Skip to main content

Panic Buying and Lockdowns: Life during the Bangladesh Independence War, 1971

With the announcement of the UK lockdown  in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are adjusting to a new normal. People keep saying this has caused a disruption unprecedented in peacetime, and are invoking the spirit of previous generations who have lived through world wars.

March 26th marks the 49th anniversary of (what was then) East Pakistan declaring independence from West Pakistan, and the beginning of the violent nine month-long conflict that gave birth to Bangladesh. I thought I’d share some excerpts from a journal written by Jahanara Imam, who was a writer and educator living in Dhaka at the time. Her husband and sons were active participants in the struggle for independence, and were eventually killed. 
Jahanara Imam, By Smkamal1942 at English Wikipedia
Some of these might resonate with our own experiences at the moment, while others are a reminder of what other generations have been through in times of conflict and political uncertainty.

NB: These are all my own translations from the original Bangla.

Panic Buying:

 “ ‘Listen, there’s going to be trouble. They have already started demonstrating over here. I heard Baytul Mukarram and the stadium shops are all closing. If it gets worse they could impose a curfew. We’ve got enough food and supplies at home, haven’t we? If not you’d better go out and get some now.’

So then I went out again. When I got onto Elephant Road I saw that the little shops on both sides of the street were heaving with people, all frantically shopping. The shopkeepers couldn’t get through them all. I went to two or three shops, elbowed and shoved my way through the throng and managed to buy some crackers, Bombay mix, matches, candles, milk powder and batteries. When I got home I gave Barek and Subhan an empty kerosene tin and a sack and sent them out to get kerosene and rice.”

Lockdowns / Military curfew:

Didn’t sleep a wink last night. The curfew came suddenly upon us at eight...We didn’t hear the announcement, so we didn’t realise that all the chanting was mainly in protest of the curfew; we thought they were just repeating what they had been shouting all day. But then we were startled by the sudden, harsh wail of the siren. We had no idea what was happening. After phoning around various people we learnt that it was the siren signalling the curfew. Around eleven o’clock at night we heard it being announced over a loudspeaker as well. It sounded as if it was coming from the Bolaka New Market road and the road in front of Iqbal Hall, just south of our house. That was when we started hearing even louder chanting. That meant the curfew was being ignored in favour of protests and slogans. I started to feel uneasy; I thought, I’ll telephone around to see what the situation’s like elsewhere.”

Civil disobedience:

“Friday, 5th March 1971

Strike today - six until two again.

Sheikh Mujib has issued an order for all offices to remain open between half-past two and four o’clock, in order to conduct any urgent business and to enable people to earn some money during the days of the strike. The ration-shops are also open at those times. So are the banks; you can draw money out between two-thirty and four, but not more than one-and-a-half thousand taka. It’s funny to think of banks being open in the afternoon. Everything’s been turned upside-down by the Sheikh’s orders.

Hospitals, pharmacies, ambulances, doctors’ vehicles, the press and their vehicles, water, electricity and telephone services, and road-sweepers and refuse trucks are all considered essential services, so they are exempt from the strike.”
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh

Military bombardment:

“I fell asleep. Suddenly I was woken by a tremendous noise. I started up. Rumi and Jami rushed into the room; what was going on? There were two or three distinctly different sounds; the ‘boom-boom’ of heavy bombs, the stuttering ‘ta-ta-ta’ of machine-guns and another wailing ‘eeee’ sound. Something was lighting up the sky and even the inside of the room. We all hurried up onto the roof. South of our house lie several university buildings - Iqbal Hall, Mohsin Hall and a few other halls. Most of the noise was coming from that direction, mingled with the sound of many voices wailing and shrieking. We couldn’t stay long on the roof. Something like sparks were hurtling towards us with a wailing screech. Rumi suddenly leapt up and took down both the black flags and the new Bangladesh flag.

Lack of communication:

"I picked up the phone in the sitting-room; the line was dead. I went upstairs and heard Baba’s voice. Rumi went and held his hand and started talking to him in a low, soothing voice.  I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I went up onto the roof again. I could see the distant glow of fires. The sound of cannons and machine-gun fire was everywhere; the sky was lit up in different colours by the Traser Howi’s, the sound of screaming carried on the air. North, south, east, west, everywhere columns of fire were becoming more distinct and looking as though they were touching the sky. Nobody said a word...At seven [next morning] I went next-door to Dr. A. K. Khan’s house to use the telephone. Their phone was dead too. Gradually the other people on our street began to peer out. Their faces were terrified; everyone had been up all night. Nobody understood what was happening. All the phones were dead. "


"An indefinite curfew. What with all the death and destruction everywhere, who would dare venture out, even without a curfew? The sound of the cannons has not stopped. It just gets quieter from time to time. We don’t need to go up onto the roof anymore to see the burning columns of fire; we can see a great deal from the second storey windows. Most of the sunny, clear, blue sky has been obscured by black smoke. […]

The telephone’s dead, the radio’s mute, there’s a curfew on, the sound of gunfire is making me restless, and there’s no way of finding out what’s going on out there.”


"There’s only so long you can sit in a room. At one point I went and opened the street door and stepped onto the car-verandah…I didn’t dare step over the verandah into the street. The air was still being rent by the sounds of the shelling. From time to time I could hear dogs howling, mingled with what sounded like human cries. Very faint. Or was I imagining it? Was there anyone even left alive to cry out, after that ceaseless bombardment? What is strange is that there aren’t even any sounds of birds; not even a crow or a kite. Keeping within the boundary wall, I just stretched my head out beyond the gate and looked to the left towards the main road. The road was empty. If I’d watched for long enough I might have seen a jeep or a truck full of soldiers going past. But I had no need to see that.”

Excerpts from 'Ekattorer Dinguli' by Jahanara Imam
English Translation ©Shabnam Ahsan @thebrownbronte


Popular posts from this blog

Six Striking Titles For Mother's Day

The pandemic has meant lots of us have not been able to see or visit our own mothers for a whole year or more. There are many who are dealing with the pain of having lost their mothers during this time. For those of you who are yourselves mothers – whether you’re homeschooling, working from home or not for whatever reason, worrying about work, finances, the mess in your home, the amount of time the kids are spending staring at screens, or generally feeling like you’re doing a rubbish job – fear not, you are not alone. I have put together some of my recent reads about the joys and sorrows, fears and hopes of modern motherhood. They’re not all pandemic-specific, but a lot of them focus on the big eternal concerns as well as the minutiae of mothering. Sad or funny, long or short, thrilling or thoughtful – I hope there is something here to suit different tastes. And the best part is, you don’t have to be a parent to enjoy any of them! So take a look below, at my Six Striking Titles f

Chatting with Kate Morrison, Author: A Book of Secrets

Something special on the blog today, readers: I'm thrilled to be chatting to Kate Morrison, author of stunning debut A Book of Secrets, as part of its Random Things Tour. Join us as we talk about historical research, women's independence and racism in Elizabethan England. "A Book of Secrets is the story of a woman named Susan Charlewood living in Elizabethan England. Born in what is now Ghana, Susan is enslaved by the Portuguese but later rescued by British sailors, who bring her to England. Once in England, she is raised in an English Cathoic household. When Susan comes of age, the family marry her off to an older Catholic man, John Charlewood. Charlewood runs a printing press and uses it to supply the Papist nobility with illegal Catholic texts and foment rebellion amongst the Catholic underclass. When Charlewood, Susan takes over the business and uses her new position to find out more about her origins.  A look at racial relationships at the beginning of the eve of the

Sultana’s Dream: A Bengali Feminist Sci-Fi Utopia

Sultana’s Dream is a science fiction short story by the Bengali writer and activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain , which was first published in the Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, in 1905.  It imagines the journey of a woman – Sultana - to a fantastical place called Ladyland, “free from sin and harm, where Virtue reigns supreme”. Here, the powers and spheres of men and women are reversed so that women are active in public life, and men are restricted to domestic duties.  The result is a utopia where there is no crime, violence or corruption. Their main diet is fruit; they use technology to carry out manual labour and grow crops, and flying cars to travel. Work is carried out more efficiently as women do not waste time smoking and talking, and they come up with innovative, non-violent ways of defending themselves against enemies. At a time when India was under British colonial rule and women’s emancipation had not yet become a reality even in Britain, Hossain satirised the patri