Blockade in Review, Remembering Bangladesh in 1971

I caught Arif Yousuf’s documentary Blockade: Nonviolent Resistance to Stop Genocide in Dhaka’s first public screening of the film at the notable Liberation War Museum // Muktijuddho Jadughar and what a treat it was to watch it a second time and that too surrounded by Bangladeshi elders who survived and were teenagers in then East Pakistan, building up to and actively participating in Bangladesh’s fight for liberation (1971).

The documentary, based on Richard Taylor’s book BLOCKADE: A Guide to Nonviolent Intervention, uplifts the solidarity work and organizing by political peace activists (namely Richard Taylor and Phyllis Taylor, members of a Quaker organization called the American Friends Service Committee, and Friends of East Bengal), and Bangladeshi academics and expats in the US (Sultana Alam, Mozharul Hoque, and Monayem Chowdhury; Philadelphia), who led nonviolent direct actions to block the shipping of US-backed munitions and military arms to Pakistan. These shipped weapons were used to kill Bangladeshis in the masses, waging a genocide to prevent an independent Bangladesh. In the film, Dr. Sultana Alam describes the Urduization (erasure of Bangla and promotion/standardization of the Urdu language and culture) happening in East Pakistan, the difficulty preserving Bangla and its traditions, and how as a teenager she had internalized the derogatory stereotyping associated with Bengalis and directed toward her: Bangal, barbaric. Her compelling account tells of a time when the Bangla language and the preservation of Bengali culture were in imminent danger of extinction and a bloodshed movement was anticipated to resist.

Inside the screening room.

President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Kissinger is known as the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of the US; he reinforced and armed Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh, which slaughtered up to 3 million people) supported the genocide of Bangladeshis in East Pakistan and were steadfast in condoning Pakistan’s brutal and lethal military actions. Activists and allies learned about The Padma, a ship making its way to Karachi, Pakistan from Baltimore, Maryland carrying millions of dollars worth of military aid. What followed are organized direct actions to ban the shipment of military weapons from the US. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent social change practice, they arrived with canoes and kayaks creating a human shield to block the ship from moving. In another effort, Dr. Alam appealed to the International Longshoremen Union, which resulted in the allyship and agreement from the longshoremen/dockmen (ship dockers) to actively stop loading ships with arms from all ports. Despite this brilliant collaboration, the US was still adamant in its military support to Pakistan. Activists then camped out in front of the White House in large, mock-sewer pipes (symbolic of where fleeing Bangladeshis found refuge). Finally, in November 1971, the US backed out from shipping military weapons to Pakistan. December 16th, 1971 marks the end of the 9-month genocide known as the Bangladesh Liberation War and the officiation of a sovereign Bangladesh.

After the screening, Dr. Alam facilitated a discussion addressing the audience. Having her among the crowd to retell her lived experiences was riveting and a reminder that organizing is ever so relevant. Many questions were directed at the state of Bangladesh now: is nonviolent direct action enough to improve the current politics in Bangladesh regarding suppression dissent and free speech, as well as incidents of violence against women and the LGBTQ community? Dr. Alam maintained her support of non-violent direct actions and believes that Bangladesh’s current socio-economic obstacles can and will be combatted with a nonviolent revolution. To push back on her, I believe it may not be nonviolent.

Arif Yousuf introduces himself and the production team.
Dr. Sultana Alam engages the audience in a post-screening discussion.

Read Richard Taylor’s account here:

To learn more about screenings or to host Arif Yousuf in your city, please follow Blockade on Facebook:

*Currently, the film is not dubbed in Bangla nor does it include Bangla subtitles, but this is underway. The film will be available for watching online by the end of 2016. I highly recommend this documentary to understand and imagine the possibilities of a just world, that destructive US foreign policy and Bangladeshi government’s complicated and complex political power-hold of public space and people (though these may not be won immediately) can be challenged through strategic organizing, nonviolent social change, people power, and patience. And love.

Liberation war posters.
Translated: Liberation War Museum