Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Journalist Anthony Mascarenhas: Shaping and Molding Public Opinion

In 1971 Bangladesh was born amidst much agony and bloodshed. The Bangladesh Liberation War resulted in East Pakistan splitting from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And it very well may not have been possible without the first-hand report from Anthony Mascarenhas.

     Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan in 1971. Pakistan had been formed as an independent state from British India in 1947, allowing Muslim interests to dominate within its borders. Pakistan was divided into an eastern and western state separated by the larger nation of India. Although both East and West Pakistan considered themselves an Islamic republic, they still had distinct differences. They had cultural, economical and geographical differences, and spoke different languages. East Pakistan had a larger population in a smaller geographical area, yet West Pakistan had the political and economical power. It came as a surprise to all of Pakistan when East Pakistan secured the majority of seats in the 1970 election.  West Pakistan chose to use force to protect its own political interests rather than accept the results of the vote, and attacked East Pakistan with “Operation Searchlight” in March, 1971. The plan was to eliminate all of their opposition within one month. They started with the killing of hundreds of university students and professors and continued the bloodshed with the killing of political and intellectual leadership in East Pakistan. General Tika Khan, in charge of this operation earned the title ‘Butcher of Bengal.’  Accurate estimates are hard to come by, but some sources say that possibly up to 3 million Bengalis were killed, although the actual number is in dispute. Another ten million fled to India and other neighbouring nations. The situation was brutal and India finally took notice sending in military assistance for the Bengalis. The rest of the world didn’t sit up and take notice until a first-hand account from Anthony Mascarenhas was published in the UK’s Sunday Times on June 13, 1971.

     Anthony Mascarenhas was a journalist from West Pakistan. He was one of the journalists chosen by the Pakistan military to observe and report the positive aspects of the war against East Pakistan. It was obvious that Pakistan’s intention was that the reporters provide propaganda that would vilify the Bengalis, who also had done their share of brutality, and give credence to the Pakistan army’s annihilation. Mascarenhas couldn’t do it. The horrors he observed couldn’t be reported in a positive light. As he traveled with the army and observed the senseless killings, sometimes attempting to stop them, his horror grew and he knew that he needed to share the true story with the rest of the world. He was observing first-hand one of the worst cases of genocide in the twentieth century. The Pakistan army’s intention was to  “cleanse east Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing 2 million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years,” as a senior officer told Mascarenhas. He knew that these words needed to be reported and his story needed to be published for all the world to read. His account would obviously not be allowed to be published in the newspaper that employed him or in any other paper in Pakistan. Mascarenhas took his family and made a bold move. He evacuated the entire family from Pakistan knowing they would never be able to return after his story came out. He moved his family to Great Britain and it was here in the Sunday Times, on June 13, 1971, that his article was published under the heading “Genocide”. It was a long article by today’s standards. The story ran across two pages and his testimony was riveting.

     The article was written as a first-hand account describing in great detail the author’s personal experience and observations. His article read almost like a story or a series of stories. He used simple language so that everyone would be able to read and understand the stories. His intent was to open the eyes of the world to the atrocities committed by his own country of Pakistan. He was seen as sincere and credible; a Pakistani national who could not help but expose the truth even at the expense of his own national loss, being forced into exile. His story touched the hearts of people, including world leaders, creating compassion and change towards a future better hope for the people of Bengali.

     The story was not only fascinating to read. It introduced the world to atrocities of Pakistan that they hadn’t been aware of. It affected world leaders such as Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, who strengthened her resolve to put a stop to this, using the military backing she had at her disposal. US leadership put to a halt any assistance they were considering for Pakistan. Pakistan was defeated shortly after the article’s publication. By year’s end East Pakistan was an independent state with the name of Bangladesh.

     The country of Pakistan has never shown genuine regret or even acceptance of the act of genocide that they perpetrated. Once India got involved in the war, Pakistan lost territory to India which is Pakistan’s biggest regret. India’s military intervention was key in Bangladesh becoming a sovereign nation-state. By year’s end newspapers were reporting the story of Bangladesh’s struggles and new birth. The story made the cover of Time magazine – “The Bloody Birth of Bangladesh” - and many other publications in December. The Winnipeg Free Press wrote a number of articles in early 1972, about the story Mascarenhas brought to the world’s attention.
                      Here is an interview with Anthony Mascarenhas, found on YouTube 

     Mascarenhas went on to win numerous journalism awards for his reporting on the Bangladesh Liberation War, as it came to be called. It is accepted that his writing exposed the Pakistan army’s brutal campaign and helped to end the war and change world opinion against Pakistan. He is an example of courageous, bold journalism that swayed public opinion and helped to create a new nation. Mascarenhas is an example of why journalism is so very important, and how it can be a catalyst in bringing change when needed.

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