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Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Photo Essay | War without end

Photographer Raghu Rai’s latest book, Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom, arrives at an interesting juncture. Based on his work as a photojournalist covering the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War (the negatives, presumed lost, were discovered recently), the book comes at a time when Bangladesh’s young liberals have, for over a month now, been gathering in thousands at the Shahbag square in the capital Dhaka, wanting to reorient themselves with the country’s history and negotiate a better future.

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Bangladesh—The Price of Freedom: By Raghu Rai, Niyogi Books, 115 pages, Rs 1,495.

Rai’s book is a grim reminder of the price paid. In frame after frame, Rai puts the human situation in the middle and centre as the tragedy of 1971 unfolded in East Pakistan, or soon to be Bangladesh. While his book revisits the horrors of a war often under-acknowledged in global discourse, it’s also a stunning return to the impassioned photojournalism days of Rai, known for his remarkable work on another man-made disaster, 1984’s Bhopal gas tragedy.

Figures underline the book’s import—more than 10 million refugees poured into India, especially West Bengal, 4,000 Indian soldiers died and 14,000 were injured, 93,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered, and more than two million Bengalis were “wiped out" by Pakistani forces and their local razakars (collaborators) in what is now considered among the worst ethnic genocides in history, writes Rai in the book. There were losses on the Pakistani side too.

“New ones (mass graves) have been found even 28 years after the war," writes Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam in the introduction. With around 80 more killed in flare-ups in Bangladesh since the Shahbag movement started, the world continues to count the losses from 1971.

Given the bleak backdrop, Rai’s black and white photography is overpoweringly personal for the most part. Rai, then a photographer with the Kolkata-headquartered daily The Statesman, charts the travails of refugees flooding in through West Bengal’s porous Bongaon border and Jessore Road during 1971’s monsoon season. You feel the wetness everywhere—drenched skin, rain-matted hair, glistening roads and trees, slushy paths, slippery bus tops, soggy patches around refugee camps, drying saris sheltering infants, injections for preventing water-borne diseases and the occasional umbrella—as the uprooted millions trudged, got carried, rode on carts or bus tops, tripped, fell or gave up en route to safer land.

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