The place was dirty and damp. Sanitary conditions were absolutely poor there. People were filled with fear and foreboding with no hope left. The joy of life was something beyond their wildest imagination. They were depressed and disheartened. Their faces were a mirror of the pain they were bearing. Looking at their blank eyes was enough to make one understand the volumes they spoke.
There were dead people lying on the ground. There were sick people lying on makeshift hospital beds and floors. An ambiance of distress was all around and being there was a nightmarish experience.
Such was the scenario Lars Leijonborg, human rights activist and former Swedish politician, recalls of the miseries and sufferings Bangladeshi refugees underwent at one of the camps at Salt Lake in India’s Kolkata in 1971.
Around 10 million Bangladeshis fled to neighbouring India to save their lives soon after the West Pakistani army launched a full-scale crackdown on the unarmed Bangladeshis as darkness fell on the March 25 night that year, the inception of the nine-month-long bloody war that followed.
Sitting inside a café in Stockholm on 16 December 2014, Lars, who visited different refugee camps in India’s Kolkata during the war in October 1971, said it was the largest “refugee disaster” in history.
For his activism in Sweden, after coming back from India, in favor of an independent Bangladesh that finally was liberated on 16 December the same year, Lars was awarded “Friends of Liberation War Honor” by the Bangladesh government in 2012.
Born in Stockholm in 1949, Lars became president of the Liberal Youth of Sweden (Swedish: Liberala ungdomsförbundet), youth organization of the Liberal People’s Party (Swedish: Folkpartiet liberalerna), in 1971. He was 21 years old then.
As the young president of the youth organization, he then gave interviews to television channels and newspapers, wrote articles, took part in debates supporting Bangladesh’s independence and opposing West Pakistan’s military offensive.
The 65-year-old said the sufferings of Bangladeshis he witnessed in the refugee camps had compelled him to highlight the issue in Swedish media on the humanitarian ground. As a leader of the youth organization in 1971, he said he had played his role to create public opinions in Sweden and engage the Swedish government to stand by Bangladesh. Once the Bangladesh issue came to the forefront through media, it helped Bangladesh’s right to freedom gain “growing acceptance” among different quarters in Sweden at that time, said the friend of Bangladesh.
He, however, never forgot to give credit to the Liberal People’s Party — mother organization of the youth wing he was leading then, which resolved to back Bangladesh’s freedom struggle at a party congress in September 1971. “In the congress, a statement regarding Bangladesh was made,” he said. Therefore, it was much easier for him at the personal level to actively engage in upholding the cause of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle.
Asked why he became interested in Bangladesh, Lars said he had come to know about West Pakistan’s military atrocities in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, from western media that extensively covered the Bangladesh issue.
Anthony Mascarenhas reports on Bangladesh genocide in The Sunday Times on June 13 1971.
Apart from that, he particularly mentioned a Bangladeshi named Abdur Razzak, who later became the first Bangladesh ambassador to Sweden after independence. Abdur Razzak persuaded him to visit the refugee camps in India, and visit some of the liberated areas in Bangladesh, if possible. “He (Razzak) contacted my party office, met me in person, and requested me to raise my voice against indiscriminate killings in Bangladesh,” Lars said.
Lars Leijonborg in liberated areas in Bangladesh in 1971. Photo credit: Thomas Berglund. Collected from: Lars Leijonborg
Razzak was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service (PFS), who quit his job protesting West Pakistan’s oppression, he added. But he could not tell how Razzak, who might have been posted elsewhere, had ended up in Sweden.
The British colonial rule over India ended in 1947. A largely Muslim state comprising East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (Now Pakistan) was established on either side of India.
Afterwards, East Pakistanis demanded autonomy of the East from the West that was dominating every sector. West Pakistani rulers declared that ‘Urdu’ (language spoken by majority of the West Pakistanis) would be the state language of whole Pakistan, denying the very fact that the majority of East Pakistanis speak ‘Bengali’. Bloody protests took place on 21 February 1952 to push for ‘Bengali’ to be made the official language in what was then East Pakistan.
In 1970, the Awami League, formed in 1949, won an overwhelming election victory in East Pakistan under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But the West Pakistan refused to recognize the results, leading to rioting. Finally, Sheikh Mujib was arrested on 25 March 1971 and taken to West Pakistan. In exile, Awami League leaders proclaimed the independence of the province of East Pakistan on 26 March. After long nine months of struggle, the new country called Bangladesh was born on 16 December that year.
Lars, who was president of the Liberal People’s Party from 1997 to 2007, said he along with his friend Thomas Berglund, also a Swede, had reached India’s Kolkata in October 1971.
During their stay for around a month, they visited refugee camps to see the plight of suffering souls, and met chief of the mission in Kolkata for the Bangladesh government-in-exile on October 20, requesting that they be given permission to enter the Bangladesh territory.
After some days, the duo got approval. On October 30, they left their hotel around 6:00am and started for Bangaon, an Indian city near Bangladesh border, said Lars, adding that the Washington Post journalist Mr Hogland had also joined them.
But the car carrying them broke down halfway through. They, however, set off on foot with the help of a representative of Bangladesh government-in-exile whom they managed to contact and sought help from. They came across a collapsed bridge by a small river, where they met some other foreigners including two American film guys, and a French photographer. Boarding a makeshift ferry service arranged by a team of engineering corps working there, they crossed the river.
“We kept on advancing through villages across fields until we reached Bangladesh. After walking a few more miles, we encountered a check post where we were received by a small group of freedom fighters, who had earlier been informed about us,” he said.
Though he could not recall the name of the place they visited in Bangladesh territory after long 44 years, he said, it was not very deep inside the country. “The West Pakistani troops were about 5 kilometers away. On some occasions, we heard gunshots. During our short stay in the liberated area, we met ‘Mukti Bahini’ (‘Bengali’ form of freedom fighters), saw bullet-riddled buildings, talked to some locals, and visited a post office,” said the then youth leader, with a spark of excitement in his eyes.
As the darkness shrouded the night, both Lars and Thomas started moving towards India and reached Kolkata in the morning. On their way back, he said they had also seen herds of refugees moving towards Indian border due to insecurity and uncertainty caused by the offensive of the West Pakistani military in other parts of Bangladesh. Later, they came back to Sweden, where Lars became active in creating public opinions for Bangladesh.
The nine-month-long war came to an end and Bangladesh emerged victorious on 16 December 1971, as Pakistan army’s eastern commander Lt. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered unconditionally at the Dhaka Ramna Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) to the joint command of Bangladesh and India, which physically got involved in the war at the last moment. On 14 December, assuming upcoming defeat, the Pakistani army in association with local collaborators killed a bunch of intellectuals including university teachers, journalists, doctors and engineers across the country to cripple the nation intellectually. Over 200 intellectuals were murdered in Dhaka alone on that night.
In the war, around three million Bangladeshis were killed, more than 2,00,000 women raped, about 10 million people deported to India as refugees, and million others were internally displaced by the atrocities of the Pakistani military and the role of their local collaborator forces namely “al- Badr” and “al- Shams”.
After the independence, Lars, former Swedish minister for higher education and research, said he along with Thomas, who later became a businessman, visited independent Bangladesh in 1972 being invited by the Bangladesh embassy in Sweden.
“We were received as statesmen. There was a Bangladeshi flag on the limousine we were given for use,” said the then youth leader, who graduated from Stockholm University in 1974. His fascination for Bangladesh was so profound that he wrote his bachelor thesis on the newly-adopted Bangladesh constitution. With a smiling face, he said only he had the Bangladesh constitution in Sweden then; therefore, the instructor borrowed the copy from him to evaluate his thesis. His prior activism for Bangladesh and little knowledge about the country motivated him to choose the topic of thesis.
Terming the killing of Bangabandhu (‘Bengali’ form of ‘Friend of Bengal’) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975 “horrible”, Lars opined that Bangladesh should stick to the “basic principles”, which inspired the country’s Liberation War and which were later included in the country’s first constitution.
Bangladesh has honored a total of 338 foreign nationals and organizations as an expression of gratitude in three categories — Bangladesh Freedom Honor, Bangladesh Liberation War Honor, and Friends of Liberation War Honor — for their outstanding support and contribution during the country’s independence 44 years back.
A total of three Swedes received such awards from Bangladesh government for their roles that boosted the country’s freedom struggle significantly. Swedish citizen late Gunnar Myrdal had been awarded the “Liberation War Honor” (posthumous). On October 20, 2012, Lars received “Friends of Liberation War Honor” award at a state function in Bangladesh capital Dhaka. Another Swede, Sven Strömberg, also a journalist and television coordinator, received the same award on the same day for creating public awareness and sympathy towards the cause of Bangladesh’s Liberation War in the Scandinavian countries.
Comparing his two official trips to Bangladesh in 1972 and 2012, Lars said: “Bangladesh has progressed unbelievably over the years.” There were “enormous changes” in every sector of the country.
Lars Leijonborg poses for a photograph at a state function in Bangladesh capital Dhaka. He was conferred on “Friends of Liberation War Honor” award on October 20, 2012. Photo collected from: Lars Leijonborg
People were richer; there were more cars in 2012 than in 1972, he optimistically said. On the contrary, the country is plagued with multi-layered social problems, including population, poverty and corruption, which should be addressed in a right manner, he pointed out. In spite of different problems in the country, the friend of Bangladesh said, “People are still very friendly.”
Interestingly, after long these years, Lars has not stopped soul-searching. “Sometimes, I ask myself whether my role in favor of a free Bangladesh in 1971 was right or wrong,” said the 65-year-old former politician.
“When I see that Pakistan is fighting with different problems including terrorism, suicide bomb attack, military dictatorship and so on, I feel very good inside that my activity for a free Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from the oppression of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) was absolutely right,” he added.
“I am proud of the honor Bangladesh gave me,” the friend of Bangladesh added.
Photos copyright The Daily Star, Bangladesh.
This article is part of the In My Voice series, which allows NFGL students to share their opinions, reflections, and reactions Sweden and the world's events. These views are not necessarily those of SI or the SI News Service, but are intended to stimulate discussion about issues facing the world today.
Article was originally published here. Republished with permission.
Please feel free to share your thoughts below – and contact us at the SI News Service if you are interested in contributing.