Bangladesh calls it “Renaissance”. As the ghostly black of “protest” and the Spring of green and red of Bangladeshi nationalism mingle on its simmering streets, Indian ace photographer Raghu Rai salutes the “revolution”. He says, “The last time I came across the same nationalist emotion in Bangladesh, that madness in their sad and exhausted eyes, was back during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.” Rai had gone as a young photojournalist of 25 to “witness a war”. “I am reminded of the brave people of the Mukti Bahini who fought for the country’s freedom. They had no uniform to wear. But looking into their eyes, you could say that they would go to any extent to liberate the country. They did.” He adds, “The way they fought two of the world’s most important and powerful armies was amazing. The Pakistanis were armed by the Americans. But Mukti Bahini fought with their outdated rifles, belief and courage.”
For Rai, who travelled with the Indian armed forces to be able to be at the war zone, the revelation of having lived with Bangladesh’s chunk of history for four decades is sinking in gradually. Negatives that remained “misplaced” for 40-odd years in his studios were found by his assistant in a box labelled ‘Bangladesh’—digitised and then later compiled and printed in Bangladesh: Price of Freedom—a photo chronicle of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. “I was only five years old in the profession. Though a few pictures had got published in newspapers back then, there are a number of pictures I am proud of today. At the war, I would get worried about the kind of shots I was getting. I walked tirelessly with the Indian forces to the battle field. Bullets went flying past me and I was protected by the soldiers. The condition of the refugees made me numb.”
In the form of his work, Rai has dug a mass grave of memories. “In the book, I have included one of the painful Blood telegrams signed by 27 American officers. The Pakistani Army is still the rogue army it was. They raped and mercilessly killed their own people.”
Today, Rai is miles away from the Projonmo Chottor—the square of the new generation— the Shahbag intersection in Dhaka, where a stifled Bangladesh is awakening to torrential protests against the coercive Islamic fundamentalist ideology and the perpetrators of heinous war crimes during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. But his mind is scattered somewhere at Dhaka’s “Tahrir Square” where protestors want the war criminals punished. “When I edit my work today, I do it with today’s sensibility and responsibility. People in Bangladesh become very disturbed when they see the pictures of the War I have taken.”
The timing of the book (and that of its release in Delhi) make him look emotionally burdened. In the book, there is a picture of a milestone that reads, “Khulna, Chuknagar, Shatkhira”. He adds, “I had no sense of history of the area back then.” Today, as candle light vigils flow across Khulna, Dinajpur, Bogra, Sylhet, Feni, Rangpur, Barisal, Narsingdi and Rajshahi, images in Price of Freedom ignite the emotion, heroism and romanticism that make, mould and change history.