The Heroic Role of the BMA, UK in 1971
In 1971, in England, a small group of Bengali doctors from then East Pakistan were immersed in their studies. Amidst the pursuit of their academic dreams, they found themselves attuned to the dynamic political landscape unfolding in East Pakistan. The resonance of the non-cooperation movement reverberated among them, gaining momentum with each passing moment. As the movement crescendoed to its peak, a realization dawned upon them – an awareness of the potential for the Pakistani Junta to suppress the movement through force and violence. In the face of these challenges, their spirits ignited with a shared determination to stand against oppression and advocate for justice.
Just like their fellow expatriates, the Bengali doctors from then East Pakistan were abruptly confronted with the shocking events of the night of March 25 in Dhaka, learning of the harrowing experiences through various British newspapers and the BBC. This catalyzed a swift response among them, leading to regular meetings in London with known doctors, and engagements with other Bengali diaspora groups. Detailed updates on the situation trickled in from the BBC, newspapers, and clandestine sources within the country.
In the wake of this collective awareness and growing sense of responsibility, the Bengali doctors swiftly coalesced, recognizing the imperative for a unified effort to support the liberation war. The pivotal moment arrived in April 1971 with the establishment of the Bangladesh Medical Association U.K. The distinguished Late Prof. Saidur Rahman, an Ophthalmologist from Diabetic Hospital, Dhaka, assumed the role of President, while the renowned Late Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury took on the responsibilities of the secretary. Dr. Kazi Kamruzzaman, a member of BMA, UK, leased offices at No. 26 Delency Street, a prime location in the heart of the City of London, solidifying their commitment to the cause.
The primary objectives of this association extended beyond medical-related concerns; they encompassed various insightful initiatives. These included:
a) Establishing contact with all Bengali doctors situated in the UK and other countries worldwide.
b) Engaging in communication with the Bangladeshi Government in exile in Calcutta.
c) Disseminating information globally about the liberation movement in Bangladesh.
d) Shaping worldwide public opinion regarding the Bangladesh liberation movement.
e) Collecting and dispatching financial aid, clothing, and medicines to various refugee camps in India.
f) Coordinating medical arrangements for freedom fighters, dispatching medicines, medical equipment, and doctors.
g) Maintaining regular contact with members of the House of Commons and House of Lords.
h) Sustaining connections with the recently formed Bangladesh Action Committee and Steering Committee under the leadership of Justice Abu Sayeed Choudhury to foster collaboration.
i) Establishing communication with expatriate Bengali diplomat Mohiuddin Ahmed and, with his assistance, liaising with various embassies, particularly for sending medicines, clothing, and covert war materials to India through the Indian Embassy and Air India.
Dr. Zafrullah and Dr. Mobin initially journeyed to India under the auspices of BMA, UK, primarily to provide medical assistance to freedom fighters. Concurrently, Dr. Kamruzzaman and Dr Altafur Rahman assumed the responsibility of maintaining communication with them, facilitating correspondence as mandated by the government in exile. Beyond dispatching conventional supplies like clothing and medicines, they sourced and sent specialized items crucial for the liberation war, such as night vision spectacles, special binoculars, gas masks, and bulletproof vests. These materials were sourced from Marseille, France, and, with the approval of the Government of England, were transported by Air India to the Government of Bangladesh-in-exile in Kolkata through the Indian Embassy channel. Kamruzzaman and Altaf undertook these tasks on behalf of the organization.
Simultaneously, BMA UK took on the commitment of funding and equipping the Bangladesh Field Hospital established in Sector 2 for the treatment of freedom fighters. Dr. Zafarullah, representing BMA UK, played a pivotal role in communication on this front. Dr. Kamruzzaman and Dr Altaf received the assignment of coordinating the provision of funds, equipment, medicines, and other necessities to the Bangladesh Field Hospital in Sector 2.
During this period, Justice Abu Sayeed Choudhury assumed the role of Special Envoy of the Government of Bangladesh in exile to the UK. Despite some disagreements within the expatriate Bangladeshi community in the UK, a significant gathering took place at Trafalgar Square in the early stages of the Liberation War, in which BMA, UK actively participated. Subsequently, another meeting in Coventry aimed to reconcile differences among the Bangladeshis and garner collective support for the Liberation War, with Lulu Bilkis Banu presiding over the proceedings.
Dr. Kamruzzaman and Dr Altaf played a key role on behalf of BMA UK in fostering unity by mediating differences during the meeting. At the Coventry gathering, the Bangladesh Action Committee and a compact 5-member Steering Committee were established, with Justice Abu Sayeed Choudhury appointed as the advisor. Acting as the organization's representatives, Kamruzzaman and Altaf were entrusted by BMA UK to liaise with the Steering Committee, situated on Goring Street in London, and diplomat Mohiuddin Ahmad, a representative of the government-in-exile. His responsibilities included maintaining regular communication with Justice Abu Saeed Chowdhury.
Responding to the requests of Justice Abu Saeed Chowdhury, Dr. Zafrullah, Dr. Kamruzzaman, Dr. Mosharf Hossain Jowardar, and Dr. Morshed Talukder undertook multiple visits to campaign in support of the liberation war of Bangladesh across various cities in England. Dr. Kamruzzaman and Dr. Altaf, on a weekly basis, engaged with different Members of Parliament and several members of the House of Lords and House of Commons to disseminate news about the Liberation War. Notably, figures such as John Stonehouse, Douglas Mann, Steve Jones, and Roger Gwynn played significant roles. Diplomat Mohiuddin Ahmad consistently provided special assistance in lobbying and other related activities.
In 1971, representing BMA UK, Dr. Kamruzzaman and Dr. Altaf convened with expatriate Bengalis and local British political and social leaders in various cities across the UK, including Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, etc. These meetings aimed to shape opinions in favor of the liberation war and garner donations for the government in exile and refugees. Monthly gatherings of doctors in the United Kingdom were organized, facilitating opinion-sharing events to create a positive impression about the Bengalis' war.
The intensity of the liberation war heightened in September.
The Government in exile in Calcutta requested the assistance of experienced doctors from abroad. Consequently, a 5-member medical team from BMA, UK was formed under the leadership of Dr. Kamruzzaman and Dr. Altaf to serve on the war front. They liaised with the Indian Embassy through Mohiuddin Ahmad, the temporary high commissioner of the government in exile from Bangladesh to England, to secure visas. Each team member was issued a full scape paper Bangladeshi passport in accordance with the Indian Embassy's instructions.
This document is believed to be the first-ever Bangladeshi passport. The Indian Embassy recognized and accepted this one-page passport as valid, granting the team permission to visit India. In Calcutta, they met with Syed Nazrul Islam, the acting President of the Government in exile, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad, and other ministers and staff.
As the war intensified on various battlefields a few days later, the medical team continued to serve freedom fighters on all fronts, attending to the needs of both civilians and injured members of the regular armies.
The contribution of these young Bengali doctors in England during the liberation war went beyond immediate battlefield service. Their actions not only showcased courage and a keen sense of responsibility but also laid the foundation for sustained efforts in rebuilding the nation.
After the conclusion of the war in 1972, the Bangladesh Medical Association, UK, provided crucial support for the establishment of a hospital. Initially situated at Eskaton Ladies Club, it was later relocated to an abandoned house at 127 Eskaton Road, serving as a gathering point for doctors from abroad.
Responding to General MAG Osmani's directive, a dedicated team, comprising Dr. Zafrullah, Dr. Mobin, Dr. Altaf, Dr. Barkat and Dr Kamruzzaman, took a significant step forward by forming the Ganashastha Trust. This initiative aimed to contribute to the development of a medical system in the war-devastated country, reflecting a commitment to long-term healing and reconstruction.
Priyam pritim Paul is pursuing his PhD at South Asian University, New Delhi.