Kolkata: A two-storied non-descript house at 57/8 Ballygunge Circular Road, a stone’s throw away from the Tripura royal palace in the heart of this city, stands mute witness to an operation in the run-up to the 1971 war which gave the Bangladesh government-in-exile a radio station to broadcast “hope” to its beleaguered people facing genocide by the Pakistan Army.

Fifty years ago, on this day, a motley group of singers, poets and radio broadcasters made their way to the rented house, where a makeshift studio and dormitory for the artists had been set up. The day was chosen in part because it was the birthday of the man who would become Bangladesh’s national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam.

Till a week after Dhaka was freed, this house on a lane off the main Ballygunge Circular Road, was headquarters and sole transmitting radio station for ‘Swadhin Bangla Betar’ (Free Bangladesh Radio), broadcasting news bulletins, plays, songs and “above all hope” for a beleaguered people.

“Many of us had escaped from East Pakistan after the brutal crackdown of our people by the Pakistan Army started. My father, noted movie director Abdul Jabbar Khan, was among a handful of people who helped set up the station. The rest of our family followed and at the age of 19, I, my sister and my brother were press-ganged into performing for Free Bangladesh Radio,” said well-known Bangladeshi singer Mala Khurram in a telephonic interview from Dhaka.

Songs like ‘Purbo Digante, Suryo Utheche’ (On the eastern sky, a new sun has arisen), Shono Ekti Mujjiberer theke’ (Hear from one Mujibber), ‘Mora ekti phool ke bachabo bole juddho kori’ (We fight to save one flower) were written, composed and recorded at the Ballygunge studio.

The clandestine radio station had been first set up at Kalurghat, in Chittagong on March 26, soon after the arrest of Sheikh Mujib, leader of Bangladesh’s freedom movement and the start of genocide by the Pakistani Army through an operation codenamed ‘Searchlight’.

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It relocated from there to Agartala after Kalurghat was shelled by Pakistani Sabre jets and finally came to Kolkata where it was joined by a large number of Bangladeshi radio programmers, newscasters, poets, singers and journalists.

“Both the provisional Bangladeshi government and our authorities felt a radio station was needed to carry on psychological warfare over the airwaves and to keep up the morale of comrades in Bangladesh. This Kolkata station was obviously the result of that belief,” said retired IPS officer Shantanu Mukherjee, former National Security Advisor to Mauritius and an analyst on South Asian affairs.

The Border Security Force was already covertly helping train Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) who had started operating behind the enemy line. Refugees pouring in were being accommodated in camps across West Bengal, Meghalaya, Tripura and Assam.

Said Syed Kawsar Jamal, a former All India Radio, Kolkata, broadcaster and radio historian, “Akashvani Kolkata radio station helped with technical support. Our own broadcasters like Debdulal Bandopodhyay were already making history by recording tales of atrocities from survivors who made it to the border.”

“News broadcasts, radio shows like ‘Chorompotro’ (The ultimate letter) by M R Akhtar Mukul which lampooned the Pakistani army and politics and ‘Jallader Darbar’ (The hangman’s court), a series of satires on Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan by Kallyan Mitra and of course the songs we recorded were our staples,” said Prof Arup Ratan Chowdhury, who worked and slept at the station in a dormitory since his escape from East Pakistan.

“Some of the best names in Bangladesh’s cultural world from Syedul Islam to Nasir Ahmed to Rathin Roy bunked together in that house as we worked non-stop there,” said Chowdhury.

While top-notch Bangladeshi poets and music directors including Govinda Halder, Apel Mahmud and Gazi Mazharul Anwar who were staying elsewhere as refugees were recording their songs here, most of these people worked gratis or for a pittance which barely allowed them to survive, he said.

“The legacy of this radio station which I feel should be turned into a museum by the Indian and Bangladeshi government, is that it gave hope to a whole nation going through a long dark night,” said Chowdhury.

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