That unsung 'Philatelic war' …
During those moving days of 1971, it appeared like the number one duty of every patriotic Bangalee was to confirm the fact that - Bangladesh is a nation - in the true sense of the term. They wanted to establish the fact that Bangladesh has a definite area of its own, a population, and a government - upon which most of its people have their support. According to the then Pakistan Government, the people of the then East Pakistan, were acting normally under their rule. Whereas the Bangladesh authority claimed that the people of this area are paying allegiance to the Bangladesh Government and not to Pakistan Government. The more variety and wide range of correspondence, the greater is the proof that the area is under the control of the stamp issuing authority. Thus, was waged our philatelic war against a brutal authoritarian regime. During the Liberation War, the people, who supported independence, wanted to restore usual communication in favour of Bangladesh Government and attempted to establish an already-disrupted postal communication of both the urban and rural areas. The Pakistan Armed Forces, on the other hand, along with their collaborators , only succeeded in keeping regular communication among bigger cities, but they could only reach some of the far-fetched smaller townships, let aside thousands of villages.
During the early days of Mujibnagar government, it did not have a fully administrable postal service. But the Bangladesh Government in-exile established an External Services Department, headed by Barrister Moudud Ahmed. Other members of the department included artists Quamrul Hassan, Nitun Kundu and Mr. Ashraf Ali Chowdhury. Mr. L.N. Misra of India was requested to act as a consultant. Barrister Moudud Ahmed, after assuming the responsibility as the Postmaster General, started to set up field post offices, in the liberated areas and establish postal routes within the liberated units. With the establishment of such field post offices, Mr. Ahmed tried to reach the common people and to assist them in the war. With their combined efforts, five field post offices were initially set up at Kashipur and Benapole of Jessore district and Mujibnagar (Bhaberpara), Meherpur and Darsana at Kushtia District during the months of April and May 1971.
By the end of May, 1971, after the Mujibnagar Government had fully formed its Secretariat at 8 Theatre Road (presently Shakespeare Sarani) in Calcutta new initiatives were taken to make the postal department operational under the Ministry of Transport and Communication. Before the re-organization of the postal administration, the mailbags were dispatched to the nearest Indian Post Office for mails of India and abroad. From June onwards, the arrangement was re-organised, and all the mail bags from F.P.O's were dispatched at the central Post office, Mujibnagar, situated at the Mujibnagar secretariat 8 Theater Road (Now Shakespeare Sarani) Calcutta. It is difficult to assess the total number of post offices (including Field Post Offices established by the Mujibnagar postal administration, as no official record of this or of any list has yet been published. However during the war, accounts of some philatelists and eye witnesses were published in the Calcutta based Philatelic periodical “Stamp Digest” A rough sketch of the district wise distribution of the Field Post Offices'' and civil post offices, can be formed from these sources, which suggests, an unproven number of 32 to 48 F.P.Os.
Letters and messages between different groups of freedom fighters and with the headquarters at Mujibnagar, were carried out mostly by the freedom fighters, scouts and common villagers and some staffs of that makeshift postal department. There were the deadly risks to be caught, tortured and killed by the Pakistan Army. Some laid their lives, but never gave way to tortures. These post offices were provided with a code number for the secrecy of their placements. The mails were carried usually in blue jeans cloth or leather bag (sealed with wax as was the practice of that time). These bags were carried by motorcycle, bicycle, and jeep and on foot. In the riverine areas boats were widely used. The carriers were given certain code words, with which they could pass all posts manned by liberation forces.
However, the first authentically important activity on this postal communication and one of the most major international publicity in favour of the nationhood of Bangladesh was initiated on July 29, 1971. The Bangladesh Government issued a set of 8 postage stamps depicting liberation movement of Bangladesh.
Relating to the first stamps of Bangladesh the late Justice and president Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, wrote in his memoir 'Probashe Muktijuddher Dinguli' (Days of the Liberation War in Exile): On behalf of WAR ON WANT, Mr. John Stonehouse a British MP visited Mujibnagar for recording the conditions of the refugees and to discuss different matters with the Prime Minister Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed and other ministers. It was then decided that postage stamps will be issued. As luck would have it, Bangladesh was liberated within five months of issuance of these stamps. Designed by the Gandhi stamp hero Biman Mullick - Bangladesh emerged into the world of philately –and long before it became officially independent.
The stamps were printed in lithographic process on white coated un-watermarked security paper, having 100 (10 x 10) stamps per sheet. The perforations on the sides of the stamps were 14 x 14.5 (in 2 cm length). In Bangladesh Mission of Calcutta the mint sets were sold for Rs. 21.80 per set of eight stamps and the FDC with the stamps affixed at Rs. 22.00. Those wanted the FDCs were requested to affix the stamps on covers and deposit against receipt for collecting the cover with the Mujibnagar cancellation in the following day. In England the stamps were sold at 1.09 pound sterling per mint set plus 20 p as handling charge. In England more than US$ 23,000 worth of stamps was sold on the opening day.
A First Day Cover was also prepared on this occasion, the proof of which was approved by Barrister Moudud Ahmed, then PMG of Mujibnagar Postal Administration. The FDC was printed in deep green colour from Swaraswati Press of Calcutta. The design depicts the words 'First Stamps of Bangladesh' across the lower end of the cover, 'First Day Cover' in smaller type on the left right hand corner and 'BANGLADESH' in large type lying vertically from the lower end to the upper on the left side. The cover prepared and put on sale in England was coloured Bright Orange-Vermilion and was printed form London. Naturally the quality of the paper used for these two covers differ considerably.
In this connection, Mr. A.M. Ahsanullah, first Director General of Bangladesh Post Office after Liberation of Bangladesh wrote, 'The external manifestations of the independent entity of an independent country, easily and effectively revealed among the people are its own postage stamps besides its coins and currency. Mujibnagar Government virtually issued their postage stamps to get international recognition of its independent status. These eight postage stamps of different denomination played an important role in history of Liberation War and this set of postage stamp will remain illustrious in the world of philately. Today a set of these stamps are preserved on a tray wrapped in golden cloth, in the Mukti Juddho Smrity Jadughar (Liberation War Memorial Museum) in Dhaka.
Thus we can see how these tiny eight pieces of coloured papers almost shook the world and played an outstanding role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh.
After the Liberation of Bangladesh, regular functioning of the postal service was urgently needed. Printing new postage stamps was not possible as there was no security printing press, proper technology or even adequate materials that remained in a war devastated country. To print stamps in a foreign country will take a considerable amount of time, also quantity required was huge. So what to do? The idea of overprinting was introduced.
Huge quantities of Pakistan stamps of the previous regime remained in stocks scattered all over the country in various treasuries and in almost all post offices. Due to lack of easy, prompt and proper transport and as well as for security reason, the recall of these postage stamps from each and every post office and overprinting those with a new name was not all a practical proposition. On the other hand, for obvious political and sentimental reasons, it was felt undesirable to continue the use of the previous regime's stamps without making any change, whatever trifles that may be which seemed feasible. And this gave rise to an interesting curiosity of philatelic history - the 'Bangladesh' rubber-stamps issues.
On 19 December 1971, a Post Office circular was issued, to the Head Post Offices instructing the Post Offices at descending levels of hierarchy, to use their own initiative in making and using rubber hand stamps to be used on all Postage stamps and Postal Stationary available at that Post Office.
The original circular reads: Arrangements are being made to get the Bangladesh postage stamps printed. But as it will take sometimes, it has been decided that rubber stamps bearing the word 'Bangladesh' should be got prepared locally and impressed on the existing stock of stamps before those are put on sale. The rubber stamp should contain the word 'Bangladesh' both in Bengali and English in small type. (Para 1(b) of letter Ref. M/A-1/RLG).
In relation to the circular and other issues, the then Director General had decided to keep the rooms for , design, type , size of the rubber stamp and colour of prints to be open. As a result, the design and other marks of the officially made rubber stamps varied considerably. Some post offices used more than one design. Even when two or more rubber stamps of the same design were made, the individual applications can often be distinguished by small differences in detail. Various colours were used. Most common was violet, from commonly used stamp pads of divergent shades and densities; fairly common was black of the postmark ink, provided by the post office, this also varied in different shades; rare was the blue fountain-pen ink and very rare were green and red.
Beside a small number of rubber stamps, used by a few commercial firms and banks, there were designs developed by people with commercial interest in stamp collecting too. Some stamp dealers obtained older issues of Pakistan stamps and hand-stamped those with a large variety of designs, some of those were fanciful and decorative. Overprints were done on even those of first overprints (press-printed 'Pakistan' on British Indian stamps of 1947) marking them as 'Three Generation Stamp'. And also, since the Director General of Bangladesh Post Office did not authorise the use of any such relics in the new sovereign state of Bangladesh, such items were unofficial and postally invalid. Still these were made and used by the philatelists for their own collection and stamp dealers for their own financial benefit. Thus, the philatelic market inside Bangladesh and also world philatelic market was flooded with innumerable varieties of rubber stamps.
In this context, one of the outstanding events worth mentioning is that, some administrative districts bordering India were liberated before 16 December. Among the district towns liberated first was Jessore, where Liberation Army entered on 6 December. Jessore Head Post Office started functioning from 8 December. With good road linkage up to remote villages, good postal services were restored within a very short time. In case of remote areas, the Post Master in charge, by his own , overprinted eight definitive (regular) stamps of Pakistan available at his stock. The print was made from a local private printing press. These stamps were 1p., 2p., 3p., 5p., and 7p., stamps of Khyber Pass variety, 10p., 13p., and 20p. - Stamps of Shalimar Garden variety. One commemorative stamp (20p Children Day 1970) was also overprinted in the same manner. The print was done both in English in all capital type and in Bangla (English was placed upper). Black ink was used for printing. The Post Master immediately put these overprinted stamps on sale at the counters of Jessore Head Post Office and sent those to all other urban and rural post offices.
The history of our philatelic struggle could continue longer, but on the occasion of our victory day we remember those unsung patriots who had liberated Bangladeshi in the world of global philately. This piece is for those philatelic heroes.
The writer is Current Affairs Analyst, The Daily Star.