Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bishop Francis A. Gomes Witnesses Formation of Bangladesh Government-in-Exile

Bishop Francis Anthony Gomes
(now Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Mymensingh)

Photo Courtesy: The Catholic Directory of Bangladesh, 2003

Bishop Francis Anthony Gomes, in 1971, was Father Francis Anthony Gomes. He was the parish priest of Bhoborpara Catholic Church in the then Kushtia District. He was fortunate to witness the history of the newly-declared independent Bangladesh unfold in front of his very eyes at the Baiddyanathtola mango grove, just five-minutes' walk from his church. He witnessed the formation and swearing in ceremony of the Bangladesh government-in-exile on April 17, 1971.

Around 11:00 p.m. on March 25, 1971, the West Pakistani army started their nine-month long crackdown on the East Pakistanis, beginning from Dhaka. Before his arrest around 1:30 a.m. of March 26, 1971, the Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence of Bangladesh. On March 27, at 7:45 p.m., Major Ziaur Rahman, in-charge of the East Bengal Regiment in Kalurghat area of Chittagong District, announced the declaration of independence of Bangladesh over a makeshift radio station on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He repeated the announcement next day.

Baiddyanathtola Was an Enclave of East Pakistan, Later Renamed 'Mujibnagar'

In the absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the new government of Bangladesh was formed and the oath of office of the members of the new cabinet was performed at the Baiddyanathtola mango grove, later renamed 'Mujibnagar'. Paddy fields were around this mango grove, an enclave of East Pakistan, surrounded on three sides by Indian territory.

From early morning of Saturday, April 17, people were crowding at the mango grove. Some former East Pakistan district and thana (police station) level government officers were busy preparing the venue for the unprecedented ceremony to be held at late morning.

Church Items Were Used During the Ceremony

Since the church was nearby, some of the organizers borrowed a table, flowers with vases, flower tubs and a table cloth for use during the oath-taking ceremony.

Bishop Francis in an interview published in the Pratibeshi, the national Catholic weekly from Dhaka, on March 23, 1997, said: "It was Saturday, April 17, 1971. Around 10 a.m., when I reached Baiddyanathtola mango grove, I found it crowded. The ceremony has just started with the reading of the Quran. Many foreign correspondents and photojournalists were also present. In absence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam declared the names of the cabinet ministers... the Chief Whip of the Awami League officially read out the Declaration of Independence" and led the swearing in ceremony.

Bishop Francis again mentioned, "I then realized that an important historic event was unfolding. So I ran to my church residence and brought my camera." Then he took photos of Prime Minister Tajuddin delivering his speech, the crowd and foreign journalists.

The First Cabinet of Bangladesh

The newly-announced cabinet was formed with the following persons: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman -- President in absentia, Syed Nazrul Islam -- Acting President, Tajuddin Ahmed -- Prime Minister, Monsur Ali -- Finance Minister, Quamruzzaman -- Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation, and M.A.G. Osmani -- Commander of the three forces.

After the oath of office, the green flag with red disc and golden map of Bangladesh in the middle was raised in synchronization of the national anthem, Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Bhalobashi (O my golden Bengal, I love you). The crowd then raised Joy Bangla (Victory to Bangladesh) slogan. Then a few Bangali soldiers present there, at the direction of Mahbubudiin Ahmed (who later became a Bir Bikram), raised their rifles and saluted the Acting President present in the dais and M.A.G. Osmani one step behind him on the right.

Bishop Francis met with the new Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed and requested for his autograph. "I had a small diary where the Prime Minister gave his autograph in Bangla in beautiful handwriting. It is my unforgettable and invaluable memento of the War of Liberation," he said.

That very day Bishop Francis raised the Bangladesh flag on the priest's residence and he has kept the flag with him ever since.

Among the East Pakistani Refugees in India

Bishop Francis ultimately could not stay in his parish as the West Pakistani soldiers were advancing in Kushtia district. He took shelter with Bishop Motilal Baroi of Krishnagar, Dt. Nadia of West Bengal. He worked for the East Pakistani refugees at different capacities in the larger camps at Antolia, Bahadurpur, Bhaluka, Dhuplia and Haringhata and the smaller camps at Maliapota, Domepukur, Begunpara, Betbari, Poragaccha, Ranaghat, Bongaon, Barashat, Begopara, Debgram, Madanpur, Panchpota and others. He also helped refugees in procuring ration cards. Missionaries of Charity Sisters (Mother Teresa's nuns) served refugees giving medicines, food and taking care of children who lost their parents in West Pakistani crackdowns.

He also mentioned that in the nine months, many priests, Brothers and Sisters of India worked day and night in the service of East Pakistani refugees. A good number of churches and chapels were used for safekeeping of movable properties and goods of refugees.

As a Bangali, Bishop Francis feels extremely proud of witnessing the formation of the first Bangladesh government and also of being of service to the East Pakistani refugees in India.

Sources: The Pratibeshi weekly (Dhaka: March 23, 1997 ) and

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