Two Obituaries

Last few weeks saw the deaths of two people who were recently featured in Iconic Photos, first a photographer and second a general who made an iconic image possible. 

Died on October 25th was Rashid Talukder, the first Bangladeshi to win Pioneer Photographer Award, aged 72. His photos of the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 are considered to be one of the most important photoessays of the century, and his photo of a bodiless head, featured here on IP just two months ago, was a haunting testament to the trying toll of that war.

Another of his famous photos was featured above, when Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to his homeland after being released from jail in Pakistan. The photo, taken at historic speech on March 7, 1971, was later selected by the Encyclopaedia on Southeast Asia as one of the seminal moments of Bengal history.

From one successful war of independence to another less successful one: that in Biafra. In 1967, the Igbo — a Christian people in the oil-rich south east part of Nigeria — unilaterally declared their independence from Nigeria. Leading them quixotically was Col. Emeka Ojukwu, who died this week at the age of 78.

The Biafran struggle, for all its lofty goals, was a conflict which should have lasted only weeks, given the overwhelming superiority of the Nigerian federal army and the fact that international governments — seeing the rebellion as a first major challenge to post-colonial borders throughout Africa — weighed in heavily against the rebels. That it lasted for two and a half years was largely due to Ojukwu’s single-mindedness.

Before the Biafrans would capitulate, the Nigerian blockade of Biafra led to a famine and the conflict became imprinted on the international consciousness and conscience, thanks to a handful of British television reports and photographers. By October 1968 several thousand Biafrans, many of them children, were reported to be dying every day, and Don McCullin documented an extreme case of this in an iconic photo featured on this blog before.

Bangladesh, Rashid Talukdar

When Mohammed Ali Jinnah became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1947, he bemoaned that he inherited a “mutilated, truncated, moth-eaten Pakistan”. The British partition of her Indian possession created two countries, secular India, and two predominantly-Moslem areas — East and West Pakistans — that sandwiched it. Apart from religion, two areas had very little in common, in geography, in language, and in culture. Although over-populated East Pakistan had more people, West Pakistan held the lion’s share of power, and government subsidies.

Equally vexing to East Pakistanis was the issue of who minority Hindus, who were marginalized. All these grievances exploded in December 1970, when poor government response to a cyclone triggered civil unrest. In March 1971, West Pakistan responded by launching a military operation in against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were finally demanding separation of the East from West Pakistan. A guerrilla war that claimed as many as 3 million — one of the bloodiest in modern history — unfolded for next 266 days, with East Pakistanis being supported by India.

On December 3rd, in a severely miscalculated move, West Pakistan began a pre-emptive attack on the western border of India. India promptly declared war on Pakistan, and came to the defense of the Bengali separatists. In one of the shortest wars in history, West Pakistan surrendered in the east 12 days later. West Pakistan became just Pakistan; the new nation of Bangladesh was born.

In the days immediately preceding their surrender, the West Pakistanis either ordered or led the extermination of a large section of the intellectual community of Bangladesh in a last ditch effort to wreck the new country. The worst were the horrors of Rayerbazar killing fields (14 December 1971) which were later captured by Rashid Talukdar. The above picture appeared to be a marble sculpture among rocks but was in fact a dismembered head.

Death in Dacca

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Under the name ‘Mukti Bahini’ (Liberation Army), they were the important fighters for the Bangladesh Liberation movement in 1971. An effective guerrilla force, it was a symbolic rallying point for the Bengalis, albeit the independence of Bangladesh was secured primarily with the help of the Indian soldiers aiding the liberation movement. (India’s motive was to prevent 1 million refugees emigrating from East Bengal).

On 16 December 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered. It was the end of 9-month long war, but signalled the beginning of the Great Bengali Revenge. It began with the killing of Monaem Khan, a loyalist, anti-Bengali and ex-governor of East Pakistan in the capital Dacca. What happened next on December 18th was carefully recorded above. Three photos show Mukti Bahiti extracting revenge on the people who sided with Pakistan during the independence movement. After torturing them for hours, they bayoneted and executed these four men, who were suspected of collaborating with Pakistani militiamen who had been accused of murder, rape and looting. The last picture shows a relative of one of these four men being stomped to death by Mukti Bahini.

The controversy surrounding the photos were that many photographers deemed that the massacre would never have occurred if they (the photographers) were not there. It was as if they were invited to a ‘photo-opportunity’, many recalled. Many photographers, including Magnum’s Marc Riboud, UPI’s Peter Skingley, ITN’s Richard Linley, and Panos’ Penny Tweedie, left. They asked all others to join them, but others like the Observer’s Tony McGrath and the Daily Express’s William Lovelace deemed they have a duty to remain and tell the story. Two of those who stayed behind, Horst Faas and Michael Laurent of AP decided to pool their photos and shared the 1972 Pulitzer. Faas maintained that Skingley & co. left not because of some moral highground but because the rally was dragging on without anything much happening and it was getting dark.

The bayonetting photo became the iconic image of the East Bengal War along with Rashid Talukder’s photo of a mutilated head. In Delhi, the photos were received with shock: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Indian soldiers aiding the Bengal liberation to stop incidents like this.