Springingtiger's Blog

Remembering Action Bangladesh

In 1971, in my late teens I had one of the defining experiences of my life. I was allowed to go by myself to London to stay with my cousin Barry, my first big adventure I suppose. In the middle of the two weeks at the beginning of August I attended my first ever protest march and rally. Action Bangladesh had organised a protest in support of the struggle to gain independence for Bangladesh (East Pakistan), I suppose there may have been some Bengalis working that day, but it looked to me as if the whole Bangladeshi population of Britain had converged on Trafalgar Square. We marched through the streets chanting, “Joi Bangla” and “Long live, long live, Sheikh Mujib, Sheikh Mujib”, we sang a song which went – if I remember correctly – “Bade penge dow, bade penge dow bango” and translated as, “break down the barriers and let the spirit free” (of course, it was forty years ago so I may not be accurate). In Trafalgar Square we listened to speakers calling for the bloodshed in East Pakistan to cease and for it to be given independence as Bangladesh and heard the first public playing of George Harrison’s “Bangladesh”. I had never been so excited and the next day I went – as I remember – to Streatham and volunteered.

The first day I was there we counted the money from the collections made along the route of the march and at the rally – several hundred pounds in coins – our hands were black. We then took the money to the bank in buckets, they were not entirely happy and suggested we might in future use money bags with which they then supplied us. I think it was the first time in my life that I felt part of something truly worthwhile, and although I was just a schoolboy I don’t remember ever feeling I was not wanted. I was a little overawed by Paul Connett and Marietta Procope who were running the organisation, they not only knew so much but they understood stuff! I was a callow schoolboy and they seemed so sophisticated but they put up with me with a good will although I am sure I had little to offer in skills and experience. I had conversations with other volunteers and, I believe, absorbed some of their passion for justice.

The person above all who made an impression upon me was Marietta Procope. She was personally committed to the cause and – as I understand it – had originally given Action Bangladesh a room from which to organise. By the time I arrived the organisation had taken over not only her life, but her house, all she had left to herself was her bed! I remember her as very slim and a prodigious consumer of cigarettes and coffee. I don’t know whether I had a crush on her, I might have done, but I do know she inspired me. That week at Action Bangladesh convinced me that ordinary people can make a difference, that there is always hope and that people are fundamentally good. I went back to school, the war ended and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. I never saw Marietta or anyone from Action Bangladesh again, but in the forty years that followed I have been involved in the Labour Party then the Communist Party, I have been a trades union official, I have campaigned against nuclear weapons, against Apartheid, against racism, I have demonstrated, canvassed, petitioned, leafleted, I have written letters and lobbied, and I continue to do so.

I was very upset when I learned of Marietta’s death after she returned from Bangladesh, having visited shortly after the war. I can’t pretend to understand how others think, but I have known the pits of depression and considered killing myself and I regret that anyone should suffer. I like to think of her death as one last protest against mans inhumanity to man. I was pleased to see that she is among the 124 foreigners being honoured by Bangladesh for their contribution to the War of Liberation; for my part I would like to think that the campaigning and political activity I have undertaken is a small, but not inappropriate, tribute to the memory of the woman who inspired me to action – Marietta Procope