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When India was partitioned after independence, modern-day Bangladesh, as a Muslim-majority region, became part of Pakistan. Yet East Pakistan, as it was known, was effectively ruled from Islamabad, with Urdu the sole national language and Bengali not recognised.
Pro-independence sentiment was boosted in 1970 when cyclone Bhola killed up to half a million people. The poor relief effort organised by the Pakistani authorities was condemned by pro-independence leaders as ‘gross neglect, callous and utter indifference’.
In March 1971, the Pakistani army launched an operation to liquidate the growing nationalist opposition, gunning down demonstrations and targeting activists. In response, Bangladesh’s independence was declared, and the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) was organised. The War of Liberation lasted until December, when the entry of the Indian Army into Bangladesh on the side of independence decisively turned the tide against Pakistan.
Human rights violations were widespread, and many estimates put the number of people killed by Pakistani forces at more than a million. The United States supported Pakistan in the conflict.
Pro-independence leader Sheikh Mujibar Rahman addressing a rally at the Race Course Maidan, on 7 March 1971, brfore the army crackdown on 25 March. Photo: Abul Lais Shyamal.
Wounded freedom fighters near rehabilitation camp Dhanmondi, Dhaka. Photo: Anwar Hossain
Bengalis massacred by the Pakistani Army and Al Badrs (local Bengali collaborators) being salvaged, Buriganga, Dhaka, late 1971. Photo: Anwar Hossain.
Victorious freedom fighters at the village of Charkushai, Dohar Thana, Dhaka, late 1971. Photo: Anwar Hossain
These photographs, commemorating the struggle for independence, are from the collection of the Swadhinata Trust, a Bengali heritage association based in Tower Hamlets, London: www.swadhinata.org.uk