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Bangladesh Turns 50

Bangladesh celebrates its 50th anniversary, writes Mohammed Rahman, since gaining independence in 1971. For many Bengalis, independence is a mixed celebration of their people’s right to self-determine and commemoration of the lives changed and lost during the struggle.

At the Foundation we’re proud to celebrate, commemorate and support our Bangladeshi community who have shaped the East London we love.

The Bangladesh Liberation War was fought between Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and West Pakistan to gain independence from oppressive governance since the partition of India in 1947. This included attempts to erase the Bengali language, the economic exploitation of Bangladesh by West Pakistan, religious persecution of non-Muslim communities and racism.

On 25 March 1971 when war broke out, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first prime minister, declared Bangladesh’s independence which was announced the following day. Over nine months the West Pakistan military launched Operation Searchlight– a campaign to crush the Bangladeshi people’s struggle for freedom. Deaths from the war range from 300,000 to three million with 10 million refugees fleeing to India. West Pakistan surrendered to the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini liberation army on 16 December 1971.

From the 1800s to 2021, Bengalis have contributed much to East London and the wider UK in areas spanning racial justice, enterprise, food, the arts, sport, science and more.

With over 450,000 Bengalis in the UK today, the community has a rich history of establishing itself here while keeping strong ties with Bangladesh and Bengali-speaking India. This started with the arrival of lascars (seamen) as part of the East India Company’s colonial activity in the 1800s. Then came the post-war migrations as workers from the Commonwealth filled the labour vacuum. Another wave of migration came in the 1960s and 70s due to political unrest in Bangladesh and opportunity in the UK- that brings us to the migration of today as people continue to move here.

During the 1960s and 70s, many came as textile workers and restaurateurs to settle in East London in what is now Spitalfields and Banglatown. They were met with hostility and racism from members of the National Front, but through grassroots organisation and antiracist protest, the community was able to drive the National Front out. This paved the way for the racial coexistence we enjoy today in East London.

The list of British-Bengali excellence is long, ranging from TV personality, chef and mental health activist Nadiya Hussain, journalist Ash Sarkar, entrepreneur Iqbal Ahmed (OBE) and model Ramzan Miah to list a few. Despite this, Bengalis are still statistically underserved and have been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through our work we aim to support the community through recognising local talent, sharing opportunities and encouraging applications to our funding streams.

To find out more about how East London organisations are honouring Bangladesh’s 50th, here is a round-up of free opportunities over the coming months:

26 March 2021

Nijjor Manush, an East London based Bangladeshi community organisation, is holding a round table from 6pm-7pm for Bangladeshis to share their histories and memories of the 1971 Liberation War.

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Newham Council is hosting “Heritage, Culture and Tradition: Being British, Bangladeshi & Me”, a free talk from 6pm – 7.30pm  featuring academics, inspirational speakers and public figures including Dr Aminul Hoque MBE, Dr Farzana Hussain, Mumzy Stranger, Nadia Ali, Syed Ahmed and Ramzan Miah.

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March & April 2021

Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive have partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to delivered a programme of exhibitions and workshops as part of the Citizen UK initiative.

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25 March — 20 May

Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive presents a free online programme of events, talks and workshops.

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