About the Book
Publisher : Niyogi Books
The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, also known as the Muktijudhdho, was a result of the total alienation of the Bengalis of East Pakistan from the non-Bengalis of the West, setting off a violent political upheaval in the eastern unit of the country, ultimately leading to the formation of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
This riveting first-hand account of the Liberation War has been written by a former journalist of The Statesman. In fact, the author, then a mere cub reporter, had predicted the coming of the war as early as in January 1971 by writing an article in the Sunday Statesman titled ‘When Brother meets Brother’. When the conflict started, he was one of the very few Indian journalists who covered the epochal event from the very beginning until the final surrender by the Pakistan military in Khulna on 17 December.
The highlight of this book is how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, impelled by the ruling military junta’s highly exploitative and discriminatory policies pursued towards the Bengali population, evolved the Bengali mindset for waging a Muktijudhdho for their independence with Indian help. Having gone deep inside East Pakistan to cover the liberation war and being on good terms with sector commanders of the Mukti Bahini and senior Awami League leaders, the author provides many hitherto unknown facts which add a different dimension to this book.
Manash Ghosh graduated from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi and joined The Statesman in 1966 as a trainee journalist. His big break came in 1971 when the Bangladesh Liberation War started. He covered it from various battlefields as an embedded journalist at considerable risk to his life. When Bangladesh won the war and became independent, he was posted in Dacca as the paper’s bureau head for three years. He has served in various positions including as chief of Calcutta news bureau and as resident editor of the Delhi edition. In 2004 he was made the founding editor of Dainik Statesman, a Bengali language daily newspaper run by The Statesman group, which he helmed for 11 years.
We interviewed the author about his debut book Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero, the political, social and economic impact of 1971 war and much more.
Booknerds: The devastating cyclone lashed the southern coastline at a speed of 190 km per hour accompanied by tidal waves 13-20ft high. It swept away 500,000 people to sea and left in its wake a massive trail of death, destruction and human misery.
How critical was this natural travesty to the events that unfolded in 1971?
Manash Ghosh: I have dwelt at length on the impact that the cyclone had on the election outcome. President Yahya’s total mishandling of the worst natural disaster that the world had ever experienced and also complete lack of empathy for the cyclone victims, especially in terms of providing timely relief, have been explained in great detail in my book. Also how Sheikh Mujib used this in his poll campaign strategy to swing the Bengali psyche in favour of his party –the Awami League –to sweep the poll in East Pakistan. Besides, what has also been explained in my book is how the Pakistani establishment neglected in setting up the necessary infrastructure for building an early warning system that could warn East Pakistanis well in advance of an approaching cyclone and its severity, though this Gangetic deltaic region was hit by cyclonic storm at least once a year.
Booknerds: If you have any doubt about our credibility and the authenticity of our observations, cross-check it with our ace and legendary swimmer Brojen Das who is now in Calcutta.
The Trinity that set the ball rolling for your journalistic intrigue towards the happenings in East Pakistan is extremely pivotal in your book Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero. Do tell us more about the chance encounter.
Manash Ghosh: I had gone to the Indo–East Pakistan border at Petrapole to witness the Asian Highway Car Rally out of sheer curiosity as I was then and even now an avid car enthusiast, though I had not been assigned to cover the event. On reaching the border I found security on both sides was quite lax and not as stringent as I had expected. Seeing many Indians being allowed to go up to the no man’s land. I saw a big crowd had gathered there and I too headed for it. I saw on the Pakistani side the welcome sign “KhoshAamded” written in Bangla script. I asked one of the triumvirates its meaning. He gave me a hard look and replied in Bangla it means “swagatam” in Bangla.”But I think it is an Urdu expression” He asked me whether I was from Calcutta and an Indian. He then returned to his friends and I could hear him distinctly telling them “Even an Indian does not know the meaning of ‘khoshamded’.
Look, this anachronism has struck as odd-even to an Indian Bengali also. He asked me its meaning. ” I found the man interesting and tried to eavesdrop on what he was discussing so animatedly with his friends. I heard him and his friends taking Sheikh Mujib’s name several times and also mentioning Awami League in the same breath. I could not suppress my curiosity and asked them point blank about the outcome of the forthcoming poll. It was then they asked for my identity card. After examining it they opened their heart out to me all of which is recounted in my book. But they were the first ones to give me a detailed perspective of the prevailing situation in East Pakistan and to date, I am grateful to them for that.
Booknerds: How independent and accurate were newspapers during the period when you started as a reporter? Were editors supportive of a greenhorn like you?
Manash Ghosh: I can’t speak for other dailies but The Statesman was fiercely independent in policy and outlook which got reflected on its opinion pieces and reports. It covered events in Pakistan (read West Pakistan) well as it had stationed in Islamabad, one of its ace reporters, Mr Surinder Nihal Singh as its Pakistan correspondent. But his coverage of news from East Pakistan was negligible and he rarely visited East Pakistan for reporting purposes. I have explained the reasons for that in my book. Since Pakistan’s policy planners and makers were Islamabad and ‘Pindi based his reports were more West Pakistan-centric. But his reports were highly credible and objective and were heavily relied upon for policy purposes by our Pakistan experts sitting in South Block. Mr NJ Nanporia, who was editor of The Statesman in the early seventies of the last century was some sort of a reclusive kind of an editor but was highly respected in political and official circles for his editorial acumen and also for his fiercely independent views. Except for his team of assistant editors he hardly interacted with the reporting staff and those who managed the news desk. I still don’t know the reason why he exclusively assigned me to cover the events unfolding in East Pakistan overriding strong resistance from my seniors in the reporter’s room who used to say that I being a Delhiwala (born and educated in Delhi) was a half Punjabi who knew nothing about East Bengal and would prove to be a “dismal failure” in my new assignment.After Bangladesh’s liberation when Mr Nanporia appointed me as Dacca Bureau Chief the same seniors went to The Statesman’s Managing Director Mr C R Irani to overturn my appointment as placing a greenhorn like me in a much happening place like Dacca would be highly imprudent. But Mr Irani told them point-blank that my reportage of the nine-month-long liberation war had proved beyond doubt my journalistic mettle and there was no question of overturning my Dacca appointment.
Booknerds: In the chapter Bhutto and Operation Searchlight you have highlighted the bloodbath unleashed by the Pakistani Army in Dacca with Bhutto watching over it! Do you feel there could have been dialogue to resolve the political turmoil?
Manash Ghosh: This question too has been adequately answered in my book and how he resorted to subterfuges to sabotage in holding a meaningful dialogue with Mujib. This was because he wanted to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, though Mujib and his party had secured the popular mandate (won more than an absolute majority in the 8 December 1970 Pak National Assembly elections). When he found that his goal was unreachable, he came up with the absurd solution (idhar hum udhar tum) that he would be the Prime Minister of West Pakistan and Mujib that of East Pakistan.
Booknerds: Humne kya parosi desho mein democracy wapas laane ka theka liya hai kya?
Was this the general thought process among bureaucrats, politicians, military and media as East Pakistan started burning?
Manash Ghosh: An absolute no is the answer. The whole nation stood rock solid behind Mrs Gandhi’s Bangladesh policy. I have mentioned in my book that there was a strong lobby both inside and outside the ruling Congress both at the centre and in states whose members
had strong family linkages (members of divided families) with Pakistan. Many of their uncles, aunts and nephews held key positions in the Pakistan military and civil service. They strongly opposed Indira Gandhi’s Bangladesh policy as they were sure this would eventually lead to the breakup of Pakistan. I have explained other reasons as well in my book. And all those who did not belong to this lobby but were against Mrs Gandhi’s policy did this out of a sense of insecurity since they did not know what this policy would eventually lead to. But the flow of record number of refugees into India and the “total support” to Mrs Gandhi by political stalwarts like Jaya Prakash Narayan,Ajoy Ghosh, Rajeshwar Rao, and Atal Behari Bajpayee some of whom demanded that India should militarily intervene in Bangladesh made these people change their stance.
Booknerds: How pivotal was Tajuddin's role in muktijuddho?
Manash Ghosh: In my view without Tajuddin Ahmed at the helm of the provisional government there would have been no Bangladesh. Except for the pro-Pak and pro-Chinese elements, who were opposed to the concept of Bangladesh, he had the political sagacity and maturity to bring under his leadership, all other political groups for supporting the liberation struggle. Mujib knew none in the party could measure up to his political stature, wisdom, academic and intellectual brilliance and his integrity. He had so much faith in Tajuddin that he made him the Prime Minister of the interim Government that he set up secretly in Dacca in January 1971 to lead the liberation war in case he was arrested. I have dwelt with this subject at great length in my book so there is no need to restate that here.
Booknerds: Such was the huge flow that almost every day we kept revising our arrangement for relief operations. If we were making fresh arrangements for 45000 to 50000 new arrivals by opening new camps, we found that at the end of the day almost 100,000 had actually arrived.
What have been the long term repercussions of the refugee crisis due to the Bangladesh War?
Manash Ghosh: The repercussions have both social and economic dimensions. Firstly, not all the refugees went back when Bangladesh was liberated. Many of the refugees who stayed with their relatives and friends during those nine months did not return to their hearth and home back in Bangladesh. They bought land and property in India thus bringing about major demographic change in the bordering states like West Bengal and those belonging to the Seven Sisters of the northeast. It gradually led to social and communal tension. But the most telling long-term effect was economic. It threw the financial structure of the border states haywire. For years finances of states like Tripura, Meghalaya and West Bengal lay crippled because of the huge debt they had incurred for providing refugee relief during 1971. Because of this the pace of their development completely halted in the mid and late seventies. Also, the refugee influx in 1971 set a new trend across the border. Whenever there is a persecution of minorities or political unrest of any kind refugees from Bangladesh keep pouring into the bordering Indian states creating problems of all conceivable kind.
Booknerds: What are the challenges of writing books about war? Being a journalist how does one transform into a storyteller?
Manash Ghosh: Fortunately I had kept many of my notes of 1971 liberation war which came in handy for me while writing the book, especially the names quotes and dates. Actually, I had been planning for a long time to write this book and the golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s birth goaded me to pen down my tale of the liberation war. I have never written a book so this was quite a challenge. As a reporter in The Statesman, I had covered many big events - Tribal revolt in Tripura and mass massacre in Mandai, AASU’s Asom movement against foreigners, Nellie massacre and police revolt in West Bengal. Besides, I was asked to survey illegal Bangladeshis infiltrating into Indian border states and it was published in four-part series under the binder heading “the quiet influx”. While reporting on these issues I always went to the root of the problem and each narrative had a tale to tell. I have written my book exactly like what I used to do during my reporting days. This book is a reporter’s tale and nothing beyond that.
Booknerds:Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov says, “We journalists are the defence line between dictatorship and war and that the world is on the verge of fascism. What is your opinion about his comments?
Manash Ghosh: I am no intellectual and Nobel laureates are too big for me to fathom. So I refrain from commenting on his quote. I can’t read into their mind or decode their message.
Booknerds: “A war has been forced on us...”-Indira Gandhi. How do you see Indira Gandhi's role during the Bangladesh War in retrospect?
Manash Ghosh: I salute the brave lady and statesman or woman for the way she handled the Bangladesh issue. Had there been no Indira Gandhi there would have been no Bangladesh for sure. The way she stood up to President Nixon and Premier Chou en Lai and the Islamic bloc’s threats and blackmailing tactics on the Bangladesh issue will always figure in golden letters in India’s history of foreign relations as well as Bangladesh’s history of the liberation war.
Booknerds: Please enlighten our reading community about your favourite books of 2021 and your camaraderie with the publisher Niyogi Books.
Manash Ghosh: Thant Myint-U's book Where China Meets India, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and Hussain Haqqani’s Between Mosque and Military. When my manuscript was ready I was not sure which publisher to approach for publishing my book. But one of my school friends told me to send it to Mr NirmalKanti Bhattacharya of Niyogi books for his guidance. Pat came the reply that he found the manuscript very interesting and that Niyogi Books would publish it. Since then a close bond has developed between me and Niyogi Books , especially Mr Bhattacharya whose staff are doing their best to market my book both in India and abroad. A big thanks to them.
- Team Booknerds