In the early hours of 26th March 1971, following a violent crackdown by the Pakistani Army, the leader of the rebellious Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, declared East Pakistan’s independence as the state of Bangladesh. On Friday 26th of March, nearly half a million British Bangladeshis remembered and celebrated the 50th anniversary of this declaration of independence.

Following the end of British colonial rule over India in 1947, a largely Muslim state comprising of East and West Pakistan was established, separated from each other by more than 1500m of Indian territory. The unity of East and West Pakistan relied on a homogenous religious identity yet maintaining that identity would inevitably prove to be difficult if the authorities of West Pakistan persisted in viewing Bengali Muslims in the East as ‘too Bengali’ and their application of Islam as ‘inferior and impure.’

The forced assimilation of the Bengalis culturally proved to be incredibly unpopular, with language becoming a particular flashpoint in the cultural struggle between East and West Pakistan. In 1948, just a few months after the creation of Pakistan, the West Pakistani officials declared Urdu as the national language, despite the fact that only 4% of Pakistan’s population at the time spoke the language. Anybody who spoke in Bengali was labelled as communists and enemies of the state. Linguistic nationalism became increasingly prevalent in East Pakistan and formed the basis of many groups, including the Awami League.

In response to the growing sense of nationalism and calls for self-determination by the Eastern Pakistanis, West Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight, which was a military crackdown on the rebellious Eastern Pakistanis. During the ensuing nine-month-long Bangladesh War for Liberation, between 200,000 and 3,000,000 people were killed, and between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women were raped. Many Bangladeshis regard this dark period in their history as a genocide. Eventually, with some assistance from India, Bangladesh emerged triumphant, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became prime minister, immediately beginning a programme of nationalising key industries.

What was essentially a triumph of linguistic nationalism over religious identity, remembering the Bangladesh War of Liberation often sparks a wave of pride in Bangladeshi communities, with people coming together to share and celebrate uniquely Bangladeshi traditions, clothes, food and of course the language. With Covid restrictions, celebrations here in the UK were not anywhere near as extravagant as people had hoped for, but British Bangladeshis across the country have taken to Facebook and other social media to share their thoughts, feelings and activities they have done to commemorate the event, with the rest of the community.