In August 2021, we will be unveiling the final artwork for Bangladesh 50 - a Citizen UK project in partnership with Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive to commemorate 50 years of the independence of Bangladesh.
Since the project's launch, volunteer Citizen Researchers from the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets have been delving into their local archives to explore the role people in Tower Hamlets played in the independence of Bangladesh and the legacy of the events of 1971 on the local community. Working with artists, they have helped to shape the finished piece.
Citizen Researcher Eliza Islam tells us about her research for the Citizen UK project, which focused on student movements in support of a Bangladeshi state (formerly East Pakistan) in the 1970s and the experiences of Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets.
Firstly, tell us about yourself, and what made you interested in this project?
I’m Eliza and I’ve recently graduated from the University of Kent with a BA (Hons) in Politics and International Relations with a Language (Spanish). I live at the heart of the British-Bangladeshi community in the UK in Tower Hamlets, and I could not pass on the opportunity to amplify our stories and struggles and celebrate my community in the UK and back home in Bangladesh. Decisions to forcefully gentrify Brick Lane and surrounding areas at the expense of my community also sparked my interest of the area’s rich history of migration and its long struggle against labour exploitation, fascism and racism. My interest lies in South Asian history and politics, especially Bangladesh’s and I thought this project was a great way of learning more.
Women at an anti-racist demo, East London 1983 © Phil Maxwell
What has been your role in the project?
My role as a Citizen Researcher was to research about the lives of citizens. My research was focused on student movements in support of a Bangladeshi state (formerly East Pakistan) in the 1970s and to document the experiences of Bangladeshis, especially religious minorities in Tower Hamlets. I wanted to focus on religious minorities because it was only recently when I discovered the diversity among Bengalis (ethnic group). The project itself focuses intensively on Bangladeshi Muslims’ experience as they are the dominant group in the area so I hoped that this would help highlight new narratives from these marginalised communities.
Nevertheless, I interviewed a former student (Mahmoud) who was involved in student movements in support of Bangladesh in the 1970s and captured a citizen’s experience of the war (Mujibur). There was a small community of East Pakistanis (modern-day Bangladesh) in the UK who supported the Bangladeshi independence back home and raised awareness and funds to support the movement. I also asked about their experiences of living in the UK and how they adjusted to a new country thousands of miles away from home when people did not want them.
Listen to some extracts from Eliza's interviews with Mujibur and Mahmoud.
Mujibur talking about the 1971 Liberation War
Mujibur on being an immigrant in 1970s UK
Mahmoud on student protests
Mahmoud talking about life in Tower Hamlets
Mahmoud speaking about the impact of the death of Altab Ali
Have there been any challenges? If so, what were they?
The main challenge that I faced was finding Bangladeshis from religious minorities in Tower Hamlets and the pandemic did not help. Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country with around 90% being Muslim and the rest being Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. I hoped that through this project, I could shine light on the experiences Bangladeshi Hindus, Buddhists and Christians whose experiences are less likely to be recorded and recognised. Unfortunately, I did not interview anyone about their experiences living in Tower Hamlets or in Bangladesh. However, I learned a lot through my background research on Bangladesh, the war and the local community and its rich history of migration from the Huguenots, the Irish, Ashkenazi Jews and now Bangladeshis, most of whom are from Sylhet, a district in north-eastern Bangladesh.
Moreover, I discovered the Bengali Christian Fellowship in Tower Hamlets which is a space for Bengali Christians from India and Bangladesh. I would have never known that this community was next to my doorstep if I had not researched about them for Citizen UK: Bangladesh 50 Years.
I also found an account on Instagram called @Bindus__ that is dedicated to Bengali Hindus. Their page has educated me on the issues that affect Bengali Hindus as well as their traditions and issues. They asked their followers to share their families' stories during the 1971 War. While their followers are across the world and most were not from Tower Hamlets/London, their stories emphasise and illustrate how religious minorities were discriminated against, especially during the war where they were specifically targeted by West Pakistani (Pakistan) forces.
Screenshots from @Bindus__ Instagram feed (with kind permission)
What have been your highlights from the project?
Being able to interview people who have lived through the war was incredible and very insightful as my family and parents rarely share stories of their lives back home (unless it is to say how privileged my siblings and I are for everything we have).
A second highlight was meeting all the other Citizen Researchers on Zoom. I was fascinated by the work they were doing and their passion for this project. They are extremely talented, and I loved hearing their own stories and how their current occupations and skills would enrich the exhibition.
What have you taken away from your experience?
Bangladesh 50 Years was a very important project for me personally as I got to explore my heritage and the land of my ancestors. I have also explored how academia discusses the war and socio-political affairs of Bangladesh. This experience helped to develop my research skills, but it also tested it immensely. There was little data for my fields of interests as well as the pandemic, making it harder to connect with potential interviewees and access archives. This project has made me more open to continuing my studies but only time will tell if I’ll put myself through that again. Every person I had spoken to in this project has shaped me in some way and I could not be prouder of the project and what has been produced!
Part of the National Portrait Gallery’s transformational Inspiring People project, Citizen UK is a collaborative programme of activity that will see the Gallery work with Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives; the Ealing Local History Centre Archives; the Museum of Croydon and Wolverhampton Arts & Culture to explore post Second World War migration and British citizenship in these areas. Each site will create an exhibition or online display, working with an artist, and local participants, recruited as ‘Citizen Researchers’. The Citizen Researchers will help to identify people missing from the national Collection who have made an impact on British society and are relevant to their communities, and the Gallery will acquire new works as a result.
Funded by The National Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund