination that he got hold of an Italian citizen coming out of Dacca near the Benapole border. The Italian was witness to the gruesome killings perpetrated by the Pakistan army in the streets of Dacca. His account helped Ghosh to prepare a report in the Statesman that illustrated the ruthlessness of Operation Searchlight.

Ghosh regularly visited the war torn districts in East Pakistan like Jessore, Satkhira and Pabna by crossing the Gede-Darsana border. He was horrified to witness the crimes committed by the Pakistan army, especially on women and children, like the one he saw in Chachor. The Bengalis of East Pakistan greeted him with a lot of jubilation after knowing that he had come all the way from Calcutta to cover their struggle for freedom. He also joined the sector commanders of Mukti Bahini in their expeditions against the Pakistan army in order to cover their valiant resistance from the frontline and due to this the readers actually got to know a lot of unknown facts. The chapter on crossing the mighty Padma River is quite fascinating and seems nothing less than a thriller story to the readers. Ghosh came across a number of people from all walks of life who had sacrificed everything just to be a part of the liberation struggle. The Bengali servicemen in EPR (East Pakistan Rifles) and EBR (East Bengal Rifles) had defected to fight the Pakistani forces. The case of the 14 year old Muktijoddha named Shirin Bano Mitil whom Ghosh met in Pabna was inspiring.

Apart from a lot of information and fascinating stories on liberation war, the book also offers to its readers an account of the support that was extended by India to the cause of the freedom struggle. It tells us how the Indian government led by Indira Gandhi left no stone unturned in ensuring that the genuine demand for a separate nation of Bangladesh became a reality. Her meetings with Tajuddin Ahmed, the Prime Minister of the government in exile in Calcutta have been cited well by the author. Indira did well to organize the formation of the provisional government in the presence of international media at Baidyanathtala in Meherpur. She also waited for the correct moment to intervene militarily despite facing a lot of opposition from other political parties. She however got the support of parties like CPI and Jan Sangh on this issue. Apart from Indira, many other unheralded heroes like the BSF officers- KF Rustamji and Golak Majumder also made instrumental contributions to the liberation war. Shahbeg and Sant Singh did well to train the muktijoddhas or the guerilla forces in a number of camps set up in India.

On the diplomatic front, Indian diplomats posted in different parts of the world tried their best in moulding international opinion towards the cause of the liberation war. Ghosh mentions how most of the countries in the world including ones like Indonesia and Yugoslavia which were part of the Non-Aligned Movement never supported the Bangladesh movement and also chastised India for supporting a secessionist cause in a foreign country. However, some leaders like Ted Kennedy who visited the refugee camps in Calcutta were moved to witness the appalling conditions of the people living in them. Their campaigns in favour of the Indian government proved to the whole world how Yahya was lying about the military excesses committed by his army in East Pakistan. The help provided to India by Soviet Russia proved to be decisive in balancing USA and China who were in support of Pakistan.

The book also provides an insightful account of the dissensions in the leadership of the Awami League where leaders like Khondokar Moshtaque and Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni were against Tajuddin Ahmed leading the provisional government. The communist parties were also a divided house where Pro-Soviet communist parties like NAP (M) and CPB demanded a provisional government that also included them (which was never accepted by Awami League) and the Pro-Peking or Naxalite parties like Purbo Banglar Communist Party were totally against the liberation war. Ghosh has rightly portrayed Tajuddin Ahmed as the just and undisputed leader of the liberation war after Mujib. He has mentioned in multiple chapters that in spite of the opposition in Awami League against Tajuddin’s leadership, there existed no other leader of his stature who could replace him. At the fag end of the book, we get to know how Pandit Ravi Shankar, the famous Sitar player of India played his role by participating in a concert that was meant to raise funds for Bangladesh.

To conclude one has to say that Manash Ghosh has penned down a wonderful book that provides us a peek into the history and course of the liberation war of the youngest nation of South Asia. We get to learn about the contributions of a number of personalities whom we rarely come across in other books related to the topic. The author has done a splendid job in covering multiple facets of the Bangladesh movement, the most important of them is the role played by India. It is a must read for students, scholars and journalists who take special interest in knowing the history and politics of South Asian nations, specifically Bangladesh.

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