26th March — A Night of Blood
By BimanChand Mullick
Pictures of Atrocities: It was 1971. Every day on television we saw news items with pictures of atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army on the millions of innocent citizens of East Pakistan. The news items were short but vivid. Newspapers published reports with graphic details by brave journalists such as Anthony Mascarenhas, Gavin Young and Mark Tully. There was a brief account of facts also published by student-leaders and activists such as Tariq Ali. That list revealed that West Pakistan was engaged in exploiting East Pakistan for the last 24 years. East Pakistan was virtually a colony of West Pakistan.
As an ordinary human being, I, like other millions of people, painfully swallowed the news of this injustice. Our thoughts were with the millions of suffering humanity of Bengal.
Massacre at Dacca University: One news item was on an incident of a massacre committed in the middle of the night on a group of university students at a hostel on 25th and 26th March. The defenceless students were brutally murdered by the Pakistani Army. Suddenly faces of my students appeared in my mind, as if they were the victims of this massacre. The night I heard this awful news, I had nightmares. At that time, on my mind, this incident left an indelible mark of sadness and anger.
‘YES’, an Emphatic Answer: It was 29th April 1971. I returned to our London home from Folkstone, a small town on the South coast of England where I was teaching as a visiting lecturer in Design. Aparajita, my wife, informed me that John Stonehouse rang, but he did not leave a message, saying he would ring again.
He rang and introduced himself as John Stonehouse, and also said that he remembered my name as the designer of the ‘Gandhi Centenary Year 1969’ postage stamp, which he issued when he was British Postmaster General. Explaining the situation of Bangla Desh, which is now a Republic, he asked me if I was willing to design stamps for Bangla Desh.
I said, ‘YES’.
No Brief: Consequently, I met him and Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, who formally requested me to design the stamps. Naturally, I requested a design brief. I got an abrupt answer, ‘no brief’.
What a responsibility!
I analysed the purpose of issuing postage stamps for Bangla Desh. In this case, it was not just collecting revenue for the postal service.
Bangla Desh needed to be introduced to the rest of the world. The world was to be told why Bangla Desh wants to leave Pakistan and needed to be independent. Bangla Desh needed to be recognized as a newly born Republic. It also deserved moral and any other kind of support that the rest of the world could offer them.
Bangla Desh needed funds for its War of Liberation.
Stamps could take an important role to fulfil all these areas.
At that time, I was travelling around 500 miles on the train per week. Most of the time I was engaged in teaching. I had very little time to sit down quietly in front of a drawing board. I scribbled my ideas on moving trains and produced the visuals at home in the middle of the night.
Stamps as Ambassadors: I designed eight stamps, thinking that was the minimum number of images I needed for this project. Eight stamps can be sold to the philatelists at or around £1. It could bring funds for Bangla Desh.
It was an emergency situation. I chose a straight forward visual language using vivid colours.
On the first stamp, I pinpointed the exact location of Bangla Desh on the world map showing longitude and latitude.
The second one illustrated the massacre of Dacca University.
The next one shows that Bangla Desh is a nation of 75 million people.
The subject of my fourth stamp was the flag of the nation.
The fifth stamp shows the election result of 1970, where 167 out of 169 seats were owned by MPs who supported Bangla Desh.
The next one on ‘Proclamation of Independent Government 10th April 1971,’ portrayed a broken chain symbolising a broken link with West Pakistan and salvation from slavery.
I chose a portrait of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for stamp no. 7.
Last, but not least, I used a slogan, ‘Support Bangla Desh,’ a very straight forward request. That was of the highest denomination of Rs.10.
Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. (June 2007) commented on the stamps, ‘These eight stamps truly worked as ambassadors forming a worldwide public opinion for the cause of Bangladesh.’
Autographs by Proxy: On 29th July 1971, the stamps were simultaneously issued from Bangla Desh, Europe, United Kingdom, The Americas, Israel, Australia and the Far East.
I attended the ceremony at The Houses of Parliament in London, where the stamps were released.
In Kolkata, the stamps were issued from the Bangladesh Mission, where one of my elder brothers Rabindranath (BimalChand) Mullick was present. In a letter to me, he wrote his experience regarding collecting a First Day Cover with the set of stamps.
He wrote, “I went to the Bangladesh Mission; there was an atmosphere of celebration. There was a big crowd. It seemed like the whole population of Kolkata gathered there to collect these historic stamps. It was not unexpected; all people of good nature worldwide wanted the liberation of Bangladesh. Naturally, the people of West Bengal including the rest of the Indian population supported the freedom for Bangladesh from their hearts. It was a joyous occasion for them. For that very reason, there was such a big crowd. This was not just an ordinary event; it was an important part of world history. These stamps were the pictorial proofs, history in miniatures. People went there to collect these pieces of history.
On the 29th July of 1971, not all people managed to collect the stamps. The demand was very high. The stock of stamps was exhausted. Some of them were disappointed and went home empty-handed. The next day it was not a working day for the Mission but the Mission Authority made an exception and opened their office to sell stamps.
But on the 29th those who managed to collect stamps with FDCs were delighted. With excitement, I could not help telling people around me that the stamps were designed by my younger brother Biman. One of them eagerly asked, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ I replied, ‘He lives in London.’ One of them gave his newly acquired FDC to me and said, ‘in this case, you better give your autograph on the FDC.’ Some other collectors followed his example and came to me with the same request. On your behalf, I gave my autographs on their FDCs.
The Best Birthday Present: 17th December 1971. The day was my birthday. It was early in the morning. The telephone rang. What a botheration! Who is ringing at this ungodly hour! Mr Stonehouse was on the other end of the phone. ‘Did you know, yesterday the Pakistani Army surrendered under Jagjit Singh Aurora, the joint commander of Indian and Bangladesh Liberation Army?’ he said.
I was waiting for this news. What a relief!
It was the best birthday present for me.