Window into history

I had already considered myself dead. I had sent my family to India, because I was sure my decision to photograph these events would eventually kill me. But I survived, I live to tell the tale of what I saw, and what happened while our people made history.

Abdul Hamid Raihan,

The ebullient spirit of 1969-70, when war was imminent, is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a young boy, no older than 10, leading a street march. The boy is obviously poor (he marches in bare feet) but his mouth is formed in an ecstatic shout as he leads the procession of men behind him, as though for those few minutes, it is his war, his people, his country.

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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".

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If there is one period in history from which Pakistan most adamantly averts its eyes, it is 1971. That year, Pakistan ceased to be a nation with two wings, and the state of Bangladesh came into being. And so I turn to the Bangladeshi photographers in order to fix my gaze on that blood-soaked epoch. I don't even realise I'm doing this, at first. I think I'm looking at a man's head, cast in marble; the sculpture is cheek-down amid a cluster of stones, almost camouflaged by them. Then I read the caption: "Dismembered head of an intellectual killed 14 December 1971 by local collaborators of Pakistani army. Bangladesh." It is extraordinarily eerie, and sad. There are other pictures of that period, too. Many, if not all, will probably be familiar to anyone from Bangladesh; none are part of Pakistan's consciousness.

Pakistan's erasure of its own muddled history,

1971 was a turning point. Rashid Talukder’s nose for a picture and his journalistic instinct, ensured that he was at the right place at the right time throughout Bangladesh’s turbulent history. Having had no formal education in photography, Talukder was freed of the compositional binds that many contemporary image makers were trapped within. The 2 ¼ square had its own aesthetic, but Talukder and other photojournalists used the balanced frame to capture some of the most disturbing images of the 20th century.

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Many of you have probably seen this photograph, I have forgotten where I saw it first, whether in a book on 1971, or at the Muktijuddho Jadughor, I am not very comfortable about showing it, or talking about it, the only thing I can say is that I never allow myself to forget this image. I interviewed the photographer who took it. Before I spoke to him I’d thought that the young woman whose name is unknown, was dead, but Naibuddin bhai, who is a well-known and highly respected photographer, who unfortunately passed away a year ago, had this to tell me when I wanted to know about the photograph:

She was pulled out. Dragged out from the Pakistani army’s bunker. The Pakistani army had camped at the Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh. They had captured and occupied Mymensingh on April 19. When the army left in December, when they were forced to flee, people had rushed to the BAU campus. Looting began, army bunkers, storeroom, there was looting all around, everywhere. Common people were looting, they were all over the place. ‘I do not know whether it was from rage, or what…,’ he had gently added.

That is when we heard the news. Girls had been discovered in the bunkers which were next to the university guesthouse. I went and found her, she was lying like that. People were milling around her, they were in front of her, they were behind her. I asked them to move, I made some space, and then I took photographs. It was the 12 December 1971, that was the day Mymensingh became free. The Indian army had entered the town, they had entered the campus, they had taken control.

When I approached her, she seemed to be in a trance. There were others. I heard 8 - 10 girls had been found in the bunkers, some had already left. I found her alone. She did not respond when we called out. Her hands were raised. She was holding on to the pole behind her.

Of course, it was a tamasha, a spectacle. There were people, both men and women who had come in search of their daughters, and their sisters. But there were onlookers, as well. They had stood and stared. They did not share the pain and suffering of the girls, their helplessness. They looked on and thought, the military has done it to them. They have nothing left. They are finished.

He had added, she might have found refuge in Mother Teresa's home in Kolkata later but he wasn’t sure.

Cruel story behind Naib Uddin Ahmed's famous tied rape girl photograph

The crowd listened to him ardently as he explained the scenario at the border area where he captured the images in August 1971. Raghu Rai was a young man of 27 back then. He narrated his moments of utter shock as he had reached the border in 1971. According to him, there were thousands and thousands of refugees but the place was shrouded with dead silence. There was an air of deep tragedy and intense trauma that all those Bangladeshi refugees were going through. Without wasting any moment and without speaking a single word, Raghu Rai, who felt their suffering, started to capture those intense moments, making sure not to scare the children with his camera. His pictures showcase the evident sufferings through the gloomy eyes of women and children.

These images have never been exhibited before. As Raghu Rai said, he had lost those films. After 41 long years, he found the films in an old locked box with the label ‘Bangladesh’. The moment he discovered the films, he immediately contacted Shahidul Alam of ‘Pathshala’ (the Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist). Eventually, that led to a chain reaction which resulted in this unique and brilliant exhibition.

As one strolls down the gallery, he would not be able to ignore the pain and hollowness entrenched deep into the eyes of the refugees who were citizens of our very own country. One will never be able to fully empathize with what they were going through. Raghu Rai immortalized those images, one can empathize well enough.

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One of Rai’s most telling images was of a mother unable to feed her child because her breast was emaciated. You could count her, and her child’s, ribs. Looking at that photograph, two teenage boys started giggling, as if they had never seen nipples before. Seeing them leer as though the image was vulgar, evoking what could be read as bibhatsa (disgust) in the place of karuna (compassion) or krodha (anger), it was apparent why Bangladesh needs to reclaim its history, and why works like Rai's photographs matter. The war was fought over four decades ago, and Bangladesh has just got around to prosecuting some leaders accused of having committed war crimes. The International Crimes Tribunal is meant to bring the accused to justice, but it also has the purpose of educating the generation that has grown up since the war, about what really happened at that time.

For many, the knowledge of the Liberation War comes from stories shared within the family, but for millions of other Bangladeshis, Rai’s photographs can contribute to the growing need for information and understanding about the events of 1971.

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Given the bleak backdrop, Rai’s black and white photography is overpoweringly personal for the most part. Rai, then a photographer with the Kolkata-headquartered daily The Statesman, charts the travails of refugees flooding in through West Bengal’s porous Bongaon border and Jessore Road during 1971’s monsoon season. You feel the wetness everywhere - drenched skin, rain-matted hair, glistening roads and trees, slushy paths, slippery bus tops, soggy patches around refugee camps, drying saris sheltering infants, injections for preventing water-borne diseases and the occasional umbrella—as the uprooted millions trudged, got carried, rode on carts or bus tops, tripped, fell or gave up en route to safer land.

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There are always choices to make in any editorial process. Sensitivities to watch out for. Strategies to adopt. An event that took place forty years ago, is living to many. The intention is not to ignite the pain of the past, but to find ways to heal. There are photographs in this book by some of the greatest war photographers of modern times. There are photographs by amateurs who tried with their cameras to record moments they had lived through. Some of the photographers became heroes, some have only recently been discovered. These were analogue days, and for Bangladeshi photographers finding film, processing, and preserving negatives, while under occupation and on the move, meant taking enormous risks. Their negatives are scarred from battle and bear the wounds of time.

While images from well-known western agencies are pristine, some of the photographers have long since passed away. Those who are alive, remember the war as each experienced it, from a particular vantage point. Names are forgotten. Places are guessed at. Dates are approximations. In the case of a few iconic photographs where the moments are enshrined in history, we have been able to reconstruct the moment. Sometimes with the help of the photographer, and when the photographer has been missing through piecing together shards of scattered memories, fading documents, perhaps from fragments of a film. Gaps still remain. We have accepted these gaps in our collective memory and kept them as they were found. The wonders of Photoshop would have allowed us to simulate the well preserved negative, the pristine slide, even the modern day digital image, but we felt revealing the scars would be part of the act of remembering. An integral part of being a witness. So you see these images as they were found. The descriptions are as they were remembered. Poignant in some cases, scant in others, missing in the rest. As is the nature of history.

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Dilemma

Bangladesh 1971 also presents a complex portrait of the slaughter. On 18 December 1971, two days after victory was officially achieved, Rashid Talukder had famously snapped Bengali men in uniform stabbing suspected Bihari razakars with bayonet in front of a large, encircled crowd who had gathered to watch the 'tamasha' (show). However, these 'law enforcers' were no ordinary men - they were Kader 'Tiger' Siddiqui and members of his Kaderia Bahini. And Kader Siddiqui was too powerful a man to antagonise. No publication had been prepared to take the risk. Rashid Talukder knew that unlike the three Western photographers (Horst Faas, Michel Laurent and Christian Simonpietri) who had also witnessed the live execution he would not leave Bangladesh and dash to a safe haven overseas. He would be staying and the men behind the executions were among the most powerful - and potentially violent - in the country. So Rashid Talukder hid the picture from public sight and kept it to himself for more than 20 years.

Rashid publishing this picture would have been equivalent to him signing his own death warrant.

Shahidul Alam, founder of Drik Picture Agency

A similar photo by Michel Laurent and Horst Faas was featured on front pages and magazine covers around the world and won the duo the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and World Press Photo. Horst Faas became the first photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize twice, having won it previously in 1965 for his work in the Vietname War.

The photographs were shockingly graphic, detailing the torture and execution of men and provoked outrage.

Three photos show Mukti Bahini extracting revenge on the people who sided with Pakistan during the independence movement. After torturing them for hours, they bayoneted and executed these four men, who were suspected of collaborating with Pakistani militiamen who had been accused of murder, rape and looting. The last picture shows a relative of one of these four men being stomped to death by Mukti Bahini.

The controversy surrounding the photos were that many photographers deemed that the massacre would never have occurred if they (the photographers) were not there. It was as if they were invited to a ‘photo-opportunity’, many recalled. Many photographers, including Magnum’s Marc Riboud, UPI’s Peter Skingley, ITN’s Richard Linley, and Panos’ Penny Tweedie, left. They asked all others to join them, but others like the Observer’s Tony McGrath and the Daily Express’s William Lovelace deemed they have a duty to remain and tell the story. Two of those who stayed behind, Horst Faas and Michael Laurent of AP decided to pool their photos and shared the 1972 Pulitzer. Faas maintained that Skingley & co. left not because of some moral highground but because the rally was dragging on without anything much happening and it was getting dark.

The bayoneting photo became the iconic image of the East Bengal War along with Rashid Talukder’s photo of a mutilated head. In Delhi, the photos were received with shock: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian soldiers aiding the Bengal liberation to stop incidents like this.

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One of the rebel leaders, "Tiger" Siddiqui, was the instigator of the murders, Faas said later. The prisoners were publicly tortured before they were executed. Then the crowd of onlookers went after Faas and his colleague, Pulitzer co-winner Michel Laurent. "I've never run so fast in my life," said Faas.

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In 1993, prominent Bengali photographer and founder of the Drik Picture Agency in Dhaka, Shahidul Alam, convinced Rashid Talukder that there was no longer extreme danger in publishing the images in Bangladesh. Thus, 22 years after it was originally snapped, the photograph was published in The Daily Star newspaper along with an article by Shahdiul Alam. In 2000, Shahidul Alam wanted to show this image in his first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh. However, Bangladesh Government requested that he remove this image, in which the traditional narrative of Bengalis as victims and razakars as perpetrators were reversed. Shahidul Alam's refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum in Dhaka.

Nevertheless, in 2010, Rashid Talukder became the first Bangladeshi photographer to have won the prestigious 'Pioneer Photographer Award', part of 'All Roads Photography Programme' of the National Geographic, for his 1971 Liberation War photo which contained the infamous Kaderia Bahini execution photo.

There are other complex figures, most notably Sheikh Mujib. Revered throughout the independence struggle as the father of the nation, then brutally assassinated in 1975, Mujib left a legacy that is continually being reassessed, not least because his daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is a prominent Bangladeshi politician. Naib Uddin Ahmed’s photograph of Mujib returning to Dhaka in January 1972 (he had been in prison in Pakistan throughout the war) emphasises the passion he inspired in his followers, as his procession is surrounded by thousands of cheering citizens of the newborn country. But the most touching portrait of Mujib is one where he is shown embracing his daughter, the young Hasina. He glows with pride, and she with love. It's a reminder that behind every political execution – and south Asia has had its share – is the death of a loved one.

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