On March 26 this year, as Bangladesh marks the 50th year of its creation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the country to take part in the celebrations.
While the role of the Indian armed forces and former PM Indira Gandhi in liberating Bangladesh is well-known, it is often forgotten how the city of Kolkata provided vital support to the struggle when it served as the capital-in-exile of the nascent nation’s first provisional government.
In Pakistan’s first general election of 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s East Pakistan-based Awami League party secured an absolute majority. After Pakistani leaders failed to honour the outcome of the election, it led to a bloody civil war, and Sheikh Mujib declared Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan on March 26, 1971.
The declaration coincided with a ruthless show of brutality by the Pakistani military, in which tanks rolled out on the streets of Dhaka and several students and intellectuals were killed. Various estimates have put the death toll between 300,000 and 3,000,000 while the number of women raped around 200,000 to 400,000.
During this tumultuous period, India provided the Bangladesh freedom struggle with moral, military and diplomatic support. The Mukti Bahini, the Bengali guerrilla force, was trained in camps in India and the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi worked to rouse global attention towards the genocide that was taking place. India cared for over 1 crore Bengali refugees during the crisis.
It was also at this time, that Kolkata became the de-facto capital of Bangladesh’s provisional government.
On March 26, 1971, the Pakistani military arrested Sheikh Mujib and kept him in West Pakistan during the remainder of the war. From this point until Pakistan’s defeat, the Bangladesh independence struggle was led by Mujib’s close confidants.
On April 17, close to the Indian border at Baidyanathtala in East Pakistan, elected parliamentary members of the Awami League of the 1970 election swore in the provisional government of Bangladesh. In the absence of Sheikh Mujib, it was headed by Syed Nazrul Islam as acting president, and led by Tajuddin Ahmad as prime minister. The remaining members of the five-member cabinet were Mansur Ali (Finance), Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmad (Minister of Foreign Affairs and Law) and Qamaruzzaman (Home). Colonel M. A. G. Osmani served as Commander-in-Chief of the Mukti Bahini.
The provisional government renamed Baidyanathtala as Mujibnagar, and was since known as the Mujibnagar Government.
For nine months, this government-in-exile functioned from 8, Theatre Road, Calcutta, which also served as the Bangladesh war headquarters. As it happened, the same place was the birthplace of Aurobindo Ghose, the famous philosopher and spiritual leader from Bengal.
According to the Bangladesh-based Daily Star, Theatre Road was the centre of all activities of the war-time government, and was the place where momentous conferences and decisions were taken despite the fear of Pakistani commando and air attacks.
Tajuddin Ahmad’s secretary Faruq Aziz Khan wrote in Spring 1971: A Centre Stage Account of Bangladesh War of Liberation (2014), “The prime minister had a small office room no bigger than 10’x10′. A small secretariat table and a few chairs were all the furniture the PM’s office had. An iron chest and a steel cabinet occupied most of the space of this little room … Behind this room there was a bigger room about 25’x20′ in size which was the PM’s bed room cum sitting and dining room, all combined in one.”
“The other wing of the building which had almost similar accommodation was occupied by the commander-in-chief of the army Col. M.A.G. Osmani while the upper floor was occupied by some M.N.As and M.Ps as a kind of a hostel. It also housed the offices of the acting president Syed Nazrul Islam, finance minister M. Mansoor Ali and home minister Mr. Qamruzzaman,” Khan writes.
In 1975, soon after Bangladesh became independent, Sheikh Mujib was assassinated, as were four out of the five members of the Mujibnagar Cabinet– Tajuddin Ahmed, Nazrul Islam, Mansur Ali and Qamaruzzaman. Khandaker Moshtaque Ahmed remained the sole survivor, and died in 1996.
In later years, Kolkata’s Theatre Road was renamed Shakespeare Sarani, and the sprawling plot at No 8 has since housed Aurobindo Bhavan.