A place to park memories
Work on the Bangladesh Liberation War memorial in Tripura likely to be completed by the end of the year
The liberation war of Bangladesh is considered one of the most brutal chapters of the sub-continent's history. The hard earned freedom of the people of erstwhile East Pakistan also saw the loss of many Indian soldiers who fought alongside the Bangla freedom fighters to liberate their country from Pakistan in 1971.
Now, after nearly four and a half decades, Tripura, which sheltered about 15 lakh displaced Bangladeshi during the nine-month-old war, is building an ambitious edifice and a memorial park to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of Indian soldiers and Bangladeshi freedom fighters.
The venue of the memorial park will be at Chottakhola. Situated 10 kms from the Indo-Bangladesh border, Chottakhola was one of the most strategically located war fields from where Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (the liberation forces) fired the first salvo at the Pakistani army to establish a nation based on the language, Bengali, rather than the common religion it shared with West Pakistan – Islam.
After completing an operation in East Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini warriors would return to a bunker made in Chottakhola before taking fresh weaponries for the next attack. Subsequently, Chottakhola become the centre of attack of the Pakistani forces.
However, it was successfully silenced by the Indian soldiers. Operation Cactus Lily, launched on December 3, 1971 by the Indian Army in East Pakistan, was a brilliantly planned and meticulously executed military operation, culminating in the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani troopers in East Pakistan.
In 1968, the Pakistan Government initiated the famous Agartala conspiracy case with Mukti Bahini leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the main accused. Besides the East Pakistan Awami League chief, a host of Bengali servicemen were accused of involvement in a “conspiracy” to secede East Pakistan from West Pakistan with the help of the Indian Government. Former Tripura Chief Minister Sachindra Lal Singha approached the then eminent lawyer Snehangshu Achariya to fight the legal battle for Mujibur Rehman. Agartala thus played a significant role in mobilising public opinion against the Pakistani misrule. While the largest influx of refugees from East Pakistan was in West Bengal, Tripura sheltered more than 15 lakh of them — more than the State's total population at that time. Its jungles were the hub of Mukti Bahini's activities. The first Bangladesh Government-in-exile was formed in Agartala. A radio office was also established in the State then.
As per the Tripura Government’s plan, the commemorative park at Chottakhola will have a 52-feet tower from which parts of Comilla, Feni and Noakhali districts of eastern Bangladesh will be visible. Funded by the State Government, the estimated cost of the tower is Rs. 2.3 crore.
Recalling the times, State Health and PWD Minister Badal Chowdhury said, “The training camp of the Mukti Bahini set up in the border village still has the remains of bunkers, trenches and graveyards.”
Chowdhury completed his primary school education in East Pakistan before Partition.
He said, the park, overlooking seven hillocks, will cover an area of 20 hectares between the Trichna Wildlife Sanctuary and a 500 year-old popular mosque bordering Bangladesh’s Comilla district. Every December 6, after the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, the Tripura Government and the people of the State observe solidarity day at the mosque.
Apart from the tower and the park, the plan also includes a museum which would exhibit arms and ammunition, rare photographs and books and other literature based on the war.
Besides, the park would also have a statue of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, populary known as the Bangabandhu, the the architect of Bangladesh, who on March 25, 1971, gave a call to the people of East Pakistan to prepare themselves for an all-out struggle against the Pakistani forces. Later that evening, resistance demonstration began in Dhaka and elsewhere and the Pakistani military started full-scale retaliation with Operation Searchlight, which continued through May, 1971.
A half-bust of then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would also be installed as a reminiscent of her far-reaching decision to associate with Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini against the Pakistani military and later recognising Bangladesh as a sovereign country. India was the first country to recognise Bangladesh as an independent nation.
“This memorial park has long been a cherished demand of the people of Tripura as they were actively involved in the 1971 war. They provided all-out support to the freedom fighters and also sheltered around 16 lakh people,” said Jitendra Chaudhary, former state Forest Minister and a current Member of Parliament.
He felt, “The park and the memorial would help future generations know the history of liberation of Bangladesh and the bond between the people of two friendly neighbours and of how they helped each other to gain independence.” Chaudhary, a student in 1972, recalled seeing the displaced Bangladeshis in Tripura and their never say die spirit then.
He said, “We discussed having a memorial on the war several years ago with the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee. Though he appreciated the initiative, we did not get any funds from the then Central Government for the park.”
Sudhan Das, a legislator in the state assembly since 2003, was among the first to conceive the idea. Das told this correspondent, “We first thought of a memorial at Chottakhola during the Vijay Diwas on December 16, 2009. Subsequently, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar discussed the matter with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when he went to Dhaka in March 2010. Then the project was undertaken in a big way.”
The foundation stone of the park was laid in November 2010 by the then Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni. Sarkar, who played a significant role during the Bangladesh Liberation War, was invited by the Hasina Government to attend the Independence and National Day celebrations in Dhaka in 2010 as a special guest.
Das said, “Though we sent a Rs. 12-crore project to the Union Government for the park, the Centre did not respond. The Tripura government has already spent around Rs. four crore to develop the park.” According to him, the park would be ready for visitors in another three months.
Well known artists from both Tripura and Bangladesh, he said, are a part of the project who will add their creations -- from statues to paintings – to the park. He named Prof Mesbah Kamal of Dhaka University, artist Hashem Khan, architect Mobassher Hossain, and Prof Muntashir Mamun as technical advisers to the Tripura Government on the project.
During a recent visit to Tripura, Bangladesh Liberation War Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Haque thanked the State Government for constructing the park and the museum. “We are grateful to the Indian soldiers who fought for liberation of our country and sacrificed their lives. Our government has decided to organise events in eight places across India to honour them,” the minister said.
Tripura shares 856-km border with Bangladesh, which constitutes 85 percent of total border of the State.
(Sujit Chakraborty is a senior journalist based in Agartala. He was conferred the National Award for Excellence in Journalism by the President of India in 2015. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)