This Indian Photojournalist Went To East Pakistan To Witness The 1971 War. His Photos Remained Misplaced For 40 Years

by Sumati Mehrishi - Dec 16, 2019 09:55 AM
This Indian Photojournalist Went To East Pakistan To Witness The 1971 War. His Photos Remained Misplaced For 40 YearsRaghu Rai, a photojournalist from New Delhi
Snapshot
  • Iconic lensman Raghu Rai was there at Ground Zero during the 1971 war in then East Pakistan.

    He took a lot of shots — in the process of living history and an intense battle, with which he gave India, and more importantly, Bangladesh, a treasured photo chronicle of all that he saw.

In 1971, Raghu Rai, a photojournalist from New Delhi, was only five years young in the profession. He wanted to “witness” the Indian armed forces fighting this decisive war. He wanted to be in the war zone, and travelled to East Pakistan.

In Bangladesh, he would walk ‘tirelessly with the Indian forces to the battle field.’ At the war, he would get worried about the shots he was taking. He took a lot of shots — in the process of living history and an intense battle, and with that, he gave India, and more importantly, Bangladesh, a treasured photo chronicle of the 1971 Indo Pak war.

A few of his pictures were published in newspapers during that year, but he had a treasure of negatives to preserve. What happened to these negatives?

They, according to Rai's own account, remained “misplaced” in his own collection for 40-odd years. The box they were stored in was named ‘Bangladesh.’

One day, he found this box full of negatives named ‘Bangladesh’ and thought of digitising the works for a chronicle in print. It was then that he realised that the urge to “witness a war” in East Pakistan had made him see the courage of the people of the Mukti Bahini, who were fighting against a powerful army.

In 2013, at the launch of Price of Freedom — his photo chronicle of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War — he said, “Bullets went flying past me and I was protected by the soldiers. The condition of the refugees made me numb.”

Back in 2013, Rai had become emotional learning about the Shahbag protests in the news. He had said at the launch, “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.”

He had said at the book's launch: “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.”

His work and portraits of people who suffered on account of the war include photographs of the refugees fleeing East Bengal with their dear ones and belongings, in search of safety. It takes courage to even stand before these portraits or view them in his book.

In Bangladesh, Rai also got the chance to witness the historic moment of the signing of the Treaty of Surrender on 16 December 1971.

In one of the iconic photographs by Rai, Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Tiger’ Niazi can be seen sitting on the right, and Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Joint Commander of the Bangladesh-India Allied Forces, on the left.

Rai, who is considered a ‘guru’ by photojournalists, is also known for his exemplary work and chronicling of the Bhopal gas tragedy, and several political events that have shaped Indian democracy.

He is a member of the prestigious Magnum photos and trains young and aspiring photographers in Delhi.

Glimpses of his work on the War can be seen here. Rai is valued in Bangladesh as a friend.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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