FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, what sets apart a war zone from other locations is the imminence of danger. Raghu Rai had gone along with the first column of Indian troops entering what was still officially East Pakistan from the Khulna border in early December 1971. Pakistani forces had retreated to defend the capital, Dacca, as it was then known. But after they had travelled about 50 km, Pakistanis attacked with artillery fire. Rai shot photographs of wounded soldiers being taken away. After the situation subsided, Rai was relieved to find a teashop and decided to have a moment’s respite, although the Indian army major told him to be careful. Just as Rai ordered tea and biscuits, a bullet whizzed past him. “The major shouted for me to lie down,” Rai wrote. “I did, and another bullet went past me. I crawled back to the shop and was told by the shopkeeper that the Pakistani army was on the other side of the railtrack, just half a kilometer away.” Photographers are meant to be impartial observers, or witnesses. But to the Pakistani sniper, Rai was a participant, entering enemy territory, accompanied by a foreign army. He was a target, fair game. He may have come to record, but he was intervening.
The photographs Rai took during that two-week war, when the Indian army marched to what is now Dhaka and defeated General AAK Niazi’s Pakistani army, are now published in a glossy volume by Niyogi Books, one which commemorates Bangladeshi bravery, and Indian support and generosity, and documents the Pakistani army’s brutality towards civilians.