Why 50 years of Bangladeshi independence is significant in the UK

  • Words by ITV News Deputy News Editor Mahatir Pasha

Landmarks and buildings around the UK have been lit up in red and green to mark 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence.

Locations like the London Eye, Millennium Bridge in Newcastle and Cardiff Castle have brandished the colours of the Bangladeshi flag to mark half a century since the south Asian country broke away from Pakistan.

Whilst leaders around the world have issued warm messages congratulating the nation on this feat, for the UK, this moment is of extra significance.

Britain used the opportunity to also celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Bangladesh.

The UK was one of the first countries to recognise Bangladesh as a sovereign nation following its bloody liberation war in 1971 which left many - some estimate the number to be as high as three million - dead.

On Friday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson congratulated Bangladesh on its 50 years of progress and spoke of the strong relationship between the two countries.

“The bond between us is incarnated by the 600,000 strong British Bangladeshi community who contribute so much to the United Kingdom everyday,” he said.

  • Boris Johnson acknowledges the sizable British Bangladeshi community

Indeed, the ties between the two countries run deep.

The contributions made by Bangladeshis to Britain vary, from around 85% of ‘Indian’ restaurants being run by Bangladeshis, according to the British Caterers Association, to four seats in the UK’s House of Commons being occupied by MPs of Bangladeshi origin.

Professor Shafi Ahmed, a British Bangladeshi academic and cancer surgeon who pioneered the first use of Google Glass technology to offer interactive medical training to students, described witnessing this moment as a privilege.

Speaking to ITV News, Professor Ahmed said: “I feel incredibly proud, it’s a privilege to have seen the rise of a young nation and now seeing its role developing, in the wider world.

“I am extremely fortunate having a family who have come from Bangladesh to the UK”, he added.

  • Professor Shafi Ahmed talks about what this anniversary means to him

The birth of Bangladesh was not a straightforward process.

When the British colonial powers left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the two states of India and Pakistan were established.

At this point, Bangladesh as we know it today, made up the eastern wing of Pakistan.

It was not until 24 years later - and a violent liberation struggle - that Bangladesh successfully broke away from Pakistan and created its own independent nation.

Bengalis in the UK campaigned hard for the UK government and other institutions to support this independence movement.

Many mobilised support and raised large amounts of money to send to Bangladesh to help fund the guerrilla resistance forces known in Bengali as the Mukhti Bahini (liberation army).

Professor Ahmed’s late father Mimbor Ali, was one of these London based campaigners who was honoured by the Bangladeshi government for his significant role in the country’s liberation effort.

Professor Ahmed said if his father was alive today, this moment would make him incredibly proud.

“He’d be pleased with his own work and that of the community and also seeing how the nation has developed over the course of time,” he said.

“I think he would’ve been pleased, through him coming here, he would have seen us British Bangladeshis doing extremely well over the last 30 or 40 years,” he added.

  • The Bangladeshi flag is raised in Altab Ali park in east London

The pandemic meant celebrations were tamed as some of the British Bangladeshi community marked the occasion in east London by raising a Bangladesh flag in Altab Ali park.

The park houses a monument that commemorates those killed during the Bengali language movement and is named after a Bengali man who was victim of a racist murder in the 70s.

The Bangladeshi High Commissioner Saida Muna Tasneem attended the event and hosted a Zoom conference to celebrate the occasion.

Prince Charles, the Royal Founding Patron of the British Asian Trust expressed “great personal sadness” that the pandemic had prevented him from visiting Bangladesh to mark the year but praised Bangladesh’s rapid development.

  • Prince Charles wishes Bangladeshis a happy independence day

He said: “Over the past 50 years, I have been fortunate enough to witness Bangladesh’s incredible development into the confident and proud partner of today.

"These achievements have been remarkable from bringing 50 million people out of extreme poverty since 1990 to increasing life expectancy and reducing infant mortality to turning the economy into one of the fast growing in the world.”

The Prince of Wales iterated in his video message his wish to “remain together as partners over the years to come” and ended with warm wishes.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I send my fondest wishes to Bangladesh and all those celebrating this very special occasion,” he said.