NEW BOOK: 50 Years of Bangla Brummies

This came as something of a surprise to me, but in March I published a new book! I’ve been working with Purbanat CIC, a theatre company based in Birmingham, to help turn their research project – celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh – into a publication. It’s a 100-page oral history of how Bangladeshis came to Birmingham, and how those here participated in the campaign for separation from Pakistan and the birth of a new country in 1971. It’s been beautifully designed by Rich from We Can Create, and you can get hold of a copy by emailing Purbanat directly.

50 Years Of Bangla Brummies marks the anniversary in 2021 of Bangladesh’s independence. It begins by looking at the history of the Bengal region, which was conquered and basically ransacked by the East India Company in the 18th century, transforming it from the world’s wealthiest region to one of its poorest. Many of those Bengalis that settled in Britain in the first half of the 20th century were seeking a way of escaping that poverty: through a complex network of patronage and employment they became seamen known as lascars in the British merchant navy. (I often wonder if any crossed paths with my granddad, who ran away to sea aged 14 and worked his way up to captain during World War II).

A Chicago Sun Times map showing the partition – including undecided and independent states in both Pakistan and India that were soon swallowed up. (Columbia)

Like Punjab and Kashmir in the north-west of British India, Bengal was partitioned in 1947 between India and Pakistan, but it was not the first such process – in 1905, Lord Curzon had split the Bengal Presidency in two, causing mass migration along sectarian lines and kickstarting both the Hindu and Muslim versions of the independence movement. Rather than becoming its own nation in 1947, East Bengal became East Pakistan – one wing of a new Muslim nation, and just over half its population, separated from its other half by 1000 miles of India. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, new Governor-General of Pakistan could have approached this complicated map in different ways, but he and subsequent Pakistani leaders chose domination. East Pakistan became impoverished and oppressed under a series of civil and military leaderships: economically, militarily, educationally, and particularly culturally – it was the violent suppression of the Bengali language in 1952 that marked the start of the movement for independence.

By 1971, tensions were at a height. Leader of the Bengali Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had just won Pakistan’s first general election since independence, but was denied the Premiership by military dictator Yahya Khan, and instead of a peaceful conclusion, Khan chose a military crackdown. The result was up to three million deaths and tens of millions of displacements, one of the century’s worst genocides.

Here is where we jump to Birmingham. The newly-declared Bangladesh fought back of course, but faced widespread ignorance of the situation globally, and lack of funds and fighters. By this time, though, there were more than 22,000 Bangladeshis in Britain and they did everything they could to raise awareness. Outside of East London, the largest concentrations of Banglas could be found in Aston, Sparkbrook, Small Heath and other nearby parts of Brum (in fact, they make a useful addition to my series on translocality…). They were the driving force behind the diasporic campaign for awareness of Bangladesh’s plight, and made sure that the struggle remained in the news throughout 1971. They collected funds from factory workers and students; they picketed Pakistan’s tour of English cricket grounds; they held cultural events and hunger strikes; and most famously they welcomed up to 10,000 compatriots to Small Heath Park just two days after the invasion, to raise the new nation’s flag for the first time abroad.

This has been a fascinating project to research and write, and it was a privilege meeting the participants in Purbanat’s oral history project. The book covers all of this story, and is based on direct quotations from these interviews, plus some contextualising history and pictures. The book was launched at a special event at the MAC on 19th March, and as soon as it’s available to buy I’ll update this page. I’m always interested in history that brings global issues onto the local historical stage in the West Midlands, and this project shows precisely why that aim is valuable.

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