Forgotten Bangladesh Information Bank, 1971

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Today, nearly 52 years after the independence of Bangladesh, an effort is being made to locate and document some important work that was undertaken by a group of young Bengali women and men in 1971, that seems to have gone unnoticed over the years. Working as volunteers fourteen youths consisting of university and pre-university students prepared a data bank on the Liberation War of Bangladesh. The enterprise was named Bangladesh Information Bank, or BIB in short.

While the war was raging on and had overwhelmed Bangladesh within the first 3 months, from April to June 1971, the first Government of Bangladesh was formed on 10 April 1971 in Mujibnagar. The leadership was provided by elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh who had voted freely and fairly. Its leadership had the foresight to understand the importance of documenting the history of the emergence of Bangladesh not only for the sake of posterity but also for justice. 

It sought to record the progress of the liberation struggle, its fraught relationship with Pakistan, the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh, the international response to these acts, as well as the sacrifices of the valiant freedom fighters of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The effort was to highlight the coverage of the war by the international and Indian press, as the press in Dhaka had been silenced. The aim was to create an information resource base that would become a valuable data bank to help narrate the history of the war as it unfolded. It was meant to be an easy source of information accessible to all, including historians of the War of Liberation, as well as its treatment in the international press.

This task was blessed by the Prime Minister of the Bangladesh Government, Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed. The responsibility of setting up Bangladesh Information Bank (BIB) was given to Barrister Amirul Islam MP, elected in the 1970 Pakistan National Assembly elections, who had chosen to join the Mujibnagar Government. He was ably supported by Mr. Jamil Chowhury, formerly head of Pakistan Television in Dhaka, now appointed Director of BIB. Mr Tawfique Nawaz, a student at Dacca University at the time helped with recruiting volunteers for this initiative. The trio provided the link, support, and contact with the members of BIB on behalf of the Mujibnagar Government. 

Almost all volunteers joined BIB at its inception. A Maitri Samity was formed with the support of the Government of West Bengal, Calcutta University (now Kolkata) and the Central Government of India which worked with the Mujibnagar Government. BIB came to be housed in Netaji Bhavan located at 39/2 Elgin Road, Kolkata: this was originally the house of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, who formed an armed resistance to British colonialism. Today, the house is a museum containing artifacts of Netaji’s struggle against the British Raj and India’s independence in 1947.

Netaji Bhavan was the perfect venue for such important work to support the foundations of a new country. Apart from housing BIB, and supplying newspapers and publications, very little funding was provided by either the Mujibnagar Government or the Indian counterparts who helped set up this facility. The volunteers at BIB were each paid a sum of INR 50 per month, which was subsequently increased to INR 75 in the final months (i.e., a sum of US$ 6.6 per month per volunteer was increased to US$10 per month). This covered the cost of transport to and from Netaji Bhavan and of afternoon snacks. Our understanding is that the small compensation was provided by the Mujibnagar Government possibly with support from the Indian government.

 BIB was established in late July 1971. It functioned between late July and December 1971, and it shut down soon after the Pakistan Army surrendered to the Joint Command of India and Bangladesh on Dec 16, 1971, in Dhaka (then Dacca). All the young men and women of BIB returned to Dhaka soon afterward to celebrate a country born out of sacrifice, blood, and tears. 

The documents collated by BIB members were collected by the Indian authorities at Netaji Bhavan in late December 1971 where a small group of one or two volunteers had remained till the end. A set of micro-fiche copies were kept by the Indian authorities. A small container of the remaining documents was shipped to Dhaka. This arrived in Dhaka during the spring of 1972 (possibly in March) and was handed over to the Bangladesh Authorities at the Foreign Ministry. From there it was sent over to the National Museum of Dhaka. No members of the BIB team were present at any of these events. 

The documents remained at the National Museum. Several individuals and organizations accessed these documents, which were used to write parts of the Liberation War story. We understand that the documents provided input into the Muktijuddher Dalil Patra as well as other narratives of the war. It appears that these documents cannot be located anymore. The surviving BIB volunteers are keen to find these documents as these constitute a part of the history of the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country. We hope our current efforts will assist in locating these valuable documents in Bangladesh or their copies that remain in Kolkata.

The material used by the BIB team was provided on a regular basis by Calcutta University (now Kolkata). The core of the material indexed and archived came from the following sources including a host of Indian newspapers – both Bengali and English. These are, among others:  Ananda Bazaar Patrika, Amrita Bazaar Patrika, the Statesman and other local papers from West Bengal, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, the Hindu and other English language Indian newspapers. International newspapers included the London Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph (UK), the International Herald Tribune (which Combined the New York Times and Washington Post), the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor (USA), the Globe and Mail (Canada) several newspapers from Asia such as the Straits Times (Singapore), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) and the Asahi Shimbun (Japan).

Magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and Economist were also regularly made available. From these sources, the 14 member BIB team cataloged and classified a huge corpus of articles over a period of 6 months creating a data source for scholars, historians, and other professionals. The materials were organized by dates, the progress of the war and international opinion and support. Both index cards were prepared, and news items were cut and pasted on paper and filed by subject matter, date, and source.

Since the Group has recently reestablished contact among its members, the important question that is now being asked is this:  where are these documents today? We have contacted the Bangladesh National Museum where it was originally transferred via the Foreign Ministry from Kolkata (Calcutta) in a small container. They were used by several researchers in the period soon after the war. The members of the BIB team are not sure who used the data except for isolated cases where a few individuals/researchers mentioned that they had used the data. In subsequent years the huge corpus of material has not been traced. We are not sure if they exited the National Museum: we have been informed that nothing can be taken out of the museum without approval. The team has contacted senior officials there and at the Liberation War Museum. The team has requested that a complete search be conducted of archived materials. In addition, it is in the process of contacting various Bangladesh government agencies and will contact sources in West Bengal to try and track the material. The team believes that the documents might yet reveal important information on the War of Liberation and its media coverage that have not been revealed so far. Perhaps critical information might emerge that would help to make a stronger case for the international recognition of the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh before the UN.  

The story of 1971 and individual routes to BIB remain an alluring topic — the sacrifices, the challenges, the experiences, hopes, and aspirations at the time have shaped who we are as individuals and who we became in subsequent years. For health reasons, the trio who set it up are unable to communicate effectively. However, except for one member, the rest of the entire BIB team is still alive after 52 years. It is for this reason that it might still be possible to find a final opportunity to jog the collective memory of the BIB team about the nature and content of the materials that were collected and collated.

The memories of 1971 are individually and collectively fascinating and would add to the rich stories and treasures of 1971. Except for Shahjahan (see list below) the entire BIB team is alive. They formed a core group in August 2023 on a What’s App platform and have started to share their experiences of the war. In addition to the work done some incredible personal and family stories have emerged of the struggle, challenges, hopes and aspirations of BIB team members. All members and many of their families crossed over into India as refugees. They came from privileged backgrounds in Bangladesh. A few members were part of the Mukhti Bahini before joining BIB and went back to the battle front before the war’s end; others worked at refugee camps. Most members have gone on to be distinguished professionals including academics, professors at various international and Bangladeshi Universities, as well as managers/directors at international organizations. They cover a wide range of fields such as Economics, English, History, Engineering and Business.

The BIB volunteer team included the following persons:

 Iffat Reza Hussain
Jasmine Hussain (Jasmine Tickle)
Tazeen Mahnaz Murshid (Ruma)
Sonia Nishat Ghani (Sonia Amin)
Emy Mallick
Rana Mallick
Mohammed Saifullah (Shamol)
Tawhid Nawaz
Syed Arif Hussain
Mahmudur Rahman (Bonny)
Akhtar Chowhury (Akku)
Khan Ahmed Nuwayid Murshid (Kumar) 
Shahjahan (Baby, now no more)

Future Directions:

So, what could be done now? First, a concerted effort could be made to locate the documents that were handed over by the Indian authorities to Bangladesh. They were housed at the Bangladesh National Museum on arrival. Where could they have gone? Simultaneously, efforts should be made to locate the copies of the documents in Kolkata. Any support by the Bangladesh Government in both these endeavors would be critical. Second, the team could pursue writing individual or collective memories of  BIB, how they came to work there, and the path/challenges they followed crossing the border and living as refugees; and what it has meant to have had that experience in defining who they are today. 

Written & Compiled by –
Tawhid Nawaz, Economist
Tazeen Murshid, Historian & Educationist
Sonia Nishat Amin, Historian & Educationist

* The views expressed in the published article are solely those of the author. It is not unusual for the author’s opinion to differ from the editorial policy or opinion of Bangalianaa. As a result, Bangalianaa bears no legal responsibility for the content of the articles published here, the author’s column, or its accuracy. – Editor

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