5 years ago


The article that changed history

Thousands of people at the National Martyrs' Memorial ,  Savar on the Victory Day, 2018 make a pledge to uphold the spirit of independence.     —Photo: bdnews24.com 
Thousands of people at the National Martyrs' Memorial ,  Savar on the Victory Day, 2018 make a pledge to uphold the spirit of independence.     —Photo: bdnews24.com 

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Anthony Mascarenhas's "Genocide" article, published on June 13, 1971 in the Sunday Times of London, was a game-changer. Until then, only first-hand observers would use 'genocide' to describe what they had seen, experienced, or learned of. Much more was needed to convince the even more circumspective rest-of-the-world. Many in the global media also tip-toed the more transparent partner of the two Cold War protagonists, the United States. Perpetually suspicious of the Soviet Union, the United States was adamantly against challenging a robust Cold War anti-communism partner, such as Pakistan. The United States was even more ready, willing, and able to give Pakistan pedestal treatment for bridging the US road to China: not only was Pakistan a key partner of at least two military organisations to contain communism, but its next-door neighbour, India, was overtly socialist. Under the circumstances, it was too 'unholy' for the United States to be automatically connected with any Pakistan-based 'genocide' argument. Pakistani leaders, too, did what they perpetually do, and so perfectly: spin the tale.

Mascarenhas decided to not be caught in that web when he was invited to visit Dhaka from his Karachi residence. When he authored the above piece, BBC News's Mark Drummett dubbed it "the article that changed history" in his 2011 Victory Day article. Whether the number of victims was 300,000, as genocide naysayers posit, or 3 (three) million, as eye-witnesses claim, that particular article was the dividing line between the rest of the world attributing the killings from March 25 to June to typical 'third-world dictator-type actions', on the one hand, and an emergent scholarly group validating 'genocide' claims, on the other. By the time Mascarenhas wrote his piece, the most dramatic killings had been completed, and the pseudo return to civilian government also marked the transformation of the internal Pakistani developments into an India-Pakistan conflict: too many refugees had spilled over into India for India to remain silent, and too many naval ships were gathering in the adjacent Indian Ocean for South Asia to remain complacent.

History ghastly changed inside East Pakistan. An authentic article to describe it was due. Many journalists swarmed to write it, but Mascarenhas pepped them to the tape. They were busy scrounging for more and more original evidences in and around the 'crime scene', that is, Bangladesh. That left them little time to dash back to convey their news-breaking stories: remember, Internet was still a decade away from public usage, and these journalists were fighting stubborn Indian administrators to get permission to even approach the Bangladesh border, let alone cross it. Even more, each probably believed he or she had scooped up some privileged information from one or another Bangladeshi or Indian official. That was all they could do since the Pakistan government denied many of them permission to enter Bangladesh, let alone visit sites freely. Though Mascarenhas was in a group vetted by the Pakistani government, his stumbling blocks were neither administrative, nor physical: they were mental, psychological, and moral. He narrated them to his wife first, before simply breaking to the public.

All foreign journalists covering Bangladesh had contact with the Provisional Government's External Publicity Division (EPD). Housed in the Pakistan Deputy High Commission, its head, Mohammed Hosen Ali, led a string of other staff-members to defect from Pakistan's foreign office, establishing what was called the Bangladesh Diplomatic Commission, the first foreign institution the emergent country opened. There he lived with his wife and two daughters. A sentry building was converted into the EPD office, headed by Mohammad Aminul Hoque Badsha, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's press secretary before the March 25 crackdown. Foreign journalists flocked to him, sometimes en masse, to scoop up a juicy anecdote from someone, anyone Badsha might approve.

That building on 9 Circus Avenue (since renamed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Sarani), served as the office of the Provisional Government's Foreign Secretary, Mahbubul Huq Chashi, and the Press Adviser, Taheruddin Thakur (a member of parliament from Brahmanbaria). Thakur managed another Foreign Ministry division, led by Barrister Moudud Ahmed, supervising materials compilation that eventually emerged in the Bangladesh Documents volumes. A string of younger Bangladeshi 'refugees' or expatriates helped both Thakur and Badsha by reviewing global newspapers for any items on Bangladesh, clipping them, submitting them for review and/or publication, and accompanying approved foreign journalists to refugee and war camps.

Though refugee camps dotted the entire Bangladesh border, the nearest camp to Calcutta, named Salt Lake, was adjacent to Dum Dum Airport, accommodating about a quarter of a million people. Hastily constructed, they became surprisingly functional within days, though the pains and sorrows brought by the refugees would never really disappear. Overflying vultures depicted how horrendous the plight, and clearly the stuff that being a journalist is all about. Many journalists did not have to even see the war camps to conclude nothing short of genocide was unfolding across the border, even predicting the inevitability of an India-Pakistan war at any time. One group, Operation Omega, sought to take relief to the uprooted people within Bangladesh, only to be arrested as they ambled down the Petrapole-Benapole road on the Bangladesh side by Pakistani troops. They were escorted to Dhaka, then released. Its sister group, Action Bangladesh, mobilised one of the largest Trafalgar Square gatherings in London, consisting of over 25,000 mostly white English citizens supporting the Bangladesh cause.

Back in Calcutta, the biggest news for at least eight months was, of course, Bangladesh-related, from next-door atrocities, diplomat defections, refugees, Pakistan Rupee demonetisation, which played havoc on all refugees/expatriates exiting with cash, and just unending anecdotes from one kind of Bangalees (those crossing the border) meeting the other kind (living in Calcutta). Many musical events were held to raise money in Calcutta, while George Harrison's Bangladesh was the one album that immortalised the cause musically and globally (not to mention the country's abysmal poverty through the cover picture of a wide-eyed, snot-dripping naked child making the most out of just one morsel of rice). This was the first of many international rock-and-roll concerts for humanitarian purposes, with the most eye-catching recent one being the 1985 Live Aid in London's Wembley Stadium get-together for Africa.

Rarely, if ever, since the 1930s Holocaust has one group of people symbolised helplessness, hopelessness, have-less-ness more than the 1971 Bangalees. Back to Salt Lake, Calcutta, and West Bengal, the bloody unfolding Bangladesh tragedy contrasted hugely with another bloody border-related occasion: the 1947 India-Pakistan partition, accompanied, as it was, with deadly two-years of religious riots. South Asia was reconfigured then and in 1971. In the latter case, Cold War battle-lines were immeasurably redrawn: this was the beginning of the end of the South East Association Treaty Organisation (SEATO) membership for Pakistan, and the dawning of the end of its Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) alignment; while China-US rapprochement made the Cold War costlier for the Soviet Union, accelerating its 1989 collapse. India, facing a crippled Pakistan, would be slowly reborn. Bangladesh would slowly recover. Genocide would henceforth be attached to Pakistan's name. What Mascarenhas observed and dutifully portrayed at personal costs, would eventually ring globally with more receptive audiences. It was a journalist's job taken professionally to the hilt.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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